It’s a great time to be a Gonzaga hoops fan
March 13, 2019 3:00 AM
by Jack Sheehan
As half the population of Spokane descended on Las Vegas earlier this week to watch their No. 1-in-the-nation Gonzaga University Bulldogs defend their West Coast Conference basketball crown, my phone burned up with calls from lifelong pals wondering why I ever left the Pacific Northwest and how I haven’t been evicted from Sin City in the ensuing years.
Both are valid questions.
My roots with Gonzaga go pretty deep, back to generations before my birth when my aunt Dorothy Bresnan was named the Spokane Lilac Queen in 1920 and dated for a year her college classmate, Bing Crosby, before he split for Hollywood. You can verify that claim on page 101 of the Crosby biography “A Pocketful of Dreams” by Gary Giddins. The author called me several years ago to get more info on Dorothy and Bing’s relationship.
The playing of Crosby’s “White Christmas” album usually began around Labor Day in the Sheehan household, and played regularly until the last snows had melted in March. I watched “The Bells of St. Mary’s” so many times I thought the singer-actor was a Catholic priest in his spare time.
I attended Gonzaga Prep, the alma mater not only of Bing, but of the all-time NBA assists leader John Stockton, where it was thought the more sanctimonious of us would go on to matriculate at GU. I opted instead for the University of Oregon, where there were better-manicured golf courses and more free-spirited coeds. God bless the hippie chicks of the late 1960s.
As a kid of about nine or 10, my sports hero was Frank Burgess, the Gonzaga All-American who led the nation in scoring in 1961, averaging over 30 points a game. Prior to that, I watched practices in the antiquated Gonzaga gym where 7-foot, 3-inch Jean Claude Lefebvre dazzled all us kids. The giant known as the “Eiffel Rifle” who wore size 21 sneakers, spoke broken English and was gracious to a fault, never turned down autograph requests from our band of Munchkins.
Lefebvre didn’t know it at the time, but he would be the first of many international talents to emigrate to Spokane over the decades and help propel the school to the prominence it has enjoyed over the last 20 years.
Names like Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, and the current star, Rui Hachimura, have been hidden jewels uncovered around the globe by recruiting wizard Tommy Lloyd. For 20 years, Lloyd’s recruiting and Mark Few’s brilliant coaching have elevated Gonzaga from the long-shot darling that made the Elite 8 in 1999, to the national championship game in 2017, where the team lost a heartbreaker to North Carolina.
With the Zags’ win over Pepperdine in the WCC semifinals on Monday at the Orleans Arena, Few’s remarkable coaching record rose to 565 wins against 120 losses, an .825 winning percentage, the highest ever among veteran college coaches.
Guys who monitor such things report that Few’s next recruiting class is his best ever, so if the Bulldogs don’t wear the crown this year, the faithful are convinced that it will happen soon.
Long-time Las Vegans all remember the euphoria that blanketed the city when Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels won the NCAA title in 1990. That was a huge deal. Players like Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt will be forever revered in our town.
But Las Vegas and Clark County was about 756,000 in population then and had been established for decades as a world-class city. Spokane has a population of only 200,000 and is best known for… well … being the hometown of Bing Crosby. Just imagine for a moment what it would mean to that remote little burg in the middle of nowhere if Gonzaga were to take home the national title.
If you get the idea here that I’m pulling like mad for Gonzaga, you are a genius. While I cheer hard every year for UNLV, where I taught for five years, and the University of Oregon, which put up with me for four, my heart will always be with my first love, that humble little Jesuit university stuck on a remote street in a bad part of a forgotten city.
Feel free to jump on the Zags’ bandwagon. It’s homey and comfortable.
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