(Literal) Zag Fever

PART 1 | We need to talk about Gonzaga and Covid, but first we need to talk about the story we've told ourselves about Gonzaga and Spokane.

Welcome to RANGE’s first basketball post! If you don’t like basketball, don’t worry, it’s also about power and privilege!

Confession time: I’m a huge college basketball fan. It’s a little embarrassing how much I look forward to Thanksgiving weekend and the kickoff of all the big early tournaments. Specifically whatever tropical tournament the boys from Spokane end up at. Each year I read up on all the schools involved, even the tiny ones with bad teams invited to pad the win-loss records of the blue bloods. And then I watch every. single. game.

It’s been 22 years and I’m still not totally comfortable saying it, but I’m a big, blubbering Gonzaga fanboy.

I don’t think I can talk about what happened this weekend* without first talking about the complexity of my feelings for this team and the school.

So here we go, an essay in two acts:

*TLDR for those in a tryptophan coma: A Gonzaga player tested positive for coronavirus and the team played Auburn anyway (after playing Kansas the day before). The teams involved seem strangely fine with it. Much of the rest of the sporps world is in an uproar.

1. The persistent power of the Gonzaga™ story™

There’s an accident of history that would irrevocably shape my entire life.

I was a hormonal teenager deciding on colleges just as GU was making its now-legendary first run in the 1999 NCAA tournament. Some of my teammates — I was a mediocre center on a mediocre AA team — skipped school to watch the first round games and I tagged along, being only vaguely aware that Gonzaga existed.

The immediate spectacle, though — the pure drama! — as Gonzaga knocked off Minnesota (then Stanford and eventually Florida) was almost incomprehensible to country-boy Luke. The feeling in my immediate community — pride, something we weren’t particularly accustomed to — was so intense, I got entirely swept up in it.

I still have a hard time putting the emotions into words and I’m still wrapping my head around how the pieces all fit. For someone who felt like an under-appreciated kid from an under-appreciated place, to suddenly witness this unheralded school from my largely ignored home town come within a few buckets of the Final Four — the world seemed to break open, just a crack.

It was almost as if you could come from nowhere and do anything.
Literally an American dream.

I went to Gonzaga the next fall almost entirely because of a few breathtaking games in March.

I wanted to bask in the glow, but I also wanted to prove I was good enough to go to a school like that. Of the 180-ish kids in my graduating class, Gonzaga was the best school anyone got accepted to. A huge number of my classmates didn’t bother applying to college at all.

(I had no sense of the financial burden I was placing on my working-class parents at that time, or the decades of debt peonage I was taking on myself, but carpe FAFSA, right?)

I stayed devoted to the Gonzaga myth at school, even as I saw the reactionary reality of the administration. They had banned the Vagina Monologues and wouldn’t give LGBTQA students access to the school funds other student clubs were given. The way the school messaged Spokane itself — essentially, “Hey Gonzaga is a great Jesuit institution! [whisper] We’ll keep your kids away from the city around it.” — reinforced my own feelings of inferiority about the place I’d come from.

I was simultaneously a local kid going to a hometown school and entirely an outsider. I developed an appropriately complicated relationship with the place — loving my professors, despising the institution, resenting my wealthier peers.

The team, though.

Goddamn I still loved that team.

I hung with the Zags after graduation because their story continued to mirror the story I was telling about myself. They spent the 2000s never quite recapturing the spark of that first Elite 8 run, but you could tell they were building something doggedly, year after year. They still felt like a lunch-pail team for my blue-collar city.

I began to figure out that I wanted to build things, too. I wanted to stick around Spokane and really work on making it better. I wanted to do things that weren’t just cool for Spokane. I wanted to build things here that people from other places would wish they had in their towns — kinda like a certain college basketball program.

And while its basketball success came at exactly the right time — the school was struggling financially when the team made its first run (what Providence!) and incoming freshman numbers have nearly doubled since then — Gonzaga has never been the David of this story.

