by rick olivares
by rick olivares
When I was in Grade 7 at the Ateneo De Manila, our sections were named after Saints who served in the Society of Jesus. My section was named after St. Peter Canisius.
One of the other seven sections we had then was Gonzaga named after 16th century Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.
Although were made to briefly study the people behind the sections as part of our religion classes, it was eventually stored in some folder in the back of my mind. As a rite of passage for any young boy, I started to hang out with my friends and form the first of life-long friendships. We were on the cusp of high school where music, sports, and girls would preoccupy our mind rather than centuries-dead saints.
It was a few years later when I once more stumbled upon the name “Gonzaga” when a little known point guard would be one of the best picks of the 1984 NBA Draft. That was John Stockton who would eventually be named as of the NBA’s 50 Best Players in its first half-century.
But this was the beginning of the Michael Jordan era where many switched allegiances in terms of their favorite basketball player and team. I was not immune to change as I chucked my woeful Philadelphia 76ers in favor of the sexier and in vogue Chicago Bulls.
I was hardly paid any attention to US college hoops as I was into pro sports. But Jordan’s loyalty to the University of North Carolina by wearing his school’s colors underneath his Bulls uniform got me interested in the Tar Heels and the American college basketball. And I stayed on as a Tar Heels fan as the university fed pro basketball with a steady stream of very good players from Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith to Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace to Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.
But old loyalties die hard as the Jesuit bloodlines came to fore.
While attending one Ateneo alumni reunion in New York, a visiting priest came down from Spokane, Washington to say Mass for us at the Philippine Consulate at Fifth Avenue. At this time I was living a couple of blocks away from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City; a coincidence that I quickly noted.
The priest arrived wearing a Gonzaga Bulldogs cap and during the Homily, he spiced it up with Ateneo and Gonzaga basketball news (there were matches for both schools’ squads going on at that moment) to a delighted congregation.
And slowly, I was turned from Tar Heel blue to Bulldog blue, white, and red.
At the end of the late 1990s, Gonzaga began a stirring run towards the US NCAAs by making the Elite Eight several times. The excitement generated by this tiny school’s success in spite of having a paltry athletic budget (for the few varsity teams the school fields) got the campus of 4,500 really excited. Such was the excitement that students decked the statue of famed Gonzaga alumnus Bing Crosby in a Bulldogs jersey with a sign that said, “Go Zags!”
Gonzaga has none of the players that Sportscenter salivates over. Dan Dickau, currently of the Golden State Warriors, wouldn’t look out of place jamming with current garage rockers the Strokes. When the Bulldogs’ French player, Ronny Turiaf, would dunk, did it make the evening’s highlights because it was a spectacular slam or was it because of his ethnicity? Or is it because of one of the team’s stars, junior Josh Heytvelt, was once arrested on drug charges and was nearly kicked out of the team.
This small school ironically was once called the Fighting Irish was back in the early 20th century. That was kind of odd since St. Aloysius was Italian but they eventually settled for the Bulldogs with its twin mascot, hence “the Zags” term.
Gonzaga located some 275 miles from Seattle and established in 1887, had for years been financially strapped. But the success of the basketball program has done wonders for the school in general.
During the 2003-04 school year, a whopping total of 3,713 freshmen enrolled in Gonzaga. That’s more than double the 1997-98 (the year of the Bulldogs’ resurgence) numbers. The increase in enrollment led to initial measures of renting out local inns or purchasing nearby establishments that were eventually converted into students’ quarters.
The basketball team’s success prompted university President Rev. Robert Spitzer and Coach Mark Few to seek athletic endowment by building a new arena that has been packed to the rafters. Like my alma mater, time was you could walk up to the ticket booth during game day and buy a ticket anywhere including the patron section. Nowadays, you have to turn to school connections or scalpers to even get upper seating tickets.
Now, the Zags have become a power in the West Coast Conference. Making the 64-team NCAA Tournament is something they are able to achieve with regularity. But to date, they have not been to the Final Four.
A couple of years ago, my Solar Sports officemates and I could not leave because we stayed riveted to the tube watching the Zags battle the UCLA Bruins. Gonzaga gave up a 17-point halftime lead as they lost on a last second play. That game is also remembered for the unbridled display of post-game emotion by the Bulldogs’ Adam Morrison who crumpled to the floor in tears after his team lost.
This ongoing tournament, the Zags played poor defense as they were blown off the court by the UNC Tar Heels (who if you ask me are subtly beckoning me to return as a fan) in the Sweet Sixteen.
This Zags team as bannered by Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo (the younger brother of former Chicago Bull Jannero Pargo who many remember for his late game shootout with the Washington Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas several years ago) has grown on me.
Watching them walk off the court dejectedly after being manhandled by Roy William’s Tar Heels, I felt bad for them. They did lose to an elite team that has a powerful starting unit but I guess that’s the beauty of the tournament too; seeing all these teams hoping for a chance to make it to the Big Dance.
It is the last game for Pargo, Heytvelt, Ira Brown, and Micah Downs for the Zags. It is unlikely that any of them will be lottery picks for the next NBA Draft. Maybe Pargo and Heytvelt have a chance, some will play ball in other countries but at least, they’ve got a diploma and a good education.
And for Coach Mark Few, he’ll have to infuse new blood into a young team that should continue to build on the efforts of Stockton, JP Batista, Morrison, Turiaf, Richie Frahm, Blake Stepp, and Derek Raivio. I won’t be surprised though that they’ll top the WCC and make it back to the NCAA’s. After all, St. Aloysius is the Patron Saint of Youth.