LAS VEGAS — Shortly after stepping on a court for his first-ever organized basketball game, Julian Strawther had his toys taken away by the “NBA Magic Man.”
Gonzaga’s star guard was 5 years old, playing in a recreational league with six- to eight-year-olds, and he’ll never forget the moment his number was called.
“First time I ever hit the court, it was game day and my coach sends me in the game and I decided that I was too scared to get on the court and I cried on the bench,” Strawther recalled Wednesday during media availability for Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown with UCLA. “My mom and dad are yelling at me from the bleachers and I went home that night and they took all my toys and said the ‘NBA Magic Man’ took them and the only way to get them back was to get on the court.”
Which he did, immediately. It’s been where he’s belonged ever since,
“I ended up falling in love with it and it’s been over ever since,” he added.
Nerves and anxiety long gone, Strawther is a big reason the Bulldogs are back in the Sweet 16, which this year he’ll enjoy in his hometown of Las Vegas, where the West Regional champion will be crowned Saturday.
“It’s kind of like a full circle moment,” Strawther said. “It’s always like a dream, you know, to play in March Madness. And then, not too many people get the luxury of playing in their hometown, especially in the regional final, it’s just huge.
“I mean, it’s huge for me, it’s huge for my family, and it’s just huge for everybody that I know. I’m just super excited and glad that I got the opportunity to play at home.”
Since arriving at Gonzaga, the 6-foot-7 swingman has accepted being a role player while guys like Corey Kispert, Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme have basked in the spotlight.
Accepted, and relished in, whatever coach Mark Few had asked of him.
“Just a story of patience and resilience, I mean, it’s not always easy,” Strawther said. “There are times when you want things to kind of go on your agenda. But at the same time, this is what’s right and I feel like everything’s kind of gone smoothly. I got to learn behind guys my freshman year, Last year, I got to step into a bigger role and have more opportunities to have my moments. And then this year, guys got their eyes on me and guys are looking up to me to make plays and be a leader. Everything’s happened at a smooth, smooth pace and I’m super happy.”
Strawther ranks second on the Bulldogs with 15.3 points, 30.9 minutes and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Quite a difference from his freshman year, when the Bulldogs played for the national championship against Baylor and he averaged just 3.4 points in a mere 7.4 minutes per game while playing behind Kispert, who’s now with the Washington Wizards.
Role player or not, Strawther’s also been known to ignite scoring runs – or amplify them. Like Sunday when his 3-pointer with 15:51 left in the game put Gonzaga in front of TCU, 46-45. It was a trey that also landed him on his 1,000th point, while helping propel the Bulldogs to an 84-81 victory.
“What he brings on the court is phenomenal,” point guard Nolan Hickman said. “It’s not only just his scoring, it’s his energy he brings, defensive-wise, offensive-wise. All around he’s just a dope guy to be around. He tries to make that a statement, how good he is to be around. When it comes to hooping, he’s gonna give it his all and that’s something I don’t have to question.”
Added Timme: “What he does for this team is huge. Obviously, he’s a great scorer and he’s a cornerstone of our team. But what he’s been on defense lately is what’s taken us to the next level.”
After averaging 0.7 steals per game over the first 21 games this season, he’s seen an uptick to 1.1 per contest. He’s also pulling down 5.4 defensive rebounds per game and has snagged at least eight off the defensive glass nine times.
Strawther will have his own contingent of fans inside T-Mobile Arena, including his father Lee, sisters Paige and Paris, and nephew Ace.
But in his heart, and always on his mind, will be his mother Lourdes, affectionately known by those close to the family as Cookie.
Strawther’s mother died in 2011 after a battle with breast cancer, and the 20-year-old always carries the memory of her support emblazoned via tattoo on the left side of his chest with a message his mother once wrote on a basketball: “My beautiful son, Julian. Mommy loves you so very much forever, and ever. Love Mommy.”
“To be honest, I’ve been telling my teammates (this is) the biggest basketball game I’ve ever played in my life,” said Strawther, who represented his mother’s homeland by playing for Puerto Rico’s 19-and-under team at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. “You know, tomorrow night, Vegas, March Madness. I mean, it’s an amazing opportunity. I know she’s gonna be watching me.”