I have a dilemma. And a dream come true.
I love college basketball. And have since I was a little kid. When Indiana beat Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA Tournament, my older sisters thought I had lost my wits when I ran outside, in the dark at night, and sprinted up and down the street because I was so distressed.
I was 14 years old at the time, and my dad and I had Final Four tickets, and I was already a huge North Carolina fan. (I fell in love with Michael Jordan when he hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 championship.) We “won” them in a lottery and, given we lived in Idaho, big sporting events don’t come around often. Or ever. This Final Four in Seattle would be as close as I would ever get to see the ultimate dream of seeing my beloved Tar Heels play in person. (We went anyway and saw Georgetown beat Houston in the Kingdome.)
A few years earlier, there was chatter around the local basketball circles about a player at Gonzaga that “we had to see.” His name was John Stockton, and he turned out to be one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Gonzaga basketball, at the time, didn’t mean anything to anyone. But Stockton changed that and had people talking. A few years later I attended a basketball camp at Central Valley High School, and Stockton made a guest appearance and the coach running the camp offered $20 to anyone who could stay within arms-length of him full court. What a joke. One player fell down. He was amazing.
I followed my two older sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins to Gonzaga for my college education. My freshman year I ran the music at the basketball games while a friend of mine went home to Portland on Christmas break. That was the state of the program: Bring a CD player from your dorm room and spin some discs for a half-empty gym.
Years later, I moved across the country - sight unseen - to Chapel Hill, N.C. to attend grad school at UNC. I had a journalism degree from Gonzaga and UNC has one of the best journalism schools in the country, but everyone who knew me assumed I just went there to watch basketball. Which was pretty accurate.
I went to every home game at UNC for two years. I stood outside the Dean Dome at 6:00 a.m. with my coffee tumbler with all the undergrads who were still drinking from the night before to get a wristband to sit in the student section. I went to road games at N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Virginia. I was a Tar Heel, through and through.
Then something crazy happened: The 1999 Zags.
North Carolina lost to Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1999, which was a total aberration. So when it came time for the Sweet 16 games, I went the Carolina Sports Bar on Franklin Street with my Gonzaga Intramural Champions shirt (it was only GU swag I had) and watched Casey Calvary’s famous tip-in with a bar full of Tar Heels who were suddenly Zags fans. They couldn’t believe I had a T-shirt with Gonzaga on it since they had never heard of the school before.
Fast forward to today. The team that will play for the national championship against North Carolina is coached by a guy I played intramural basketball against (he was really good!), his wife who I attended classed with, an athletic director who was my work-study boss and associate AD who I partied with at GU. The university president, Thayne McCulloh, was an RA in my dorm freshman year. This is a family affair.
I have connected with Zags in Phoenix I haven’t seen in 25 years yet we picked up right where we left off. The Gonzaga community is, frankly, unbelievably strong.
The idea that Gonzaga would be a No. 1 seed and be playing North Carolina in a battle of Goliaths was fully preposterous when I attended Gonzaga. The program that coach Mark Few, AD Mike Roth and everyone else has built there is incredible.
So who am I rooting for? I have received texts and emails from around the country asking me this question. It’s pretty easy, though: I’d rather see Gonzaga claim their first national championship than UNC win their sixth. It would be such a huge statement for college basketball for a team outside of the “Power Five” conferences to win the whole thing, which I think is good for the game.
And I just happen to have more “family” with Gonzaga. When in doubt, family wins. But, honestly, I can’t lose today.
Mark Briggs is the Director of Digital Media and Innovation at KING 5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @markbriggs.
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