Here’s the thing about Gonzaga basketball: it’s really not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things. But here’s the other thing about Gonzaga basketball: it’s pretty much everything.
Maybe that’s not quite clear, so let me try to explain what I mean.
Four years ago today, your mom and I were driving through the vast Arizona desert on the way back to the Bay Area. You were asleep, warm and snug in your car seat, while your mom and I sat up front, lamenting the Zags’ loss in the national championship game the night before. When we could bring ourselves to it, we were also trying to confront the reality that waited for us on our return home: the doctor’s appointment where we would figure out whether the lump your mom had noticed a few weeks prior was cancerous or not.
Now, you might think that the looming diagnosis would have put things in perspective and made the Zags loss feel inconsequential. In fact, it was the opposite. Our anxiety made the loss more painful. With uncertainty and fear swirling inside us, we had fixated on the hope of our team winning it all. To have that hope crushed felt like mockery. It felt cruel. Most of all, it felt like a bad omen.
And, sure enough, about fifteen hours after your mom shed tears over a ballgame and the disappointing end to a fantastic season, she cried tears of pain and sadness as the doctor used an ultrasound machine to guide a biopsy of tissue in her left breast. The two pains were incomparable and yet they are forever linked in my mind.
Your mom and I had traveled to each of the sites for Gonzaga’s games in that 2017 tournament. First was Salt Lake, where you entertained your grandparents while your mom and I went to the opening round games. Gonzaga, the number one seed in the West, easily got past South Dakota State, despite the strong performance of their star player Mike Daum. In the second round, your mom and I nervously watched the Zags sneak past Northwestern, a team playing in its first ever NCAA Tournament. Northwestern had all the momentum late in the game, and the crowd was eager to see an upset take place. However, a late missed goaltending call sent Northwestern’s coach into a fit of rage, costing his team a technical foul and, ultimately, the game. In basketball, as in life, there are good breaks and bad breaks, and sometimes the only thing distinguishing the two is on which side you happen to sit.
The next weekend, we drove back and forth to San Jose to watch the Zags in the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight. Although the Elite Eight game proved to be a blowout, the Sweet Sixteen game against West Virginia was a nail-biter. Josh Perkins had a late block, which led to a Jordan Mathews three-pointer to put the Zags ahead by three. West Virginia missed several opportunities to tie it before the buzzer sounded. Your mom and I let out loud cheers and felt relief and elation wash over us. Your mom was wearing her “I Married into This” t-shirt, which we quickly decided was her lucky one.
During the weeks between rounds, your mom was undergoing various medical tests, and an appointment was set for the day after the national championship for her to get her results. Nevertheless, we decided to stick to our plans of attending the Final Four in Phoenix. We were still hopeful that it would turn out to be something minor like an infection and, anyway, what good would sitting at home do? It felt good to have something fun to focus on and hope for. We asked your other grandma to fly down and stay with us at a hotel so she could watch you during the games, which she gladly agreed to do.
The Final Four was something to behold. Your mom and I attended a large Zags pregame party, where we brushed elbows with some GU legends of past years. We reunited with some of my college friends who had traveled across the country and the globe to attend the games. Later, we sat with over 75,000 other people in the arena, a mile above the game in the next-to-last row. We joked about how glad we were not to be those poor suckers with the really bad seats in the row behind us.
In the Final Four game, the Zags survived a pesky South Carolina team that nearly pulled off the upset, and your mom and I survived an obnoxious person next to us who decided, seemingly on a whim, to cheer loudly for South Carolina midway through the game. We were never sure why he was even at the game since he wasn’t wearing any team’s colors and we didn’t see him after that. When the game ended, your mom sent some passive aggressive cheers and claps in his direction. Then we spent the next day-and-a-half dreaming about winning the championship.
That Monday night title game against North Carolina was so ugly I was almost grateful for the distance from the game our seats afforded us. More than watching the game, we would listen to the cheers and groans of the crowd to tell whether one of the teams had scored or, more often than not, a foul had been called. The Zags missed a lot of easy shots, the refs missed a lot of calls, and all of Zag Nation missed out on seeing our team win its first national championship. While UNC fans got to celebrate their sixth championship and Roy Williams got to celebrate his third, Zags fans wondered if we would ever have the chance to play for another title again.
