YAKIMA, Wash. -- Any close-knit basketball team is a family, its bonds forged by long months and years of collective striving for the same goal.
Sometimes that family has to close ranks and pull together even more than usual when one of its own loses a member of the other family, the one forged in blood.
That was the case for the Granger Spartans and their coach, Miguel Bazaldua, on Saturday. With the team bus nearly to Ritzville on its way to Spokane for the Spartans’ Class 1A regional game against Brewster, Bazaldua got the kind of telephone call we all dread.
It was his brother, telling him their 82-year-old father, Gerardo Bazaldua, had died.
The news hit Miguel hard.
“It was a gut punch, of course, to get that call,” he said on Monday. “He had some health problems, but, man ... you just ... we thought we had more time.”
Minutes after the first call, Bazaldua’s wife called. Knowing the team bus would be stopping in Ritzville so the players could eat a late breakfast/early lunch, she told him if he wanted to stay behind in Ritzville when the bus left, she could drive there to bring him back to be with his extended family and deal with the loss.
“So I’ve got a decision to make in the next 20 miles, whether I’m going to get off the bus and have my assistant coaches coach (the regional game),” Bazaldua said. “Then my brother called me back, and he told me to go to the game, don’t come back. He said, ‘We got it all covered, all the siblings are here, you have a job to do. I know Dad always told you, do your job first.’
“‘You’ve got the family’s support. We understand you have a basketball family, too. Go and do that.’”
That helped make up Bazaldua’s mind, but the decision still wasn’t easy.
“I was torn. I had a heavy heart,” said Bazaldua, who told his assistant coaches the news and told them he was “really going to lean on them.”
He didn’t tell the players until they were in the locker room in Spokane and he was giving his pregame talk to his players. “You know the one — ‘We’re ready, Brewster’s a good team,’ the American apple-pie speech,” Bazaldua said. It was then he told them of his father, his loss and his pain.
“Those kids, you could have heard a pin drop,” the coach recalled. “(Senior wing Johnny) Pacheco said, ‘We got this, coach. We got this for you. Don’t worry. We got your back.’”
And the players surrounded Bazaldua, hugging him. They circled up, one of the players said what Bazaldua called “some really heartfelt words, and a little prayer, and then they went out and played probably the best game I’ve seen this group play, ever.”
The Spartans built lead after lead, and each time Brewster closed the gap, including erasing an eight-point Granger lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation.
One play in overtime might have been the biggest in the Spartans’ season: On a Granger fast break, Ryker Ely made what Bazaldua called “an amazing save” of an errant pass, getting to the ball as it sailed out of bounds and pitching it back to senior point guard Esau Cervantes. Though the Spartans had the lead and might have done well to burn some clock, Cervantes went up for an NBA-length 3-pointer and — even as Bazaldua was shouting, “Don’t shoot!” — drained the shot.
The Spartans (18-6) held on to win 73-70, advancing them to the Class 1A state tournament at the SunDome and a 5:30 p.m. game today against King’s (19-6). After the game, Bazaldua asked Cervantes about that long 3-pointer.
“It was deep,” the coach said. “I asked him, ‘Did you realize how far out you were when you shot that?’ And he just kind of giggled, ‘I got ya, coach. I got ya.’”
Bazaldua thought about that game, and what his team — the only SCAC team still playing, boys or girls — accomplished this season and on that most emotional of days.
“It was a fun game. It was a bright moment in a dark day,” Bazaldua said. “It’s like I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to coach the game.
“And I know my dad was with me.”