With 10 of his 29 players drafted over the past six years, it’s an understatement to say that Gonzaga has become an NBA player factory.
Dominating in its conference and stronghold of college basketball with six straight appearances at the Sweet Sixteen since 2015, but without a championship title, Mark Few’s team has become a stronghold, with an identity and a culture … which is starting to spread, with Tommy Lloyd on the Arizona side.
A group that exploded this year!
And, on July 8, at Bavette’s Steakhouse & Bar in Las Vegas, a group of twelve very large individuals burst into a private room. Their link? Spokane!
To tell the truth, they didn’t all happen all at once, but rather in dribs and drabs.
“Not all discussions are allowed to people under 18”, assures Joël Ayayi, laughing. “It’s great to be able to all be together like this. Every time someone walked into the room, everyone was smiling. That’s a lot of greetings. But that’s Gonzaga culture at its best. »
In 2015, when it started, the dinner consisted of a handful of people, with Jared Hertz, one of the staff members and initiator of the event, plus Pat and Sandy Volkar, two team benefactors and Kevin Pangos, then undrafted rookie with Dallas.
Seven years later, it’s not the same deal with millionaire players or on the way to becoming one, ranging from All-Star (Domantas Sabonis) to rookie prodigy (Chet Holmgren) through all degrees
players more (Kelly Olynyk, Rui Hachimura, Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert) or less well established in the NBA (Zach Collins, Joël Ayayi, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev and rookie Andrew Nembhard).
“Last year, we had six players and this year, it really exploded”smiles Jared Hertz in The Spokesman Review. “It’s great because they can be themselves and let go a bit. »
An evening of anecdotes
Only Grizzlies inside Brandon Clarke was missing among the players who were under contract this season. But other former Zags like Jeremy Jones, Rem Bakamus or Josh Perkins also made an appearance at this very closed dinner.
“It’s great to be able to chat with the guys and spend time together,” adds Domantas Sabonis. “We remember the good old days! Before, it was Kelly, Zach, Rui and me. Now that’s a whole bunch of guys, that’s fine. »
On the menu of the best anecdotes, Joël Ayayi was able to discuss his future paternity with Domantas Sabonis. With his compatriot, Killian Tillie, he was the only one to dare to eat pâté, while the oysters flopped. Except for Hertz who took care of it personally. And then of course, memories of the golden era…
“A lot of basketball talk obviously, but also a lot of stories with Coach Few and Tommy [Lloyd] », says Rem Bakamus. “All the little things that make Gonzaga special. We all shared our little stories. But I don’t know if any of them are really shareable…”
Mentally and physically tired last season, Rui Hachimura took advantage of his reunion to preview his wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Napa Valley, the “Black Samouraï”.
“I’ll let him talk more about it but he did a good job,” breathes Joel Ayayi. “Everyone at the table was very happy with this wine. »
A culture that crosses borders
For other players, it was more of a way to reconnect. For Filip Petrusev in this case, who has returned to Europe since 2020, with a first stop at the Mega, then another at Efes Istanbul (where he won the Euroleague) and one to come at the Red Star of Belgrade (in all likelihood), it was a reunion rich in emotions, after several years without seeing his comrades again.
” It was very cool. I kept in touch with quite a few of those guys, but it was good to see oldies like Domas and Kelly again. I haven’t played with all of them. But being able to find them and talk to them was great. »
A Northwestern college that has long been known for training John Stockton, Gonzaga is now a lottery picks landmark with Chet Holmgren (2) and Jalen Suggs (5) in the Top 5 for the past two years . And if we go back a little, with Rui Hachimura (9) and Zach Collins (10) in the Top 10 in 2019 and 2017, respectively…
“A guy like Domas who had never come [à ces dîners à Vegas] didn’t know Chet, and he didn’t necessarily know Killian. But he knows Rem. So when Rem told him we were going to dinner, Domas didn’t even ask himself a question.” explains Jalen Suggs. “It shows the work done by the staff and the development of all these players. That’s what helped recruit me and I helped recruit Chet. This is the Gonzaga culture. »
In addition to this group of former Zags who have already grown well in recent years, there are three players who could join him, with Julian Strawther, Drew Timme and Malachi Smith who are expected to appear in the Draft next June. Gonzaga’s culture is not about to fall apart…
“Some of the guys even continued the evening [après le départ des joueurs engagés en ligue d’été] », concludes Hertz. “It never happened because usually they are all very professional because they play. But there have certainly been good stories long after the others have left. »