GLENDALE, Ariz. — Of course Mark Few would not want to trade any of this.
He’s here on the precipice of a national championship and has a chance to do something that very few coaches have done: Win a title with a program that he essentially built from scratch. It’ll be a great story if he and Gonzaga can accomplish that feat, becoming the first team from a non-power conference since the era of power conferences began to be crowned the best men’s basketball team in the country.
But while Few and his players past and present will have nothing but unbridled joy if they are lucky enough to hoist that trophy amidst the confetti at center court on Monday night, it will represent the end of an era just as much as the dawning of a new one for them.
The age of the perpetual also-ran, of the eternal bridesmaid, seems to be coming to a swift end. It began over a decade ago when the long-suffering Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Then last summer the Cavaliers gave Cleveland its first professional championship in over half a century. It peaked in November when the Cubs finally broke their curse. Those kinds of sour traditions provided plenty of heartbreak for fans of the teams and residents of the cities, but they also provided some stability in the big picture. It was something that, as a sports observer, you could count on year after year. There are teams that have had long dry spells (J-E-T-S!), but they generally belong to cities where other champions stroll the streets and need never buy another drink for the rest of their lives.
Now, though, in this age of everyone-gets-a-trophy, it seems as if everyone is finally getting a trophy.
There are no more lovable losers anymore, and that’s a little bit sad.
Gonzaga could add to that trend. We’ve watched the program grow from low- to mid-major, all the way to national power (even though they don’t play in a conference that can say the same). Should they win on Monday, that distinctiveness will vanish. They’ll join a list of other programs that have won championships, and leave the ranks of schools that spend all their time on the outside looking in.
Sometimes in winning, something is lost.
Few might recognize that a bit, even if he is hesitant to admit it. During the last few days at the Final Four he has recalled his early time in Spokane, talking about how “innocent” they were and referring to them as “the good old days.” There was a charm and a purity that accompanied that era, a sense of yearning to reach the top — or come as close to it as reality at the time would allow.
“It’s probably why we’re here on this day,” he said of the lessons learned during those formative years. “I’m enjoying the spot I’m in now. Not to say I didn’t enjoy that. It was kind of footloose and fancy free and we didn’t know any better.”
Had Gonzaga made it to this point sooner, perhaps it would be different. Had they beaten George Mason and VCU and Butler in the glass-slippered footrace to the Final Four, that would have been a magical story. But the fact of the matter is that they are here as the No. 1 seed from what was essentially their home region, they spent a good deal of time this year as the No. 1 team in the country, and they have only one loss this season. The only validation that remains is the title.
“It’s not 1997 anymore,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said after losing to Gonzaga in a national semifinal on Saturday. “They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff in ’97. They’ve been in this thing for 20 consecutive years. They’re as high major as high major can get.”
Few spoke on Sunday about the expectations for his team, especially when it comes to playing a schedule that is filled mostly with neck-straining teams hoping to figure out his formula for upward mobility.
“Every time Gonzaga plays [on the road] I tell our players it’s a storm-the-court opportunity,” Few said. “If we lose, they’re going to storm the court.”
Gonzaga hasn’t had any of those games this year, contests in which they and their fan base were poised to make that mad rush of euphoria. Not until now, at least. Here, finally, they are positioned as something of an underdog against one of the country’s most successful programs, the school of Michael Jordan and James Worthy and Dean Smith and five previous titles.
“A team like North Carolina, if we beat them, all of Spokane goes crazy, the whole West Coast goes crazy,” Gonzaga junior guard Silas Melson said. “It is a big deal to beat North Carolina.”
If they can pull it off, it will be a storm-the-court moment for Gonzaga.
And probably their last.