The Spokane River, photographed last summer from Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane. Gonzaga University, which will play this weekend in the NCAA Final Four basketball championships, is located on the river’s north bank. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

The Spokane River, photographed last summer from Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane. Gonzaga University, which will play this weekend in the NCAA Final Four basketball championships, is located on the river’s north bank. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Gonzaga basketball is just the icing on Spokane’s cake

Remember why you left. It was advice from one Spokane native to another.

The late Stan Strick, a former executive editor of The Herald and my longtime supervisor, would say, “Remember why you left,” whenever we got to talking about our shared hometown. I suppose he wanted to keep me on the job here.

Strick and I would chat about my visits to Spokane, where my parents and sister still live, or about his stops there on frequent trips to Yellowstone. Rather than dwelling on reasons for leaving Spokane — I left to attend the University of Washington — we would end up remembering the best things about the place.

Along with its blue skies, tall pines and gorgeous lakes nearby, Spokane has lovely neighborhoods with affordable houses. And yes, there’s Gonzaga basketball.

When Mark Few’s Bulldogs take on South Carolina at the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four in Phoenix on Saturday, the Spokane team will make history. Gonzaga has come close, but never before has made it to the Final Four.

The Zags’ nearly undefeated season is now in a spotlight extending far beyond the world of basketball. That attention has even crossed the Atlantic. A snarky article, “How Gonzaga became the central hope for the struggling city of Spokane,” was published March 14 in the London-based Guardian.

It was written by Cody Delistraty, who grew up in Spokane. He described how his widowed father, who lives there, “listens to every Zags game on the radio, while eating his dinner alone.” While crediting the winning team for “an adjustment of the city’s collective emotions,” the writer paints a gloomy picture of a place I love.

Delistraty noted Spokane’s 7 percent unemployment rate, its crime and conservative politics. Even his compliment to the Zags takes a back-handed tone: “For a moment, to be from Spokane is a privilege, and even if you’re from a desperate town you become, if only for a short while, a winner.”

Desperate town? The last time I was there, it was hard to miss the new Davenport Grand Hotel. It’s near Washington State University’s new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine on Spokane Falls Boulevard.

Last summer, downtown Spokane streets were packed with crowds for Hoopfest, which like the annual Bloomsday run draws tens of thousands of visitors. Spokane, like Everett or Seattle, has serious problems, but the city Delistraty described isn’t my hometown.

The Guardian article generated blowback, along with some good fun including the social media hashtag #CodyComeHome. The newspaper printed an apology and corrected several factual errors in the piece.

In Snohomish County, Gonzaga University alumni are excited about their school’s first trip to the Final Four.

Nick Questad, a 2006 graduate, is president of the Gonzaga University Alumni Association’s Seattle chapter. An engineer, he works at Boeing in Everett. Questad, 32, will leave Friday for Phoenix and has tickets to Saturday’s game. Now living in Shoreline, he grew up in Woodinville.

“I still go back quite a bit. Drive down the hill into Spokane, and you see all the ‘Go Zags’ signs in windows and on bumper stickers,” he said. “There’s lots to love about the Spokane area. It’s a big enough city that there are things to do, but it has a small-city feel.”

Everett’s Bob Wodnik, a former Herald writer and Gonzaga University alumnus, also will travel to Phoenix. Now a senior communication specialist with Sound Transit, the 62-year-old Wodnik said he and his wife, Bridget, went online looking for Final Four tickets as soon as Gonzaga defeated Xavier on Saturday.

They usually go to one Gonzaga game each year in Spokane. This year, it was the Brigham Young University game — Gonzaga’s only loss this season. Wodnik said friends told him, “You guys can never come back.”

“I love Spokane. It’s just a fun town,” said Wodnik, who remembered going to Gonzaga basketball games in the 1970s that were sparsely attended. He is thrilled that Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament successes, starting in 1999, have kept rolling. “It’s incredible is what it is.”

“It was a great place to go to school. It had kind of a small-town feel,” said John Olson, Everett Community College vice president of college advancement and executive director of the EvCC Foundation. Olson remembers the area’s outdoor recreation, cliff-jumping at Post Falls, Idaho, and watching friends play hockey.

He won’t be in Phoenix, but will be cheering all the same. “It just shows you what sticking with the philosophy of the program can turn into. They recruit quality kids, and want people to exemplify the mission of that school,” Olson said.

“Just going to school there four years, Spokane has a soft place in my heart,” Questad said.

And the game? “It’s going to be a defensive battle with South Carolina,” said Questad, who of course expects a Bulldog win. “Go Zags.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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