Thank you GU basketball

GU men's basketball players Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert share a hug after their victory in the WCC championship vs BYU.

One in a million.

If you were to ask me as a freshman two years ago that I was going to experience a Gonzaga men’s basketball national championship run during my time in Spokane, that would have been my answer. With so much ambiguity and unknowns that come with every minute of every collegiate basketball season, it would have been impossible for me to guarantee something that is so hard to do, nevertheless in a season like this.

Now I know that may be hard to hear for some GU fans who know this program more than I do. You may even be questioning my fandom right now, but if you haven’t left this page yet, hopefully the ending will change your mind. 

Particularly with this 2021 season, there have been lots of hurdles to jump through in order to just get the chance to get out on the court and hoop. With coronavirus being at the forefront of those obstacles, the Zags have done everything they could do to dodge potential setbacks the pandemic still brings today. COVID-19 hit the team earlier in the season, resulting in cancellations of some of the home games in November, even dating back to last season when the tournament was canceled. 

“I know if you trace it back to March 6 or whatever, last year, when the whole thing canceled, it felt like there's a lot of bad things that could have derailed me and derailed us,” GU senior forward Corey Kispert said. “But in life and in basketball, you know, joy doesn't come without a little bit of suffering. You know, you can't have one and not the other.”

The Zags did not get the outcome that they wanted Monday night, falling to the Baylor Bears 86-70 in the national championship game. The Scott Drew-led Bears shot out of a cannon from the jump and couldn’t be stopped, being the aggressor in the game by dominating the glass, hitting timely 3-point shots and creating turnovers, taking the usual aggressor Zags out of their element. 

But like Kispert said, there is always good that can come from bad, whether it be a pandemic or losing a national championship game that stops you from becoming the first undefeated college basketball team since 1976, nevertheless having both happen in the same season.

“It's about dealing with those painful moments in your life and finding joy in those,” Kispert said. “And that's where real happiness comes from. And I'm so thankful for the way that the team handled adversity and handled suffering all year long. And I'm definitely a better person because of playing this year under the circumstances that we did, taking punch after punch, I guess, from the world. And this team stayed strong all the way through.”

Although I may never amount to the impact Kispert has on the GU community, I can relate to him in this way due to the pandemic. It was last Tuesday after the Zags defeated USC in the Elite Eight game when I found out that I would be traveling to Indianapolis to cover the Final Four rounds of the tournament. 

Later that night, I felt a sore throat and I started to feel a bit warm. I thought this was just excitement, stress and anxiety that comes with covering an NCAA tournament. I was denied the opportunity last season due to the pandemic, so I was excited to get this opportunity. 

The following day, those symptoms didn’t go away. At the time, I was questioning whether I should get tested or not, as part of me wanted to be responsible but also didn’t want me to miss out on this great opportunity. 

So, out of good conscience and fairness, I went ahead and got tested. I flew into Seattle that Wednesday night and didn’t have a fever in the hotel. I thought everything was going to be fine and smooth sailing.

But as you might guess, things took a turn for the worst.

I was in line at the Seattle airport when I got a call from the university saying I tested positive for COVID-19. The world around me shut down and I couldn’t believe it. I was on my way to do something I’ve dreamt about as a kid, and it was taken away from me. I didn’t know what to do or what to think, and thankfully with the help of the university, I was able to make it back to Spokane safely via a rental car.

The four-hour drive from Seattle to Spokane allowed for me to think a lot. Mostly it was just calling out my ignorance for not taking the pandemic seriously, thinking that I probably shouldn’t have gone to Jack and Dan's the Saturday before I could have potentially been traveling. But on the other hand, similar to what Kispert said, there is a lot of good that can come from bad situations, and that was something I learned on my drive. 

That good came into the form of covering the Final Four game against UCLA. It was me and my dad’s alma mater squaring off, and it was easily the best game I have ever seen and covered as a GU student. With that in mind, it allowed me to feel even more thankful that I am one of the lucky people who gets to ask questions to Mark Few, Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs, etc. It is something I will cherish forever and never forget.

Similar sentiments could be said about this 2021 GU men’s basketball team. There is a reason why there hasn’t been an undefeated team in 45 years. Winning championships is hard, and like my ignorance toward the ramifications of the pandemic, it is ignorant for college basketball fans to not consider this program as a powerhouse program. 

In the past six years, GU has been to six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, two Final Fours and two national championships. If that resumé isn’t good enough to consider the Zags a top program, I don’t know what is.

So, with all of this in mind, this Gonzaga men’s basketball team has been nothing short of excellent. The direction the program is heading is one in which no one thought a small, liberal arts school from Eastern Washington would do, yet it is the only school doing it. The program faced a lot of adversity this year in the pandemic, and Few gives the credit to his players.

“What I learned was just my guys are of the highest character, and they just love this game and they loved each other and love this team enough that no matter all these crazy protocols that were put on them and not playing in front of fans, testing every day, and having to quarantine for 14 days because they might or might not have been close to somebody for over 15 minutes,” Few said. “And none of them would take the love for basketball that they have away… so their resiliency and their drive and stick-to-itiveness and their positive attitude and enthusiasm was something that I'll take with me the rest of my life.”

The David-now-turned-Goliath basketball program stands as one of the greatest sports stories in American sports over the past 20 years, and they are by no means done by any stretch of the imagination.

This program is one in a million and are here to stay for a long, long time.

Vinny Saglimbeni is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @vinnysaglimbeni.

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