Gonzaga's Drew Timme lives for this March Madness moment

WCC Player of the Year Drew Timme averages 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and nearly three assists per game on a stacked Gonzaga team. Ian Allen for ESPN

WE'RE ALL FELLOW travelers winding our way through life's rich pageant, each of us tethered to our own stories and myths, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs' Drew Timme would like to hear all of them. Nearly everyone who has played with or against college basketball's most well-known player has a favorite story, even though most are unwilling to share details because, as one said, "It's stuff you don't want the kids hearing." There is no singular event that encapsulates the entirety of the Drew Timme experience, but here's one that comes closer than most.

It's about an hour before tipoff for an early season Gonzaga home game against Merrimack, and Timme plops his 6-foot-10 body onto a chair on the visitors bench, a couple of seats down from Merrimack coach Joe Gallo, who takes a look over his left shoulder and thinks, I know who you are, but you probably have no idea who I am.

"What's up, Coach?" Timme asks. "How was your trip?"

The coach is sitting on his own bench, minding his own business, a cup of coffee in his hand and a game against the best team in college basketball on his mind. He turns to Timme, thinks This is different, but says, "All good."

With the topic of Merrimack's cross-country travel out of the way, Timme moves on to the winter weather in Spokane, Washington. "You're probably used to the cold," Timme tells the visitor from Massachusetts, "but I'm from Dallas, so it's a little tough." Timme points to the coach's Styrofoam cup and asks him how many cups he drinks per day (two or three) and whether it tastes good (Gallo shrugs). Timme says he doesn't drink coffee and his coaches, knowing his personality, have discouraged him from ingesting caffeine in any form.

"Probably a good idea," Gallo says, and they both laugh.

Timme is the WCC Player of the Year and a finalist for national player of the year. On a team as talented and deep as Gonzaga's, it's hard to put up gaudy numbers, but Timme has merged his inside game with 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren -- with whom he was named a second-team All-American -- and still averages 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and nearly three assists. And he's always got time to chat.

Timme's teammates are working out on the floor at the McCarthey Athletic Center on this December day. Free throws, post moves, catch-and-shoot. Squeaks from shoes, leather bouncing, coaches coaching. It's that moment of serenity before the building fills and all hell breaks loose. Gallo is sitting here with his coffee -- and, now, Timme -- watching the Zags work and hoping against hope he can discern some hidden weakness his team, a 31-point underdog, can exploit. Timme has gone through his on-court routine and has decided it's more enriching to hang out over here on the bench with Coach Gallo.

"How are you guys looking so far?" Gallo asks Timme.

"We lost some really good guys," Timme says, referring to 2021 first-round NBA picks Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert, "but we have some young guys who are really good. We'll be fine once they learn how hard you have to compete to win the big games."

Gallo nods along, sips his coffee and ruminates on a couple of questions. First of all, what college player does this? And second, was this a player or a coach? "I felt like I was talking to Mark Few," Gallo says. "What an unbelievable kid."

Gallo learned what everyone who shares the earth with Timme either knows or will learn: the man talks. He talks from pregame to tipoff to buzzer, on the bench and at the free throw line and everywhere else, to anybody who will listen and to some who would rather not. "It's all fun," he says, "but if the conversation doesn't go well and people want to trash-talk, I can enjoy that as well." He talks to teammates and opponents, referees and fans, home and away. He talks about whatever comes to mind, some of it basketball-related, most not. ("Not talking s---," says teammate Andrew Nembhard. "More like shooting the s---.") There is a belief, whispered in Gonzaga circles, that Timme's loquaciousness contains a subtly subversive element. "I think he does it to drop their edge a little bit," says Few, his head coach. "He's crafty like that."

One of Timme's closest friends on the team, classmate Martynas Arlauskas, arrived from Lithuania with a simple idea about how basketball should be played: quietly, with dignity. The first game of his freshman year, he sat on the bench and watched his teammate defy that notion entirely.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, what are you doing?'" Arlauskas says. "Here is this guy who thinks he can just talk to the crowd in the middle of the game, and talk to the other team at the free throw line? This was weird to me."

Near the end of the Merrimack game, Timme kneels at the scorer's table next to Justin Connolly. Just a couple of guys, one a finalist for nearly every major award in college basketball, the other a backup forward for Merrimack, sharing a moment. Timme starts talking, about life or basketball or whatever -- the world is his canvas -- as the second half of a blowout trudges on in front of them. The ball goes out of bounds and the buzzer sounds, but before they take the court Timme tells Connolly, "I don't know how long you guys are in town, but we'll be at Jack and Dan's after the game if you want to join us."

Gallo lets the story hang there for an extra moment or two, just long enough to set up his punchline.

"Drew Timme's my kind of player," he says. "Kicks your ass during the game and buys you a beer after."

BEHOLD THE BIG man on campus, a species once thought to be extinct. He has reemerged wearing size-18 Uggs -- "Slippers," Few says. "In the snow" -- off the court and stroking his mustache and flexing his biceps in the faces of opposing crowds on it. His mother repeatedly tells him, "You'll never get these years back," and he is the living embodiment of that advice. He is one of the most efficient players in the college game, a junior center/power forward who can run his team's offense from outside the post or jab-step and pump-fake opponents into abject humiliation from within it. At a time when college basketball has been devalued, when the best players enroll with the idea of spending the least amount of time possible, Drew Timme is a guy who loves it so much he's not sure he wants it to end. He is, once again, primed to be the face -- and the facial hair -- of the NCAA tournament.

