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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Spokane embracing Gonzaga's ride

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Gonzaga women's basketball coach Kelly Graves is a grown man, but Halloween, he says, brings out the little kid in him.

It means two scary things: (1) the annual construction of an elaborate haunted house in the family garage; and (2) the invitation, via Twitter, to the entire Spokane community to come see it.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
In Spokane, community involvement extends to Halloween; check out coach Graves' haunted house.

About a thousand people this October trooped through the haunted house, which included statue-like zombies that sprang to life (played by Graves' sons, ages 16, 14 and 11, and their friends); huge tarantulas that crawled in your direction; a fog machine; spooky music; and a science-experiment table with jars said to contain brains, eyeballs and hearts.

More frightening still to his wife, Mary, was what the aptly named Graves had to be talked out of.

"I asked him, 'Please don't announce it at games,'" she said. "We'd have 5,000 people here. He didn't, but I could tell he wanted to."

In reality, Graves is more Pied Piper than ghoul master. He truly enjoys scaring the bejesus out of people, but he likes them buying into his basketball program more.

Halloween visitors, including kids clutching trick-or-treat bags, leave the Graves' haunted house with more than jangled nerves. They leave holding Gonzaga basketball pocket schedules and posters, handed out by Graves himself.

It was Graves who built the Gonzaga women's program from an 0-14 conference cellar-dweller to a member of the NCAA elite, and it is Graves who is bringing Spokane residents along for the ride.

Gonzaga doesn't yet have the pedigree of perennial Final Four club Stanford or the women's basketball history of Southern Cal. What it does have is an emerging national reputation and an unusually strong connection to the community of Spokane, population 208,916, Washington's second-largest city.

The biggest is Seattle, a state-length drive 280 miles west.

"We're up here in our own corner of the world," said Graves, who is in his 12th season.

Geographical isolation and a medium-city sensibility make Spokane residents and the team a close-knit group.

Basketball is a natural fit. It's part of the community fabric. One of the biggest annual events is Hoopfest, billed as the world's biggest three-on-three street tournament, which draws 200,000 people each June.

Spokane is "a real hotbed for girls' basketball," said Steve Myklebust, in his eighth year broadcasting Gonzaga women's games. "Every year Gonzaga gets better and better. They're better than some Pac-12 schools. ... Success breeds success. It's just like where the men's program was 12 years ago."

Basketball is king on a campus that doesn't have football and holds court as Spokane's only major college with a main campus in the city.

The Gonzaga men put the school on the map with their 1999 run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. Now the women's team has laminated it.

Fun times with Sloot

Gonzaga's rise began a few years after Graves' arrival. Its steady ascension reached a fever pitch last season, when point guard Courtney Vandersloot led the 11th-seeded Zags to the NCAA Elite Eight and a 31-5 record.

If Sloot didn't exist, she'd be a hoops-born urban legend. Not recruited by big-time schools, including the Pac-12's Washington in her backyard, Vandersloot gained the spotlight with no-look passes and eyebrow-raising stats. She became the first player in NCAA Division I history, male or female, to post 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career.

As a high schooler, Vandersloot tagged along with a Gonzaga-obsessed friend to one of the school's basketball camps. By the time the camp was over, Vandersloot was smitten with the campus. The friend never enrolled.

Courtney Vandersloot
Courtney Vandersloot gave fans memories to cherish, and the feeling was mutual.

Communities go on forever, but college players have an expiration date. Sloot's came last season, when she graduated and was drafted No. 3 overall by the WNBA's Chicago Sky.

"We can really relate to our fans, [more so] than the students," Vandersloot said. "These are families that are coming to our games and they're really interested in us as women, more than us as just basketball players. I think that really sets us apart."

Losing a star such as Vandersloot, plus four other prominent seniors, could have meant a crash back to earth for ticket sales and buzz. But for Spokane, a post-Sloot slump hasn't happened. It has been just the opposite. Gonzaga set a record this season by selling more than 4,000 season tickets. Compare that with the 2,240 sold at Stanford and just more than 200 at Washington in Seattle, a city with a population nearly three times as large as Spokane.

The Zags averaged 4,060 fans for 16 home games last season, 25th-best in the NCAA. Not bad for a so-called mid-major school.

Sunday's 58-51 loss to Southern Cal ended the Zags' 14-game winning streak at McCarthey Athletic Center and was just the second time they've lost at home in the past two seasons.

"It's really not about the bandwagon in Spokane," Vandersloot said. "These fans are really truly invested in this program and this university in general.

"During basketball season, the offseason, everything, it was such a community feeling; everybody recognized us. They loved us. It was such a family environment. I always knew, even when I was there, that Gonzaga was a really special place."

Seniors Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish, both named to the USA Basketball Pan American Games team this past summer, lead the team now. Junior guard Taelor Karr transferred this year from the Big 12's Kansas State, located in Manhattan, Kan.

"It's night and day," Karr said. "We had good support there in Manhattan. But at Spokane, it's special. It's totally different; it's one of the few places across the country that gets so much fan support, a following. It really is cool."

Growing up with the Zags

There's more evidence that Spokane's support runs deep enough to reach the grassroots.

Every home game, four new area girls get to work as ball girls. Most come from local Gonzaga basketball camps, and the only requirement is that they be younger than 13.

