There was quite a ruckus coming from the living room of the gold one-story house at the end of the cul-de-sac in Vancouver on Thursday night.
Earlier in the evening, Donna Mason prepared a taco casserole using her sister’s recipe. She baked it and sat on the sofa. Her husband, Carl, settled into his big chair in the living room beside her and together they watched Gonzaga play UCLA in the NCAA Tournament.
The country saw Julian Strawther rise up, down by two, and make a remarkable three-point basket with seven ticks left on the clock. Gonzaga won 79-76. The Zags advanced to the Elite Eight. And in the Mason living room, the shrieks of joy sent the family cat and dog scurrying out of the room.
Said Donna: “I jumped up, my husband jumped up, and the pets all went scrambling.”
Donna is 75. She grew up in Oregon, attended Sunset High School, and graduated from college at Willamette University. She made a career out of public service, moving to Washington, D.C. after graduation to work for United States Sen. Mark Hatfield and later, the State Department, and a several other federal agencies.
“I married into this Gonzaga thing,” she said.
That “thing” sure is something special. It was evident on Thursday night as the cameras from the national television broadcast panned the crowd. The rabid following is apparent, too, Donna says when you attend the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
“Carl and I have gone to Las Vegas four or five times for the tournament,” Donna said. “But we’re nothing compared to some people. Some of the Gonzaga fans don’t miss a thing. It’s a real community. There’s nothing like it.”
What is it about Gonzaga? Can you put your finger on it? The grass-roots feel? The small-college mentality? John Stockton and Adam Morrison? Dan Dickau? Dan Monson and Mark Few?
The underdog brand?
(Even though they’re really not.)
What… is it?
“Where so much is wrong in sports right now,” Donna said. “Gonzaga feels good. It feels right.”
There isn’t a bigger Gonzaga fan on my social-media timeline than Mason. She’s peppered me for years with messages, tweets, photos and posts laced with pro-Zags propaganda. I have to admit, as I saw Drew Timme taking apart UCLA on Thursday night — 36 points and 13 rebounds — I wondered if Donna might be wearing a headband herself and dancing around her living room.
“It was such a roller coaster,” she said. “When Timme missed those two late free throws, my husband started swearing — and he doesn’t swear.”
Donna’s right about our sports world. It’s become a complicated place. There’s too much greed. So much of the scene has become about the pursuit of new revenue streams and ambition. The spirit of sports often feels endangered.
College realignment is a drag. Pro players hold out, demand trades, and create “wish lists” for prospective NFL and NBA teams. Scapegoating and gaslighting have become frequent exercises. And between NIL, media-rights deals, social media, and the transfer portal the college game now feels too much like the professional ranks.
Then, the NCAA Tournament shows up in March.
The tournament sure has been terrific hasn’t it?
Fairleigh Dickinson, a No. 16-seed that made the NCAA Tournament field on a technicality, upset No. 1-seed Purdue. Princeton knocked out Arizona and Furman beat Virginia. The tournament already felt intoxicated by the time the Gonzaga-UCLA game tipped on Thursday night. And it still delivered in a big-time way.
Mark Few’s team turned a 13-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead, then hung on with both hands for the dramatic victory in that final second.
“For a while there,” Donna said, “I thought ‘they’re not going to do it.’”
Donna and her husband retired years ago. Their house sits near Old Evergreen Highway, with a view of the Columbia River. They have four children and eight grandkids. They keep busy by providing transportation for the grandchildren, going to church and volunteering at a variety of community organizations.
“You know how it goes, people grow up and the kids get busy with their own lives and have less time for you,” she said.
Donna’s sorority sisters from college still call her. They meet up sometimes for lunch or coffee. Once they even decided to take a ballet class together.
“I’ve discovered that it takes a lot of time and effort to keep in touch with people,” she said.
Donna has Gonzaga. She follows recruiting and tracks former players who are now playing in the NBA. She reads newspaper articles and columns, buys books, and posts frequently on social media. Also, she religiously watches the games alongside her husband.
“You know what I like about Gonzaga?” she told me on Friday morning. “I like that they don’t play marshmallow teams. The non-conference schedule was brutal. They’ll play anybody, anywhere, anytime. I think it’s why they’re still playing. That prepares them better for the tournament.”
I’m going to leave today’s column right here. Because shortly after Donna said that, she dove into Saturday’s opponent. She doesn’t know much about Connecticut, other than they’re up next for Gonzaga. There’s something interesting about the place her college basketball team has assumed in our sports world.
The Zags are not underdogs.
That they’re in the Elite Eight is no surprise.
What is it about Gonzaga? It’s people like Donna Mason, who live it every day.
Like she told me: “Carl and I will be watching Saturday, I can assure you of that.”
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As a GU '87 grad - way before anyone knew what a "Zag" was - I can tell you that I still think of my friends from that era as family. My experience there was not only about intellectual growth but also growth in relationships. The Jesuit ethos is to educate/caretake the "whole" person (mind, body, spirit) and I think it permeates to why GU successful in BB. They tend to keep their players, play unselfishly, honor discipline and show gratitude to everyone who had a hand in the outcome. This is not the only place in the US that has this culture, but it is part of the reason I think they are successful.
Early on the streak started with kids from the PNW (Calvary, Dickau, Fromm, Morrison, Ravio to name a few) and head coaches with PNW ties (Monson, Few). Truly Cinderella stuff. The PNW and then the nation were hooked.
Then added some very good/likeable international kids. They were able to consistently compete on a national level. Then came the 4-5 star kids who wanted to be Zags and it just kept rolling.
What is it about Gonzaga? A dream built by/with “local” guys and leadership that has been able to grow/sustain the vision.
We most likely won’t see this type of again given the current landscape of college athletics.