ANAHEIM, Calif. — MacDaniel Graff lay in a hospital bed in Spokane, Wash., his back broken, his body paralyzed from the waist down. He didn’t know when he might go home, or how he would reconfigure his life, or where he would go to school. He did know he’d never walk again.
This was 2014, and while Mac welcomed a steady stream of visitors during his month-long stay at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, he didn’t expect half the Gonzaga basketball team to walk through his door. But there they were. Coach Mark Few. Kevin Pangos. Domantas Sabonis. And a freshman named Josh Perkins, who had broken his jaw and was out for the year. The players stayed in touch, commented on his social media posts and sent him videos after victories.
“Gonzaga,” Mac says, “has always been like family.”
That’s true. Mac was two years old when his uncle, Dan Monson, elevated a small Jesuit school with little basketball tradition into the Elite Eight in 1999. Those Zags were an original Cinderella, before the chartered flights and the big-money shoe contracts and the new arena, before Gonzaga became Gonzaga, worthy of italics. Before the Bulldogs became something more like Duke, or North Carolina; a perennial contender, part of the madness every March.
Mac isn’t old enough to remember that team, but he knows it well. He read stories about that magical season growing up and watched highlight montages on YouTube. He even has a poster from those days. It reads: Zagnificent. He watched some of those clips again this week, as the Bulldogs advanced in the West Region, topping Florida State to reach the regional final, where they will face Texas Tech on Saturday afternoon. Every time he watched one, goosebumps dotted both his arms.
He hasn’t thought a lot about the symmetry, how 20 years after the original Zags run, the nephew of the coach who basically started the basketball tradition at Gonzaga is now a student manager, how the family is back in the Elite Eight. But his uncle has considered all of that. Monson spent Wednesday around the team, attending practice, viewing film sessions, and what most struck him was how little had changed in 20 years. “Mac is almost a poster child for what’s happened with Gonzaga basketball and its culture,” Monson says. “It’s about family. And he’s family. Mark treated him like one of his own kids.”
Mac needed them. He grew up in Pasco, a two-hour drive from Spokane, as part of a brood devoted to Gonzaga basketball. He played baseball, basketball and football at Chiawana High School, and in his junior season, in September 2014, he compiled perhaps the best football performance of his life. He didn’t score a touchdown or anything like that, but the film didn’t lie. He made almost no mistakes as Chiawana battered Wenatchee in a 42–7 win.
His father, Steve Graff, was Mac’s football coach and hunting buddy. They stalked deer, elk—whatever was in season—and each weekend they headed east to hunt.
The day after the Wenatchee win, Mac settled into a tree stand in the woods. He saw a deer meander into view and, next thing he knew, fell backward. He landed on the ground, on his back, after a 15-foot drop. “My legs just felt like they were expanding, about to explode,” he says. “It felt like someone had a knife in my back, just holding it there.” Mac had fractured two vertebrae and dislodged his spinal cord. He didn’t want to yell for anybody; he didn’t want to ruin their hunt.
Surgery lasted for five hours. Already, support had started to pour in. The community helped the Graff family renovate their house. Someone started a rallying cry: #GraffStrong. Mac never lost his positivity; he hardly complained. “It sucks and all,” he says. “But I just went with it.”
Mac had to learn an entire new life, how to shower and move and yes, play sports, without being able to use his legs. Not even six months after he fell, Mac was competing in track and field for his high school—javelin, discus and shot put—against other disabled athletes in Washington state. He went to community college. Helped his father with the football team.
At one game, he ran into … Mark Few. The coach asked Mac what he was up to. He said he was thinking about his next step, a four-year college.
“You gotta come to GU,” Few said.
Mac was accepted. In his first day on campus, he went by Few’s office. The coach asked him what he wanted to do, told Mac he wanted him around.
“Manager would be cool,” Mac said.
“I’ll hook you up,” Few responded.
Mac ran the clock during practices. He helped with laundry, with water, with whatever the coaches needed. He kept statistics during games. He befriended his neighbor, who lives in the apartment across the hall: Perkins, now in his redshirt senior season. Perkins says every time he sees Mac that Mac is happy, and because Mac is always happy, Perkins tries to take a few less things for granted. He says Mac is one of his best friends. “Next time you see him ask him who wins when we wrestle,” Perkins says. “I’ll be tearing him up.” Fake news, Mac calls that.
He’s a junior now, majoring in sports management, in his second season as a manager with the basketball team. He can drive. He went tubing last summer. He still hunts, using an off-road wheelchair. He shot a bear. Yes, a bear. And he swims. And snorkels. He even has a specially-made golf cart that allows him to hit the links, whenever the snow finally melts in Spokane. He’s not limited, not any more than he allows himself to be. “It’s a sad story, but he made it a great story,” Monson says.
That’s also true. On the Tuesday before the Sweet 16, Monson and Few ate dinner together and Monson thanked the coach for what he had done for Monson’s nephew. Few told him that thank you wasn’t needed. He loved Mac’s energy. He wants Mac around.
Perhaps this story comes full circle in a little over a week. Maybe Gonzaga wins the national title, 20 years after Monson started this unfathomable run, with his nephew near the bench. As the coach at Long Beach State, Monson will be in the stands at the Honda Center on Saturday, watching his friend coach and his nephew track statistics, and he’ll see what Mac has always seen.
That Gonzaga has always been like family.