Left Coast Report: A Gonzaga Fan's Existential Crisis

February 20th, 2008
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During Gonzaga’s win over San Diego on Monday night, I was struck by my reactions to the play of Josh Heytvelt and David Pendergraft. I found myself pounding my fist in excitement as Heytvelt got hammered in the post and somehow willed a shot into the basket. On the other hand I was harsh on Pendergraft, taking his three-point shooting for granted and begging him to move his feet on defense. I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong about my emotions. Like agreeing with a Republican, or enjoying a tofu dish, my emotions betrayed my deeply held beliefs.

For me, sports are interesting in that they are a microcosm of society – a controlled environment where we can witness and reflect on the human drama. To call sports “entertainment” is to deny them the complexity they deserve. Like great literature and film, the depth of sports goes well-beyond simple entertainment – especially when one is a fan. Watching Heytvelt and Pendergraft the other night was like revisiting a book or movie I haven’t read or watched in years. I found myself questioning my old self. Since high school I have divided players into two types: those given opportunity, and those who earn opportunity. I based this mostly off of repeated viewings of “Rocky” and “Rudy.”

When Heytvelt and Pendergraft arrived together at Gonzaga they represented this black and white world of mine. Being from the same part of Washington State as these two players, I followed their high school careers.

When the red-headed “Mr. Washington” verballed with the Zags I was astounded that a kid from Brewster had warranted such early attention from a top-tier program. Brewster is truly nowhere – the kind of nowhere that people on the east coast can simply not understand. When a Wal-Mart opened an hour away it was the largest cultural event Brewster had seen not related to a high school sport. The excitement for a kid from a town like this, signing with a program like Gonzaga, is the type of thing that will be talked about for generations.

During his first season at Gonzaga broadcasters couldn’t get over the fact that Pendergraft enjoyed rattlesnake hunting. They imagined this to be an example of his masculinity and toughness – the announcers did not realize that in north-central Washington rattlesnake hunting is something that many boys and girls do. Growing up surrounded by sagebrush covered mountains, kids in this area have little to do but drink beer, shoot baskets, and get in trouble.

Meanwhile, Heytvelt arrived in turmoil. The University of Washington had been turned in for recruiting violations over him. This allowed the Zags to bring in the most athletically gifted player in school history (and cemented the hatred between the schools).

The turmoil surrounding Heytvelt upon his arrival now seems prophetic, but at the time it was justifiable when placed next to his immense potential. As a freshman, both players were slated to red shirt. An injured upper classman gave Pendergraft the opportunity to play, while Heytvelt spent the season filling out his NBA sized frame.

Heytvelt’s career since can be summed up as a parade of horribles: precursor to a stress fracture; broken ankle; dominated Tyler Hansbrough then arrested for possession and suspended for remainder of season; another precursor to a stress fracture; surgery to fix precursor; bronchitis; and now, a badly rolled ankle.

Meanwhile, despite a bench full of superior athleticism, Pendergraft is proving to be more than a floor-burn-loving spark off the bench. The bulky, yet undersized four man emerged as an all around player; a legitimate three point threat, he relies on experience over athleticism to get his points. He continues to provide a strong work ethic on defense and leads the team in total rebounds for the season. He is routinely referred to as Mr. Zag.

I always thought the careers of these two Zags demonstrated my view of the sports world – a view cultivated on those feel-good sports movies. I should be happy, my world view secure. However, watching the game against San Diego I realized that in my attempt to simplify the world I had misjudged. I forgot about the truly great, the truly American, sports dark comedy. Movies like “The Longest Yard” and “The Bad News Bears” have always been more enjoyable, albeit in a less inspiring way. The enjoyment of these films is found not in Hallmark emotions of triumph, but instead in a cocky, middle finger to a judgmental society.

As the season goes on, it seems that Heytvelt loses playing time for not living up to his potential while Pendergraft receives playing time for exceeding his. Yet, their production has been almost equal despite Heytvelt playing less minutes per game. Pendergraft has had, by all means, a successful college career; the most obvious thing he had to overcome was his own physical limitation. Meanwhile, Heytvelt’s career reads like a parody of misfortune, and the majority of those wrongs have been well beyond his control.

Pendergraft’s storyline of underdog has been played out. Like “Rocky IV” and “V” the underdog has won and now we are stuck watching him not overcome anything. Instead, aware of his potential, we are simply watching a player play within himself. Enjoyable, in the romantic comedy sense, but nonetheless empty of my need for sports to provide a more compelling truth.

Meanwhile, Heytvelt emerged as the dark comedy underdog; a flawed man with a long run of bad luck. Like Burt Reynolds in “The Longest Yard” or Walter Matthau in “The Bad News Bears,” Heytvelt has been on the verge of greatness and in a truly American way, failed to peak due to a combination of bad luck and hubris.

Now, as I watch him close in on his final act as a college player, I want to see his trademark sneer; that cocky stare down that was so prevalent a year ago against Hansbrough. I believe that before the season ends Heytvelt, like the dark comedy protagonist, will finally get pissed off enough to truly unleash his potential, in a final act more enjoyable than the underdog’s achievement.