Home Samurai culture Wine, steak and Mark Few tales: As the NBA Zags table grows, a summer gathering in Vegas keeps them all connected

Wine, steak and Mark Few tales: As the NBA Zags table grows, a summer gathering in Vegas keeps them all connected


LAS VEGAS — From tall to towering to Chet Holmgren, a dozen professional basketball players emerged from a private dining room at Bavette’s Steakhouse & Bar on July 8.

As restaurant patrons watched the band, one patron decided to gather more information.

“When we were going out,” Holmgren said, “someone actually asked if we were one of the teams playing here.”

Holmgren, who became Gonzaga’s latest gift to the NBA when he was selected No. 2 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder, couldn’t help but smile as he shared the story last Tuesday from a training gymnasium on the UNLV campus.

“I wish I could have said yes because it would have been a (great) team,” Holmgren said.

The Las Vegas Summer League extravaganza is as much a high point for established NBA players as it is a showcase for up-and-coming players trying to plant their name on 15-player rosters. As Mark Few’s Spokane program continues to pour players into the NBA — 10 of Gonzaga’s 29 draft picks have come in the past six years — the Vegas event has also turned into something of a Zags summit.

In 2015, the now-annual Vegas dinner sponsored by Jared Hertz, Gonzaga’s senior associate athletic director for major gifts, was a modest affair consisting of just him, sports benefactors Pat and Sandy Volkar, and former Bulldogs guard Kevin Pangos, then playing for Dallas’ summer league team. Seven years later, it’s morphing into a high-profile gala, featuring NBA All-Stars, millionaires and global basketball icons – all connected by their experiences at the small Catholic school in Spokane.

“Last year we had six guys, then this year it all just blew up,” said Hertz, who books a private room to fend off autograph-goers and photo-hunters. “So they can be themselves and let their hair down.”

Gonzaga students camp outside in freezing conditions to get tickets to home basketball games, so imagine the effort they’d go to to get themselves on a guest list that includes Holmgren, Andrew Nembhard, Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrusev, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins and Kelly Olynyk.

Of Gonzaga’s active NBA players, Brandon Clarke was the only one not in attendance on July 8. Former Bulldogs guard Jeremy Jones, walking guard Rem Bakamus and assistant coach Roger Powell were also invited. Former Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins stepped in at one point.

“It’s great to reunite with the guys and be together,” Sabonis said. “I’m just catching up on the good old days. It was me Kelly, Zach, Rui. Now it’s a whole bunch of guys, so that’s pretty cool.

A group photo shared later that night by Powell depicting 10 of the 11 NBA Zags in attendance — all but Nembhard, who left early due to summer league obligations with the Pacers — made the rounds on Twitter, rallying 235 retweets and more than 1,700 likes. The image, featuring seven first-round draft picks, five All-Americans, three of the last four West Coast Conference Players of the Year and three of the last five WCC Tournament MVPs, not only highlights the Gonzaga culture, but also what the Bulldogs did. from a player development perspective through a gradual rise to the top of college basketball. Maybe the photo helps Few’s staff start a recruiting battle down the road.

“It shows how strong the culture is, and you’re sitting there hanging out with them, these guys sharing stories about Coach Few and stories about just being in Spokane,” Powell said on July 9 before to watch Holmgren’s Vegas. summer league debut at the Thomas & Mack Center. “It’s cool and it’s unique because the coach has been there for so long. It’s years of guys and years of history of guys.

Few, the conductor of the Gonzaga dynasty for more than two decades, was not present, but he is often the center of conversation.

“Lots of hoops stuff for sure, lots of stories, lots of Coach Few and Tommy (Lloyd) stories and things like that,” Bakamus said. “All those little things that make Gonzaga great. So yeah, we all share our own little stories.

Players tend to practice an old Vegas proverb when it comes to the stories shared and state secrets passed on at the annual gathering. What happens there stays there.

“Not everything is PG-13,” Ayayi assured.

“I don’t know if there are any appropriate (stories) that we shared last night,” Bakamus added.

In some ways, however, dinner conversations have evolved as those who hold them begin to enter full adulthood. Olynyk, 31 and de facto grandfather of the NBA’s active Zags, is getting married in Hayden Lake on Sunday. Sabonis shared photos of his 5-month-old son, born nearly a month after a blockbuster NBA move sent the All-Star big man to Sacramento. Ayayi and his wife have a baby on the way this summer.

“It’s doping. We really appreciate everyone coming together,” Ayayi said. “Every time someone walks into the room, everyone starts smiling. That’s a lot of greetings. That’s what it’s all about, Gonzaga culture at its best right now.

