During the 1999 basketball season, our son Harrison was in seventh grade at Fort Bragg Middle School. He’d been an avid sports fan since the age of three when he learned how to work the television remote control. In those days, neither his dad nor I gave two hoots about sports, but were supportive of most any activity that kept our little guy entertained for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Even though Harrison was only in seventh grade, that college basketball season was pivotal in determining the course of his young life. It was the year the Gonzaga Bulldogs made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA college basketball tournament and earned the label “Cinderella Team.” They virtually came out of nowhere to capture the nation’s attention.
Casey Calvary and Matt Santangelo became familiar names in our home. Gonzaga gear was ordered from the school’s bookstore and Harrison made a solemn vow—when it came time for college, he would go to Gonzaga. He would not consider another school; a school where he couldn’t support their basketball team. And the only team he cared about was Gonzaga.
The population of Fort Bragg, California is about the same size as the entire student population of Gonzaga (7,250 vs. 7,764). Harrison’s peers were fans of such schools as UC Berkeley, Duke, and University of North Carolina. They didn’t care about a puny school in a part of the country they’d never heard of.
By seventh grade Harrison was bitten with Zags Fever, a highly contagious disease that spread throughout the family—even to his 85-year old grandmother. (The only one immune was his younger sister Laine who, from a very early age, inoculated herself against sports-related diseases.)
Gonzaga is located in Spokane, Washington and is where his father and I grew up. Gary was fortunate to go to college there. I had spent a fair share of time hanging around the campus imagining what it would be like to live in the Madonna Hall dorm.
Over thirty years after his parents left Spokane, Harrison was able to realize his dream—not to attend his dad’s alma mater or to live in his parents’ hometown—but to join the school that was the birthplace of his basketball team. He enrolled in Gonzaga in the fall of 2004 and lived in Madonna Hall.
During basketball season, he would text us from the games as we watched on television, giving us coordinates to where he was located in the student section. Gary and I would search the backs of male heads with similar haircuts, spending most of the game saying things like, “Is that him? I think that’s him!” It gave us a thrill. (Remember, we live in a very small town.)
One time, the television camera slowly panned the student section and briefly rested on Harrison. He mouthed, “Hi Mom!” My heart swooned. At that moment, every sacrifice we had made to send him to that school was entirely worth it.
When I picked him up at the Oakland airport for Thanksgiving 2005, one of the first things he said was, “We’ve got to find a TV.” Gonzaga was playing Michigan State in the Maui Invitational and the game would begin within a half hour. I argued that I had already driven four hours to the airport and we had a four-hour drive home, his dad was recording the game, and he could watch it later.
I apparently wasn’t in my right mind.
We found a restaurant in Jack London Square with a semi-secluded banquet area in the back that had a small TV mounted on the wall. Since it was only 5:00, the place was sparsely populated and the waiter graciously allowed Harrison to turn on the game. (The restaurant didn’t have ESPN, only ESPN 2—fortunately, the station the game was on.)
We ordered food and became so engrossed in the game that we barely noticed the restaurant fill to capacity.
As the game went from one to double to triple overtime, our waiter gave up on his customers to watch with us. In a heart-pounding battle to the finish, Gonzaga beat Michigan State in the final seconds 109-106.
I was so happy Harrison had insisted we stay in Oakland to watch the game. Adrenaline fueled our four-hour trip to arrive in Fort Bragg at one in the morning.
When Harrison had the opportunity to study abroad in Florence, Italy his junior year, he nearly didn’t go because he didn’t want to miss the basketball season. He was able to find a contraption called Slingbox that we attached to a cable box on a spare television. In Florence, his computer could access this device and allow him to watch our cable channels. He watched every Zags game that season—even if it meant getting up at three in the morning.
It’s been nearly five years since Harrison graduated from Gonzaga. His Zags Fever rages nearly as strong today as in the past. A couple of seasons previous to this one, while his team suffered some setbacks, he defended the work the coaches were doing to eventually build a great team.
That work has paid off with the Zags earning the #1 spot in the Associated Press and ESPN Coaches Poll. That’s #1 among big schools like Duke, Indiana, and Michigan State. This little school, this little Cinderella team has finally gotten their glass slippers and made it to the ball.