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John Blanchette: Mac Graff’s Senior Night moment upstages Rui Hachimura’s return to Gonzaga

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 29, 2020

After Gonzaga’s next-to-last regular-season game on Thursday night, coach Mark Few made a modest appeal about toning down, or powering through, the sentiment – “the pomp and circumstance” he called it – of Senior Night.

This is one of his strategies that might need some fine tuning.

It wasn’t that the Bulldogs turned into some big puddle and were emotionally sapped to deal with the real task of the evening. And if there was even a hint of that, their pals from Saint Mary’s snapped them back to attention quickly, and the Zags inched away late for an important 86-76 victory.

But as Senior Nights go, this one overinflated the tires on pomp and surely set a Kennel record for circumstance.

This episode was The One When Rui Returned.

And yet dazzling as it was to see that Hachimura smile up close again, and whatever hoops he had to jump through to play hooky from the Washington Wizards for 24 hours to get here, he may well have been upstaged.

Because before he walked out during the pregame ceremony to roars that bowed the walls of McCarthey Athletic Center, Mac Graff did.

Graff, with his legs in braces and hands clamped on a walker, shuffling to midcourt – though in his heart he may have been skipping.

And that alone, folks, merits a clip in any Zags season highlight film, which is a multi-reeler already.

Graff’s the team manager normally seen rebounding for Gonzaga’s shooters and scooting around the edges of the team huddle at timeouts in a wheelchair he’s used to get around since losing the use of his legs from a fall in a hunting accident as a 17-year-old. He joined the program as a manager at Few’s request three years ago, and it’s GU tradition to honor senior managers like Graff, Adam Davidoff, Colin Kirk and Zach Wheeler just as they do the players at the final home game.

And he felt this was the perfect occasion to, for a few minutes, ditch the chair.

“Back in high school, I would walk around some and the community there was so supportive,” he said. “The community of Spokane has been the same way, but they’d never seen it. I thought, why not? It’s the biggest stage in Spokane.”

Meanwhile, Hachimura’s own sense of theater – and the need to say a proper goodbye – was triggered in similar fashion.

“It was unbelievable,” Few said. “Mac Graff – I’ve never seen Mac Graff walk in four years! That was about as powerful a moment as I’ve seen in this building.

“And then when Rui walked out there – he so wanted to have a Senior Night and how cool was that? He’s in the NBA having all kinds of success, and he’s just dying to get back here. He’s the one who wanted to do that.”

As the number grows of Zags who take the professional leap before their eligibility runs out, it’s easy to forget sometimes there’s still an umbilical cord that ties most of them to Gonzaga – and that missing out on the grand goodbye of Senior Night can be a regret. And Rui’s return wasn’t unprecedented. Kelly Olynyk pulled a similar surprise during his rookie year with the Boston Celtics.

Hachimura got lucky when the NBA schedule sent the Wizards to play at Golden State this weekend.

“I felt it was the worst-kept secret in town,” Few said. “He wanted the (coaching staff’s) kids – and how cool was that? – to escort him out there. That’s awesome. And they were told not to tell anybody, but all of a sudden (Few’s daughter) Julia’s teachers are asking about it.”

Still, many of the Zags players didn’t know Hachimura was going to parachute in until he appeared in the locker room pregame.

“I’m so happy to be back here,” Hachimura said. “It’s my home – my second home. I really miss the community. I remember, the beginning of the (NBA) season I was just looking at pictures of college back in the day. I’m so happy to be back here.”

Graff kept his secret a little closer – his mother and a few others knew. Then he asked his sister Samantha, an athletic trainer at Montana who was on hand for the festivities, to stretch him out before the game.

“I’m going to walk,” he told her.

Rehab – he goes about twice a week now – since his injury in 2014 has allowed him these sorts of moments.

“I was very nervous,” he allowed. “Not about walking, but guys trying to give me high-fives or a friendly shove on the back. For me, that could have been disaster in front of 6,000 people.”

It was far from a disaster. Zags forward Filip Petrusev called it “an inspiration,” and teammate Corey Kispert was even more moved.

“Mac, especially, is kind of what Gonzaga means and what the Zag way is,” he said. “That dude is just bulletproof when it comes to the type of attitude he has. It made me really emotional. That’s my guy, that’s my really close friend. I know how much that meant to him especially and all of us to see that.”

It was a night for pumping up the pomp. And when victory was just a bonus.

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