Dinner was an open menu at the Chicago-style steakhouse located at the Park MGM hotel. The appetizers were supposed to be a big hit, but apart from the French, Ayayi and Tillie, no one was brave enough to taste the pâté. Much to Hertz’s delight, the oysters remained largely intact. “So I just cleaned that up,” he said.

For a party of 17, appetizers and main courses can easily drive the bill into four figures, but Hertz was lucky enough to get some help with the wine this year. Several testimonials confirm that the biggest hit of this particular Zags dinner was the yet-unreleased signature wine of Hachimura, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon blend under the Japanese star’s “Black Samurai” label.

Sabonis offered the first mention: “Oh, that’s great, that’s great. He did a good job. I have to give him credit. It’s pretty good. Make sure you buy it.

“I’ll let (Hachimura) elaborate on that, but he has something good coming up,” Ayayi said. “Everyone at the table was really happy about it.”

“(It was) probably the highlight of the meal,” Bakamus added.

“I had a little drink,” Nembhard said. “It was good. Excellent, elegance, for sure.

“Rui was so excited to share his wine and it was adorable. It was actually really good,” Hertz said. “He spared no expense. It was really good and it hasn’t been released yet, so it was his opportunity to share that with his teammates and he was really crazy about it.

Since leaving Gonzaga after his second season, Petrusev hasn’t spent much time on American soil, moving to Mega Soccerbet in Serbia before being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, who hid the former big man of the Bulldogs abroad last season with Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Super League. He has stayed in touch with former college teammates, but face-to-face interactions have been rare since Petrusev left Spokane.

“It was really cool. I keep in touch with a lot of these guys, but it was also good to see guys from years ago like Domas, Kelly,” Petrusev said. I have not played. Just to see them, talk to them. It was pretty cool.

Another dinner photo showed Holmgren, who had yet to register an official NBA minute, sitting next to Olynyk, 13,408 minutes into his own career, across the table. A great lottery pick from Gonzaga who should carve out a long and successful NBA career by taking advice from another who is acutely aware of what something like this takes.

“You can kind of see them already starting to have some interesting conversations with Chet,” Powell said. “It was special to take it all.”

Nembhard finished a team dinner with the Pacers, who had played earlier in the night, before heading to Park MGM to snack on bread and hang out with former college teammates and other ex-Zags that he had met through their shared connection with the Spokane school.

“A lot of old faces that kind of gave me a lot of advice growing up,” Nembhard said. “So it was just fun seeing these guys, getting together, having fun that night.”

The dinner is designed for NBA Zags, but as that contingent continues to swell year after year, Hertz thinks it could turn into a full-fledged Gonzaga reunion. Jones, who just won a league championship playing professionally in Japan, was in town to reconnect with old friends and teammates. Bakamus, now director of player development for former GU Lloyd assistant in Arizona, came to his first summer league to catch a glimpse of former Baylor and Arizona players he coached.

“Rem is crafty,” Hertz said, “and he’s the great connector, just like with Jeremy. They were great teammates, so they’re great connectors.

“So a guy like Domas who’s never been here before, he might not know Chet and he might not know Killian, but he knows Rem. So Rem says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to dinner’ , Domas does not hesitate.

It just shows the great job the coaching staff is doing there and the development with all the former players as well,” Suggs said. “You know, it helped recruit me there and I helped recruit Chet. It all goes with the culture that Gonzaga comes with.

Gonzaga’s NBA contingent may outgrow Bavette’s private backroom. A much-too-soon NBA mock draft released by The Athletic features three players from Gonzaga’s 2022-23 roster – Julian Strawther, Drew Timme and Malachi Smith – and it’s possible that one or two more league invites will be added. summer be. By 2030, Hertz could lease full ballrooms.

“We’re going to keep going,” Powell said. “We have young guys coming in and we’re going to keep developing the guys and hopefully we can keep that bond going. And these guys do it organically. It’s not forced. Just like the coach (little). It’s really cool.”

With full stomachs, empty Black Samurai bottles and dozens of stories spilled, the group left the Vegas steakhouse’s private dining room shortly after 9 p.m.

With three to four summer championship games left to play, Holmgren, Nembhard, Ayayi and Petrusev retired to team hotels, but a larger group of NBA Zags took the next step. , and maybe a few more after that.

“Some of the other guys extended the night,” Hertz said. “It’s never happened before because usually they’re all business because they’re all playing.

“So there are probably good stories that happened long after the other guys left.”

Confidential stories, of course. Might be a good icebreaker for next year’s dinner.