It was literally built as a Goliath.

The University’s roots are inextricably tied to the regional power-building of the Catholic Church, American efforts to conquer the west, and the cultural and literal genocide we visited upon local tribes.

The institution that would become Gonzaga was dreamed up by local Jesuit legend Father Joseph Cataldo, as a way to solidify Catholic hegemony among the tribes of the Upper Spokane. Methodists had been sniffing around his turf, and Cataldo warned the Vatican that if they didn’t build a school quickly, "within a few years the fruit of forty years of missionary endeavor will be rotted.”

Spokane City leaders were ecstatic about the prospect of a college in Spokane and were eager to donate funds to the cause, with one stipulation: the school needed to be whites only.

It’s a little wild to think that Cataldo might have had more success erasing native culture if it wasn’t for the racist demands of Spokane’s founding fathers.

So yeah: Gonzaga was a Goliath from the start, a fact I understood before I knew any of this history. The day I moved on campus and parked my old Blazer between one classmate’s Mercedes coupe and another’s Range Rover, it was clear that the school was designed for the cultivation and reproduction of power.

It has only gotten more so.

The school’s annual budget has nearly tripled since the beginning of the run and the men’s team hasn’t been a Cinderella story for a decade. Here’s a hall of fame coach talking about how this year’s Zags have the best offense in the nation before putting them on a pedestal with two Kentucky squads considered to be the best teams of the last decade:

The team’s stars are often placed strategically 1-per-table during galas to court wealthy donors, and when the University finished a quarter-billion-dollar fundraising campaign just in time for GU’s first trip to the Final Four, University President Thayne McCulloh gave plenty of credit to the Men’s Basketball team.

The Zags, in turn, has reaped the rewards of their brand-building power. It’s common for college basketball teams to charter planes, but how many teams have monogrammed headrests?

By the way, one of these players just tested positive for coronavirus! (see part 2 tomorrow).

I’m not alone in staring at our region’s most gilded ivory tower and continuing to mistake it for a plucky underdog.

It’s a powerful testament to the way the myths we create
are resilient to the truths we know.

I think that’s why — despite the historic harm and no shortage of bad responses to new scandals (whatever happened to the retirement home for pedophile priests? How’s care for the victims of that Zoom bomb hate crime going?) — it’s so hard to shake the feeling that the Zags are still that simple, humble team from that unassuming school in that town no-one east of Fargo can pronounce properly.

A team that only ever existed in the stories we tell about ourselves.

Because maybe, if we were to interrogate the way we understand the Gonzaga™ story™, it would force us to interrogate the way we understand ourselves.

The way that, to merely live in this place is to profit off the theft of indigenous land. The way civic and university leaders still often make their support of institutions contingent on how palatable those institutions are to whiteness. The way owners of even modest homes have seen their values skyrocket along with the brand-boost the Zags have brought our entire region — separating in a meaningful way the common folk who have a mortgage from very similar folk who now live in fear of eviction from the double threat of covid and gentrification.

And personally, it would force me to interrogate the story I’ve been writing about myself for the past twenty years. Because while I am the child of working people and I still think of myself as a working person in my parents’ image, I am also the beneficiary of an education they couldn’t dream of.

I think of myself as an outsider and an underdog, but I don’t know how real that story is anymore. And the more successful my friends and I are at doing the work we do, the more our vision of Spokane becomes reality, the more we turn from underdog to blue blood — kinda like a certain college basketball program.

I don’t know exactly what to do with all this, yet.

I worry that the education that trained me to analyze things clearly is critically tied up in a nostalgia (or a psychic debt, or a cultural indoctrination) that hinders me from really piercing the institution that taught me.

I’m going to leave that aside for the moment and ask a more practical question for the controversy at hand:

Can you critique a team’s coronavirus response when watching them shellac Kansas was the most fun you’ve had this whole damn pandemic? The most normal you’ve felt?

I guess we’re going to find out tomorrow.


Have a good Monday, y’all.