Graves, along with past and current team members, puts in long summer hours at the camps, which drew 33 girls when they started in 2001. By this year, participation had skyrocketed to 3,300.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
Basketball is king at Gonzaga, and the Zags have sold more than 4,000 season tickets.

Three players -- senior Molly Anderson, sophomore Jazmine Redmon and freshman Shaniqua Nilles -- are the first local campers to play for the Zags.

"I grew up watching Gonzaga play, the way they were coached," Redmon said of why she stayed close. "My grandma was getting old, and she wanted to watch me play. I'm really a homebody."

At FanFest in October, even Gonzaga players were surprised at the turnout of 1,300 for a scrimmage.

"It wasn't even a game," Standish said. "We just played ourselves."

Much of that is due to Gonzaga's bottom line: winning. Ten seasons after going 0-14 in the West Coast Conference, it reached the NCAA Elite Eight this past spring. The year before, the Zags made the Sweet 16. They have won the conference seven consecutive times.

But community enthusiasm goes beyond camps and conference titles. During last season's NCAA run, Graves was courted by Washington, which had just fired coach Tia Jackson. It seemed a given he would go, because that's the typical storyline: smaller-school coach builds up program, then jumps to the big time.

But Graves isn't a conventional coach.

Two days after the Zags lost to Stanford in their NCAA regional final, Graves boarded a plane for Seattle for that job interview.

What happened next, he said, played a role in his staying put.

"No one really knew I was going over," Graves said. "I get on toward the end of boarding, and a couple people up in first class recognize me and they started clapping. Then by the time I got to my seat, the entire plane was clapping."

Graves took the trip but had a feeling he wasn't going anywhere.

"You know, that should tell you enough right there," he said. "[Basketball is] important here. It's a small community, but they're very supportive of my program and that was just too tough to pass up."

Fans are family

Gary and Joyce Blazek aren't related to anyone on the team. Yet they're the closest thing to grandparents the players have. They both see the team off for road trips, handing out home-baked goodies such as cinnamon rolls and oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips before players and coaches board the bus for the airport.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
Players stay long after the games to sign autographs and mingle with adoring fans.

Last week, they made the 1 1/2-hour drive for an 8 p.m. tipoff at Washington State, where the adrenaline from a game-winning Karr basket with three seconds left fueled the late-night drive home.

The Blazeks started going to games when Gonzaga wasn't all that good. But they liked the players.

"The women were so accessible," Joyce said. "We could get into any game we wanted, sit anywhere we like. They were approachable."

They still are. At home games, the Blazeks, longtime season-ticket holders, sit right behind the bench. They are such a fixture that last season, Vandersloot didn't even have to turn around from her courtside chair to know they were there. Right before the announcement of the starting lineups, she would reach back for a no-look high-five from Gary. It became a ritual.

"It turned out to be kind of like a good-luck charm," Vandersloot said. "It felt weird if he wasn't there and I didn't do it. It felt like something was off."

The Blazeks are one of a half-dozen local couples who offered to watch assistant coach Jodie Kaczor Berry's 15-month-old son, Tyson, during games.

Kaczor Berry, whose husband works in Seattle part of the year, is grateful for the help. Now the Blazeks, who have two adult children but no grandkids, baby-sit on a regular basis.

"If we don't see him for more than a week, we start begging," Joyce said of Tyson.

Toast of the town

Last season's NCAA title run was magical. Stores had signs in their front windows. People were pumped up, wearing Gonzaga colors. Spokane hosted the NCAA regional. Gonzaga's game against Louisville drew a sellout crowd of 11,700 to Spokane Arena. Step into a Las Vegas hotel elevator during the WCC tournament, said Myklebust, the radio announcer, and you'll see a dozen people you know wearing deep Gonzaga red.

"It's close-knit; everybody knows each other," said Bill Vandersloot, Courtney's dad. "When you have something like that, it's almost like a street party."

It wasn't always this way. Kaczor Berry has been an assistant with Graves since 2003.

"My first year here, there were 50 people in the stands," she said. "It was horrible."

These days, Spokane doesn't need the NCAA tournament to raise the roof. Sunday's game against Southern Cal, on a holiday-shopping weekend afternoon, drew a crowd of 5,548, just short of the arena's 6,000 capacity. It was the seventh-largest home crowd for the women at McCarthey.

Well after the loss to USC, Graves emerged from the Gonzaga locker room. A group of girls had been standing, waiting in a row of seats to catch autographs from players who came out to sign and chat. One was holding a high-top sneaker with names scrawled all over it. They were excited to see the coach.

"You guys hung around," Graves said, sounding impressed. "I was kind of laying low tonight."

He started signing. Someone in the back tried to commiserate, bringing up the refereeing. Gonzaga had gotten zero free throws in the first half to USC's 10.

"That didn't win or lose it for us," Graves said as he worked his way down the line. He was signing, but still coaching.

"Girls, you've got to make those plays down the stretch," he told them.

Who knows -- the next Courtney Vandersloot could have been in that group, ready to fall in love with Gonzaga and get adopted by a community. And maybe see a pretty cool haunted house each October.

"Thanks for coming," Graves said. "See you next time."