Kevin Pangos: Big point man on campus

Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos may go down as one of the most accomplished Canadian NCAA players ever, writes Michael Grange. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2015 issue of Sportsnet magazine.

Kevin Pangos isn’t going to lie. He doesn’t seem the type anyway.

But here’s the truth: Everybody’s all-America point guard from Canada was never really sure he’d use all four years of eligibility with his beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs. Even as he was becoming what head coach Mark Few calls "the quintessential ’Zag," Pangos had one eye on leaving to chase his NBA dream rather than waiting patiently for his chance. "That was kind of my approach," says Pangos. "I played every year like I was going to leave after [it]… I didn’t want to sit back until my last year to start playing well or anything like that, you know?"

So there was no sitting back. Not for a second. This is a guy who came off the bench in his first college game, was a starter in his second, and after drilling nine triples—tying a school record in the process—almost never left the floor thereafter, setting Gonzaga marks for games started, wins and three-pointers made.

The result is somewhat of a rarity as the Canadian talent pipeline has flooded NCAA Div. I ranks and filtered through to the NBA in recent years: The best player from "here" playing down "there" this past collegiate season was a senior who will graduate with a degree and four years of memories.

He may also go down as one of the most accomplished Canadian NCAA players ever. He earned the West Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year as a freshman. He was first-team all-conference as a sophomore and a junior, and was player of the year as a senior while steering the Zags to four straight NCAA tournament appearances. And Pangos couldn’t be happier about how it all worked out, even if his professional career has been on hold. "These experiences that you have, you can’t really buy, no matter how much money you make," he says. "The relationships you build with your teammates, the college atmosphere, collegiate games­—which have fans like no other—all that kind of stuff is so cool and I’m glad I got four years to experience it.

"We move in a pack from practice to the cafeteria to study hall or night class. You’re going with the same group of people all over campus, cracking jokes. You’re never on your own."

Pangos still has grand ambitions. He made his debut playing for Canada at age 16, after all. When he travelled to Germany to compete in the under-17 FIBA World Championships, he was the leader on a team that included Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, players who both went No. 1 overall in the NBA draft after one year of school. As a college sophomore, he was a starter on a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the season, and which saw fellow Canadian Kelly Olynyk earn the No. 13–overall pick in the NBA draft. In the summer growing up, his sparring partner at Olympia Sports camps in Muskoka, Ont., was Nik Stauskas, who was taken eighth overall in 2014. All his buddies have been cashing cheques while Pangos was cracking books.

Part of that is because the NBA hasn’t exactly been busting down his door. At six-foot-two and 182 lb., he’s bigger than a lot of point guards at the next level, but the position has evolved into something of a track meet, with athletes like Russell Westbrook running the anchor leg. Pangos’s skills and smarts have never been in doubt; his challenge will be proving he can catch lightning on a nightly basis. He remains determined. "I’d love to play in the NBA—100 percent it’s in my sights," he says. "More than anything I want to play basketball for a living, but I’m going to set my sights high, obviously, and aim for the NBA."

Whether he makes it to the NBA right out of school, has to make stops in Europe or never actually makes it to the league where Steve Nash—his childhood idol—set the bar for Canadian players, Pangos will have memories that only come from seeing something through to the end.

He dates Gonzaga soccer player Katey Pennington, a fellow senior. He’s completed required courses in philosophy and religion—"I’m not going to say I loved those but I think they helped me expand my knowledge and grow as a person"—and this May will graduate with a degree he’s geeked about: physical education with a fitness concentration and a minor in sports administration. "It just solidified that sports is what I want to do in my career when I’m finished playing," says Pangos. "No matter what that job in sports might be."

Being a four-year star at a school where basketball is by far the biggest game in town has other benefits. He’s learned to handle himself both in the traditional media and on social media. He’s part of a group of fiercely loyal alumni and plays pickup games with John Stockton, NBA Hall of Famer and the first in a long line of elite point guards who have suited up for the Bulldogs. It also means being recognized on Senior Night, the last home game at the Kennel, Gonzaga’s loud and partisan home arena. As many seniors before him have done, Pangos stood in the dark at the top of the Kennel Club, the rabid student section. And when the spotlight settled on him, he walked down from the top of the arena to the shining floor as his accomplishments were read aloud. It was a long list—Pangos ranks in the school’s all-time top 10 in eight categories. "The noise from the crowd was kind of warming," he says. "It made you feel that what you did in those four years was appreciated and had an impact on people’s lives, you’re recognized by the Gonzaga community."

In his arms were flowers for his mother, Patti, and his sister, Kayla, who came out of the tunnel to meet him at centre court along with his father, Bill. They cried. Pangos cried.

And the crowd roared an ovation that could only be four years in the making.

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