The best - and quickest - way to do so was to make the 300-mile drive to Spokane to see the Husky hoopsters mix it up with Gonzaga a week after the Cougars well… Coug'ed it in the Palouse. So Sunday I made housing arrangements with my cousins in Spokane, and Monday morning I loaded up the '91 Mazda Protege and headed east. But before I left, I of course filled the tank with gas and, as I so often do, added a quart of oil. (I've heard of gas guzzlers, but oil guzzlers – something is wrong there! I'm glad I made it home to write this story.)
So the journey began, just me, my car, a sleeping pack, enough clothes to live for a month, two Vanilla Cokes and Ben Folds in the CD player. Two hours in, a quick stop in Ellensburg at Taco Bell added a boost to the moral, and back on the road I went. T-minus three hours to the land of Ryne Sandberg and John Stockton.
I finally pulled off of I-90 at 4 p.m., completing the four-and-a-half hour haul from Tacoma. The weather was great – no wind, no rain, very little fog, and most importantly, no snow. As for wheat, there was plenty of that, trust me. Everywhere I looked, farmlands.
The game at The Kennel featuring the Zags and the Huskies was due to tip off at 7, so I had three hours to kill. I was supposed to meet up with my cousin, Rebecca, at 5, so in the hour before I decided to take a quick drive over to the home of the Bulldogs. I was at the building so early that nobody was there to stop me. Feeling like I was doing something wrong, I walked right into the gym.
What a sight – it seemed so small. The camera crews were setting up, fixing wires and positioning cameras. Meanwhile, I just stood there with my jaw dropped. The place felt like a high school gym. The seats were right on top of the court. I couldn't wait for the game to start. Does it get any cooler than this?!
From there, I met up with Rebecca and ate at The Onion, a poor man's Red Robin. After a sandwich, salad and a few deep fried Oreos – they're not on the menu but are available upon request – I hugged her goodbye and was flying solo once again with 45 minutes until tipoff.
To The Kennel I went, unable to wipe the cheesy smile off my face. I may be a journalist, but I'm a kid at heart. If you can't get up for a game at The Kennel, you shouldn't be a journalist.
I arrived at the arena with a half-an-hour to spare, and this time the place was packed and bubbling with energy. A row of team photos draped one of the walls near the entrance to the gym, photos that showed teams from four consecutive appearances to the Big Dance. Such a small school, such a tiny gym, such a big tradition in recent years. It was almost too much to imagine.
After getting my press credentials, a gentleman led me to my seat on press row. I was in row three, right at midcourt, and right in front of the famed Kennel Club. By the end of the night, the blue shirts of the Kennel Club would be in my mind forever.
As the Husky starting lineup was announced, the blue-shirted Kennel Club members turned around, facing away from the court, and started the quick chant of: "G-O-N-Z-A-G-A." Again they chanted it. And again. The scene was just the beginning of a crazy night from the GU student body.
The game started on time, and it was more than I could have ever wished for. Those who I talked to before the game felt the same way as I, foreseeing an easy Gonzaga victory. After all, the Spokane school had won 27 in a row at home coming into the game against a Husky team that had already lost to Montana State and UNLV.
But Washington point guard Will Conroy had something to say about that, leading the Huskies all night long. His three pointer with .5 seconds left tied the game and sent it into overtime. There, the Zags would pull away as the Huskies never could overcome foul troubles and a lack of a post presence.
For the entire game on press row, I sat next to a scout from the Memphis Grizzlies. We chatted it up in between timeouts and exchanged opinions and impressions on the game. I asked him if I could credit him with the Grizzlies selection of 2001 NBA Rookie of the Year, Pau Gasol. He replied, "No, I wish. But I did find Billy Knight." I laughed, wondering if he was serious, shook his hand, and walked away.
My post game interview with Conroy was one I won't soon forget. His 32-point outburst took everyone by surprise, and it was great being a witness to what felt like the start of something. Conroy said all the right things, but inside I knew that he had to be feeling pretty good about his breakout performance versus the Zags.
That night, I followed my cousin's directions back to her family's house. Even though the Huskies lost, I felt like I had just been to the Super Bowl. I was on Cloud Nine, wishing that I could relive the previous three hours of my life.
As my car sputtered out of the Gonzaga parking lot, and I began to thaw from the freezing temeratures outside, I realized right then and there that I had the greatest job in the world.
The Gonzaga fans were absolutely unbelievable that night. They were everything I expected and much, much more. GU wouldn't be what it is today, and wouldn't have the home court advantage it does, without those rowdy rich kids hootin' and hollerin' all game, every game. They did a whale of a job.
I hope my next trip to The Kennel is as memorable, and for some reason, I'm quite sure it will be.
Hittin' the Road with Joe
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