Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How Gonzaga Became the Central Hope for the Struggling City of Spokane

[ed. I like Spokane. Clean, wide city streets, friendly people, reasonable traffic, active city center, nice restaurants, tidy neighborhoods. Certainly didn't appear as down-trodden as this article suggests. I've spent some time on the Gonzaga campus too, and it's beautiful.]

I doubt he remembers, but the first time I met Mark Few was when he was with his wife and children, looking for a seat inside a mega-church on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington. I was home from university for the winter holiday and had tagged along with my father on that Sunday morning. Upon traversing a thousand-car parking lot, we were greeted by six video screens, a handful of professional cameramen, a 12-person band, and hundreds of Protestants, gathered together to sing contemporary Christian rock.

Few, walking quickly and in lockstep with his wife, hustled past me, no doubt looking to find a seat before a crazed fan could accost him. “Great work,” I said, as he zipped past. Few, whose face is compressed and tanned like a Florida retiree, was wearing a yellow, wool sweater. He nodded towards me. “Thanks,” he said, before disappearing into a mass of singing white people.

As the men’s basketball head coach at Gonzaga University, Few is an extremely tough man to pin down. I bumped into the world-famous art dealer Larry Gagosian at the Hemingway Bar in Paris not long after that, and even he had time for a couple of words. But in the deeply conservative, largely rural, college-basketball-obsessed town of Spokane, Coach Few is the famous equivalent of about nine Larry Gagosians. He is always getting approached in Spokane’s restaurants, stores, parking lots, even churches. As the coach of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team, he is the central – perhaps the only – source of hope for a struggling city.

In 1881, Spokane was incorporated as a lumber and mining town, with thousands of men coming by way of the newly established Northern Pacific Railway through Montana and Idaho in search of gold, silver, and mill jobs. Jesuits founded Gonzaga shortly thereafter, in 1887, offering classes in theology and Latin. Surrounded by open country and pine trees, Spokane sits on a tiny lump of a hill. The air smells of Ponderosa bark, and the city experiences all four seasons: temperatures soar over a hundred degrees in May and drop below zero in December.

Spokane (pronounced spoh-kan) has changed a good deal since its founding, and as is typical with cities whose central industry is no longer demanded, its quality of life began to slide once the demand for milling and mining fell in the early-20th century. In the 1930s, with the second world war spurring the economy, aluminum plants became Spokane’s central industry; but in the postwar period, Spokane experienced few newcomers. All of its job industries had dried up.

In 1974, there was a world expo that brought a trolley system, a gondola ride, and a more expanded downtown, replete with carousel and Ferris wheel, but the carousel is now closed most of the year, the Ferris wheel now rusted. As far as economics and quality of life goes, Spokane has stayed essentially the same since its postwar slump: still poor, still dangerous.

Last year, Spokane ranked as the 22nd most dangerous city in the United States, up from 26th the year before. Last year alone there were 10 murders, 1,100 violent crimes, and 12,000 property crimes. President Trump’s message of gloom and doom resonated acutely with Spokane and the deeply conservative US congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has represented Spokane County since 2005. Spokane’s unemployment rate is stalled at about 7%, the highest for a medium- or large-sized city in Washington and double the rate of Seattle. Over 17% of Spokane’s population lives below the poverty line. Spokane, in short, is a town in desperate need of success, vicarious or otherwise. (...)

When Mark Few was named head coach of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team in 1999, he put Spokane on the map. Every year that Few has been head coach, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have gained entrance to the NCAA tournament, making it to the Sweet 16 five times and once to the Elite Eight. Yet, they have never been to the Final Four, and a championship has always seemed unlikely, no matter their ranking or early hype. (...)

For most Spokanites, the Zags have become like a close friend. For my father and me, they are a team that we look towards during times of success, but also – perhaps especially – during times of difficulty. My father listens to every Zags game on the radio, while eating his dinner alone. My mother passed a few years ago, so whether they’re running up the score against Santa Clara or losing to BYU, my father listens in, extending his invisible support for the team just as they return their type of invisible support to him.

In the same way that a hometown team provides emotional support to its residents, it provides a common social currency as well. Personally, I could not be living a more different type of life than my father – or than many of my childhood friends who stayed back in Spokane – but a quick mention of Karnoswki’s high-scoring season or Williams-Goss’s rebounding prowess immediately levels the conversational playing field. Perhaps this common currency and invisible mutual support helps reconcile the lack of logic inherent in turning over your feelings of self-worth and happiness to strangers dribbling and shooting an orange ball.

Zooming out even more, the reason a struggling town ascribes emotional significance to a constantly rotating group of 18- to 21-year-old boys is a slippery phenomenon. What is it, exactly, that my father is hoping for when he’s eating his pasta and listening to the game on the radio? What about the yelling fans who paid five dollars for upper-level seats? The bus driver with his “Go Zags” sticker on his ticket machine? The residents of the crumbling house who post a “Gonzaga Bulldogs” pennant in their window?

The aforementioned psychology of connection explains much of it, but not all of it. As someone who growing up was generally more interested in reading a book than watching the Zags play, the answer has long eluded me. But I believe those activities have more in common than I’d previously given them credit for. The janitor who makes up the 17% of people living below the poverty line, returning to home in north Spokane late at night to catch the Zags isn’t thinking about the “mirror neurons” that are firing or the common social currency he is establishing. He isn’t thinking about the economic possibilities of a strong sports team, Few’s $1.37m per year salary, or the soaring number of applications to Gonzaga after they made it to the Elite Eight. He’s excited that his team is ranked to be national champions this year, that his team is in its best form in the school’s history.

by Cody Delistraty, The Guardian |  Read more:
Images: markk