I was there at KeyArena for the “launch” of Gonzaga basketball in 1999. Sat courtside in Lahaina for the triple-overtime screamer against Michigan State in ’05, probably the best game I ever covered. Bore witness to many of the GU highs as well as the heartbreaks.
But maybe it’s the very first time I covered a Gonzaga basketball game that I’ll remember the most – not for anything the Zags or their opponent did, but just for . . . the night.
(Side note: I’d love to be able to tell you which school Jalen Suggs is going to choose or how much of a force Oumar Ballo is going to be, but failing that, this is what you get in this space in the dead of July, from a waiting area while a Subaru Forester is being serviced.)
I figure I probably saw Gonzaga live a couple or three times in the late ‘60s as an undergrad at Washington State. But as a senior, it was my privilege to “string” WSU home football and basketball games for the Seattle Times.
That brought me to Dec. 1, 1969, the date not only of the season opener for WSU and Gonzaga at Bohler Gym, but also a small slice – little-remembered and roundly unlamented, I suspect – of Americana.
This was near the height of the Vietnam War. Protests raged in the U.S. Students got “2-S” deferments while enrolled, but once out of school, they were fair game for the Selection Service System and the military draft.
Both to try to equalize an inherently uneven playing field and to ramp up numbers to support the war effort, Congress passed HR 14001, a bill proposed by the Nixon Administration that included a draft-lottery system, the first of which would affect those born between 1944-1950. Later lotteries – and they lasted only until the draft was abolished in 1973 – targeted 19-year-olds.
In mid-November, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird stipulated that once the bill was passed, the lottery would take place within 45 days. A voice vote in the Senate completed passage on Nov. 19, 1969.
The Selective Service chose Monday, Dec. 1 for the event, which took place at its Washington headquarters. It didn’t appear to give a lot of thought to the fact the Cougars and Zags were opening the basketball season that night.
I probably don’t need to underscore here how momentous the night was for millions of people who would be draft-eligible in 1970. By the most arbitrary of circumstances, your first post-college experience could be toting a rifle in the Mekong Delta, with all the ominous and life-altering implications therein.
The lottery was televised nationally. Memory says the mechanics of it were something like today’s NBA draft lottery. Some 366 draft capsules containing a year’s dates were placed in a deep glass container and pulled out, one-by-one.
It must have started at 4 or 4:30 p.m. Pacific time; I recall seeing the early stages. But then I had to be somewhere – Bohler Gym, for the GU-WSU freshman game.
The varsity game approached. A friend or two came by my station near courtside to compare notes on what numbers we’d gotten. I knew nothing. I also knew the last thing I wanted was to have somebody come up and tell me my number.
Of course, this wasn’t Generation Z. Think of it: No phones, no texts, no quick Google search to ferret out your lottery number in a moment’s break during a timeout. You could go hours upon hours blissfully (if edgily) unaware of where in the queue your capsule was grabbed.
I batted out an 11-paragraph story on that game, referring to “the tall Spokane team, at times sporting a front line of three 6-foot, 8-inch players.” GU’s skid toward an 85-69 defeat was greased by an alarming 21 turnovers in the first half. The Zags would make 28 before it was over, beating their total of field goals by one.
Gonzaga was led by the 15 points apiece of big guys Bill Quigg and Blaine Bundy. Jim Meredith, a productive Montanan, had 19 for WSU’s Marv Harshman in Harsh’s penultimate season at WSU.
Hank Anderson coached the Zags, who went 10-16 that year. The Cougars went 19-7, Harshman’s best record in 13 seasons at WSU, and tied for second behind UCLA in the Pac-8. Today, that team is about a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Not then.
They had announced that lottery results would be posted at a couple of locations on campus. One was at Arts Hall (renamed Murrow Hall in the 1970s).
I drove up the hill. By now it was well past 11 p.m. The campus was quiet, Arts Hall deserted. There, on a stairway landing, were the lottery results, illuminated dimly by an overhead light.
I scanned down to April 20 (some carefree kids from San Rafael High would one day codify my birthday). There it was: No. 345. The Selective Service system would get down through No. 195 in 1970.
I headed downtown to Rico’s, bought a six-pack of Lucky Lager, and like Jim Valvano, looked for somebody to party with. Like him, I couldn’t find anybody. I drove back to the apartment and drank in the darkness, no gloating, just grateful.