One would think Spokane was suffocated by simians, the way national pundits chattered about the so-called monkey on the back of Gonzaga University basketball coach Mark Few.
The issue, as serious followers of the sport knew, was that despite almost two decades of high-profile play against college basketball’s most storied names, Gonzaga’s hoopsters had yet to attain the stratospheric status of NCAA Final Four team.
Well, here in 2017, Few swatted away the monkey much as he did questions about it during this year’s tournament run. And Monday night, his charges landed on the sport’s grandest stage before 70,000-plus spectators, a worldwide TV audience and the handful faithful bracketeers who had picked the Zags to win it all. In that, the Zags fell short, but not before pushing basketball blueblood North Carolina to the limit. The Tar Heels finally won the back-and-forth contest 71-65.
In the process, this year’s Bulldogs put Spokane and Eastern Washington back on the map for serious hoops fans. The team also provided an introduction to casual fans curious about the school with its out-of-the-way location and exotic name — linguistically too exotic for some TV broadcasters who ostensibly must master pronunciation to make their living. Hint: It’s Gone-ZAG (as in bag)-uh.
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Many of those within the Catholic faith know the school’s namesake is St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a 16th-century Italian Jesuit saint.
Outside the ecclesiastical, local residents may know of NBA star John Stockton’s GU career in years preceding the 1999 heroics, and the on-campus statue of an alum named Bing Crosby, who attended the school for three years and played briefly on the college baseball team. Those who follow public affairs may note that the school’s library is named after the parents of the late House Speaker Tom Foley, who attended Gonzaga before transferring to the University of Washington. He taught law at GU briefly before entering politics.
But yeah, it seems nothing catches the public’s eye like the sports spotlight, where Gonzaga stood squarely on Monday night. The publicity is bound to pay off, if past is prelude — maybe the school’s History Department could look into that. Since the success of 1999, enrollment has almost doubled to 7,800, and the endowment has climbed to $200 million; imagine the payoff after a national finals appearance.
Thanks, Zags, for carrying the banner of Eastern Washington and the Pacific Northwest into the NCAA basketball championship game. You carried it with dash and class.