The Zags have been really good since losing that championship game. In March 2018, when your mom was well into her period of remission, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen before their star forward Killian Tillie was scratched from the lineup due to a late injury, and they fell to a tough Florida State team. In 2019, when cancer felt like it was well in the rearview mirror for our family, GU’s offense was a juggernaut until it ran into the very talented defensive unit at Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. Then, last year’s team surprised everyone throughout the season, earning a 31-2 record and a likely #1 seed in the tournament until the pandemic ruined theirs and everyone else’s plans.
So, as it turned out, the last Zags game your mom ever watched was a blowout of St. Mary’s in the 2020 WCC championship game. We both rejoiced in the win and were relieved not to receive the rash of texts from the usual offenders whenever St. Mary’s would manage to slay Goliath.
I wonder now how I would have approached that game if I would have known it would be our last one to watch together? I’m sure I would have followed all our normal rituals: ordering the pizza, sitting in my usual spot on the love seat, waiting for your mom to settle in next to me and stretch her legs over my lap. But would I have savored that moment differently? Would I have looked over at her, taken her hand in mine, and told her that this would be the exact moment I would go to in my mind whenever I would really miss her in the coming months? Would I tell her that there was nothing more perfect in my life than watching the Zags games there with her, while you played nearby? Would I realize that I married into this, and be as grateful as I am now for my time with her?
You are still not too interested in watching sports but, sensing my loneliness this year, you have sat through more of the tournament games than I would have expected, and you have cheered for the Zags alongside me. Like your mom, your love for the Zags is born out of your love for me, which is the most tremendous gift. Before the tournament I bought a new recliner, which may also explain why you have been so willing to watch the games with me this time around. Of course, you have wanted to sit in it as much as possible, but you have let me have a few turns as well. During the second-round game against Oklahoma, you left the chair unoccupied for a few minutes so that your mom could also have a turn. I’m not sure that her tender spirit ever made it to the recliner, but I am certain it was there in the room, living on in the tender-hearted boy squatting beside an empty chair.
Just like you want her to have a turn on the seat, it’s tempting for me to think that maybe your mom’s spirit lingers, and that it holds some sway over this year’s games. That she has some ability to make the loose basketballs bounce toward Zags hands. That the lightness of her spirit or the vacuum left in her absence might provide just enough change in the air for a ball wavering on the rim to fall in for the Zags. Or, that the strength of her love for the Zags could knock a Bear slightly off balance during a late-game free throw attempt. But have not some Baylor fans died this past year, too, and do not their souls also deserve a happy epilogue?
So instead, I put my hope in this year’s Zags players, who have been incredible. These young men have gone undefeated, winning all but two of their games by double digits. Last night, they won a hard-fought Final Four game against UCLA on Jalen Suggs’ near-half-court shot at the buzzer in overtime. They have given Zags Nation a second chance at a national title.
If they lose the game tomorrow, the world will keep spinning, just as it kept spinning when they lost in 2017 as your mom and I watched on in sadness. As it kept spinning the next day when your mom was diagnosed with cancer and in the months ahead as she beat the cancer back into remission. As it kept spinning, most improbably, last June when she died and left our worlds feeling empty and hopeless.
But wouldn’t it be something if our Zags could win it all this year? Wouldn’t we cheer loud enough for all the neighbors to hear? Wouldn’t it provide some relief from the mountains of pain we have felt the last year? Wouldn’t we feel her right there in the room with us, her love rippling through our hearts and all around us? Wouldn’t winning be better than losing?
I hope that starts to explain it. Because you and I have felt true loss and we know that it’s really not that big of a deal, in the grand scheme of things, if Gonzaga loses a single basketball game tomorrow.
But if they happen to win – oh, man, if they WIN! – that’ll pretty much be everything, won’t it?
Just wonderful, Caleb! Your writing touches my soul. Thanks for sharing!❤️
This makes up for my losing bracket this year. Love you guys…GO ZAGS!
I always thought Jaime went to Gonzaga because of how much she loved them! This is a beautiful story and the pure love of Evander sharing the recliner with his Mom brought me to tears. ❤ ❤