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As Gonzaga stars in hoops-crazed Spokane, Baylor finds a way to thrive in football-mad Waco

McCarthey Athletic Center, home of the Kennel, has been mostly quite as Gonzaga has gone unbeaten this season. (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

SPOKANE, Wash., and WACO, Tex. — And then came that cockamamie year when the sovereign towns of men’s college basketball seemed to sob in a strange unison. Lexington lapsed. Durham dulled. East Lansing ebbed. Lawrence and Chapel Hill frowned somewhat.

And soon the shivering American hoop maniacs looked out over the landscape and spotted two big towns towering above all others all winter. These weren’t newcomers, but they also weren’t aristocrats. In weird old 2020-21, the consciousness and the weekly rankings tilted hard toward a near-perpetual 1-2 of Gonzaga and then Baylor. They bowed far from Tobacco Road toward eastern Washington, 18 miles from the Idaho border, and central Texas, a hundred minutes above the great Austin.

And so there hovered — and hovered and hovered — two places still amid the giddiness of climbing: Gonzaga craving a first national title after a staggering 21 straight March Madness berths and one runner-up finish, Baylor a first Final Four since 1950 after two Elite Eights in the 2010s. And there they will hover in the all-Indiana March Madness as almost all of their townspeople hope from home.

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It’s one motley duo of college towns, both with rivers, both loving their pedestrian bridges over their rivers, one with snow-capped mountains in the distance, the other with big-news snow this year, both with smallish schools that revel in smallish-ness. Gonzaga has 7,295 enrolled; Baylor, 19,522 (“smallish” for Texas); Spokane has about 220,000 people, Waco about 135,000. Around one (Waco), it’s common to hear mentions of Jesus, and around the other (in the Pacific Northwest), it’s possible to pass consecutive billboards advertising Jesus and cannabis.

So are these what you call basketball towns?

Absolutely (Spokane) and sort of (Waco).

Now, you don’t want to go messing around comparing your hoop chops against Spokane. Spokane, with its giant Gonzaga and its gigantic annual three-on-three Hoopfest, breathes basketball such that in 2019 it went ahead and re-nicknamed itself “Hooptown USA.” The nickname fit “like your first pair of Chuck Taylors back in elementary school,” editor Rob Curley wrote in the Spokesman-Review.

Matt Santangelo, the late-1990s Gonzaga star and executive director of Hoopfest, reels off a list of former Bulldogs who chose Spokane for life. He noted Gonzaga’s abundant senior-citizen fans, hailed a rare “thread through the generations” and said of basketball: “It’s the connector. It cuts across generations. It cuts across backgrounds.”

Waco, well, that’s harder to pinpoint. That’s in Texas, man. Maybe no American city shouts its football as readily as Waco, its McLane Stadium hugging Interstate 35 as the trucks and others roll between Dallas and Austin. But in Waco, winning basketball joins a current air of civic hope in which Wacoans tell of Baylor’s lofty rankings from acrobatics to golf to the basketball dynasty of that Waco ambassador, Kim Mulkey, all while some 1.5 million souls in 2018 alone visited the famed Magnolia Market at the Silos of the famed Chip and Joanna Gaines of the famed TV show about refurbished farmhouses and reclaimed wood and sliding barn doors and, of course, shiplap paneling.

“I think my analysis is that Waco’s a sports town,” said Dillon Meek, the new mayor whose age (36) and energy (contagious) and Baylor-ness (undergraduate, law school) signify a renewal from waves of civic pain both self-inflicted and not.

Spokane and Waco just spent a pandemic-pockmarked season reveling in the routs by Gonzaga (26-0) and Baylor (22-2) — but with the reveling happening mostly in the anonymity of homes and typical attendances sighing at 2,350 (Baylor) and 200 (Gonzaga), such forlorn numerals. As longtime Baylor play-by-play voice John Morris told partner Pat Nunley on March 7 when the Bears ended a spotless home season, a first outright regular season conference title in 71 years and a senior day: “How great would this have been? A credit to the 2,350, but [a full crowd] would have blown the roof off on some of those plays.”

He also said, “The other side of it is, at least we’re playing games.”

Fifteen hundred and some miles northwest, the wonderfully wee Gonzaga campus had a hushed, pretty Tuesday last week, all through the statues of historic point guards of Catholicism such as Pierre-Jean De Smet and Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a long graffiti on a short wall of “Black Lives Matter,” the sculpture of Spokane native Bing Crosby, the bulldog — sorry, Bulldog — by sculptor Vincent De Felice, menacing from outside the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, home of the famed Kennel in good earthly times.

Those who frequent that building or yearn to do the same have followed quite some path from darlings to darling mastodons. Under Dan Monson for one year and Mark Few for 22, Gonzaga has reached one national final, three Elite Eights, six Sweet 16s, eight rounds of 32 and three rounds of 64, with seedings of 10, 10, 12, 6, 9, 2, 3, 3, 10, 7, 4, 8, 11, 7, 1, 8, 2, 11, 1, 4, 1 and now 1 again. Dan Dickau, the ESPN analyst, former Bulldog and seven-team NBA player whose name adorns some Spokane barbershops he owns, remembers ESPN’s first visit in 2002 being a great big whoop, whereas nowadays, “ESPN is a regular.”

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It all brings some of those trappings seen in many a win-drunk college town, such as a game ticket as a status symbol or the nouveau sight of some fans leaving routs early. In two of those bars that lend a town authenticity against the tide of chains, on Tuesday night, while Gonzaga ran into trouble in Las Vegas against BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game, the fans did look seasoned. As fractional crowds familiar in a pandemic sat neatly at tables in Jack and Dan’s, a shout from campus, and the storied Park Inn in the south part of town, it was tough to gauge any worry, which eroded anyway as the stunning Gonzaga offense swamped the 12-point halftime deficit. Bulldogs fans know what to expect even if they haven’t gotten plump with the huffiness of other kingdoms, a factor Santangelo attributes to an intimacy.

“They know [the players’] mom and dad,” he said of the fans. “They know their siblings. There’s just a really, personal, intimate connection with the athletes that come through GU.”

Yet Gonzagatown isn’t all Gonzaga’s town. Back in the wilds of 1990, Hoopfest hatched, toward its current 6,000 teams, 3,000 volunteers, 225,000 fans, 425 courts, 45 city blocks. “I was blown away,” Dickau said of September 2002 and his first sight of Hoopfest. “I had never seen anything like it. Downtown Spokane is taken over by Hoopfest. There are 65- and 70-year-old guys playing, and then you turn the corner, you’ve got first- and second-grade girls playing.”

“We’re a four-season community,” Santangelo said. “We get snow. It’s dark. We’re gray. We’re not like Utah that has snow on the ground but blue skies. We spend a lot of time in slush.” Basketball shepherds them through, with football croaked since 1942, even as it once did field one Hust Stockton, eventual grandfather of John Stockton, eventual Gonzaga and Utah Jazz institution.

Football has not croaked at Baylor even though sometimes it has felt as if it should. Seeing a crowd storm the field for a Big 12 title in 2014 in the deliciously smallish stadium of 45,140 could raise a goose bump or several. For Waco, the mid-2010s sexual-assault scandal that shooed the hierarchy joined the psyche with other traumas. A century back lies one of the country’s vilest examples of lynching, and more recent history included an annihilating tornado (1953), the Branch Davidian tragedy (1993), the Baylor men’s basketball horror involving an intra-team murder and a scheming head coach (2003) and a very deadly shootout among biker gangs (2015).

“So often the human experience and the experience of so many cities across our country is that you have these moments of greatness and then moments of real failure that you must mourn, and you must pick yourself up and dust yourself off,” Meek said. “There’s a story here around redemption and renewal, [around] moving forward, owning our past, repenting what we need to repent and pursuing excellence in the days ahead.”

The new air brims with the “Magnolia effect,” as Morris calls it: with football as ever (and almost in the 2019 playoff before coach Matt Rhule left for the NFL), with Mulkey towering from courtside as ever, with the topic of whether 18-year men’s basketball coach Scott Drew has fashioned the best rebuilding job ever, anywhere.

“I know where we came from,” said Doug McNamee, former Baylor student manager, former Baylor athletic administrator and current president of Magnolia. “And I know where he’s at now, largely without great facilities and, I would say, limited fan support.”

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Now they’re well past when 30,000 Baylor fans massed in the Houston stadium for the 2010 Elite Eight, all the way to the sounds and feelings of 2020-21.

“The chatter, the talk,” McNamee said. “Everybody is knowing when the game is. They know what the score is.”

Said Morris, “There’s Baylor gear all over Waco, which you would think would be a given, but there are more A&M and Texas graduates in McLennan County than Baylor grads.”

Said McNamee, “I think that we’re right on the verge of it being a rabid environment.”

So by Friday night, with the temperature 75, the trees blooming near the river, the governor lifting the mask/capacity mandates and the winter a goner, Baylor played surging Oklahoma State in a Big 12 semifinal. Around the spacious campus were a home baseball game and a massive pickup soccer game, and a sports-bar tour through the wide boulevards would find a scattered crowd at gigantic Cricket’s, crowded tables at popular Bubba’s 33, a good crowd at the fun, authentic Salty Dog. The attention to the game did seem something shy of rabid, but at Billy Bob’s Burgers later on, with TVs above outdoor tables and the sound of Tracy Lawrence’s “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” a woman saw the score and said, “Baylor’s going to lose.”

In the Spokane-Waco 2021, that did come as weird.

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