"Drew's a college guy," Few says. "He's made for this." And now, in ways only tangentially related to the court, college basketball is a game made for a guy like Timme.

He could have entered the NBA draft last spring, after Gonzaga lost its only game of the season to Baylor in the championship game. His draft prospects were, and are, difficult to determine, but his college prospects -- in this city, on this team, at the forefront of the Name-Image-Likeness revolution -- remain wildly promising.

Timme's personality and local recognition has resulted in endorsement deals with a local furniture store, a national mobile phone brand and, most notably, Northern Quest Resort & Casino. (There also will be tournament-timed Dollar Shave Club spots.) His agent, Deddrick Faison of Seven1 Sports & Entertainment Group, an agency geared toward NIL deals and founded by ex-NBA players Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady, says Timme's deals run well into six figures. "And I've turned down more than I can count," Faison says. "Not all money is good money."

The television spots for the casino run ceaselessly on the local channels. In them, Timme wears his Gonzaga uniform, including his trademark headband, and is paired with a balding, intentionally nerdy gambler played by local actor Mark Robbins, a high school teacher who has been the comedic face of Northern Quest for a decade. Timme's addition to the campaign has bumped Robbins' local stature -- something he calls "Spokane-famous" -- and increased the number of times the spots are repeated on local television, especially during games.

The series of commercials present Timme as Robbins' good-luck charm. He strokes Timme's mustache for luck -- "You kind of caressed it," Timme says in the spot -- and the gags unfold from there: In one, Timme repeatedly tells him to choose 2 (his jersey number) on the roulette wheel, and Robbins' character repeatedly refusing his advice, with predictable results. At the end, Timme tells him to pick 37 and Robbins asks, "Why not 2?"

(During the first day of filming, Timme flubbed his lines and couldn't stop laughing. Robbins asked him why it was so difficult. "I haven't read the script," Timme said. "My mom did, but I didn't." Robbins laughs, then pauses. "He'll probably kill me for telling you that.")

The ads are funny, in character and also unimaginable a year ago, the unholy commingling of every worst fear previously held by the NCAA: a college athlete making endorsement money ... from a casino ... with a sportsbook. Timme and I are sitting behind one of the baskets at McCarthey Athletic Center, and he's attempting to explain why he doesn't think it was controversial to sign a deal with an entity that happens to be one of the athletic department's biggest sponsors. Finally, after deciding -- for once -- that words couldn't do the job, he points to a spot on the court between the hash and the half-court line and says, "I mean, that's their logo right there."

HE KNOWS WHAT you're thinking. The mustache bit, the headband, the floppy hair, the flexing, the kisses blown toward crowd after crowd during win after win -- he's thinking it, too.

"Everyone calls it cocky or douchebaggy," he says. "I mean, I definitely see how it comes across that way, but I'm really just having fun and enjoying myself. It's genuine. It's not some persona, and I'm going to keep doing it. Honestly, it's just me living the most fun life, right?"

He dunked late in the first half against Pacific in Spokane and blew a kiss to former teammate and current Orlando Magic point guard Jalen Suggs, who had flown in for the game. Two nights later, against Saint Mary's, he ran through Gaels' center Matthias Tass, got a richly deserved offensive foul, turned to Tass and said, "You got me, damn it." At BYU, the loudest and most vicious crowd in the West Coast Conference, Timme brought the ball down the court only to find his body conducting a rebellion. His feet got all messed up, the ball leaked out of bounds and he fell to the floor like a garbage can falling out of a moving truck. He got up laughing and continued laughing as he went back to play defense. "I was like, of course I just totally ate s--- in front of these people. But it was funny, and then I looked over at Coach Few and he was about to blow a gasket so I was like, 'OK, I guess we might laugh about this later, but right now's not the time.'"

Few refers to Timme as "Union Rep" because, as Nembhard says, "Drew's always looking out for how tired people get, making sure Coach doesn't go too hard." On several occasions this year, Few has stopped practice to announce, "The union rep thinks practice is going a little long, guys. If we can finish this drill strong, we can end it. But if we can't, then the union rep no longer gets a vote."

Timme has a specially curated pregame handshake for, by my count, 14 teammates, six coaches, four ball boys and one Gonzaga student who joins the team for pregame introductions. That's 25 individualized handshakes that include various interlocking fingers and elaborate hand positions and minidances and some that involve no touching at all. There's a rock-paper-scissors choreography with Julian Strawther that gets repeated incessantly during the pregame layup line and a headbutt with freshman Joe Few, the coach's son. "I can't keep up with the handshakes," Arlauskas admits. "Another thing we don't do in Europe."

Assistant coach Brian Michaelson is all business, the kind of guy who speaks the way a fullback runs: directly, always pushing forward. He let it be known that he wanted nothing to do with finger-taps or elbow bumps or any other silliness. "He's not about the antics," Timme says, and so Timme goes down the line, from one craft handshake to the next, before stopping in front of Michaelson. He clears the smile from his face, straightens up and looks Michaelson dead in the eyes before proceeding with a stern, heavy-handed businessman's handshake.

"He knows better," Michaelson says. "I've known him long enough not to be dumb enough to have a special handshake."

Before a game toward the end of his freshman year, none of the principles can remember which one, Timme was making his way toward the pregame handshake line when he detected something different in his head coach's bearing. "Does Mark Few want a fist bump?" Timme thought. Instead of a fist bump, though, Timme decided to go for it: he leaped into the air and chest-bumped the diminutive Few, knocking him back in a manner consistent with physical laws regarding 235 pounds of accelerating flesh slamming into an inert and unsuspecting 170. "I caught him off-guard," Timme says, "but I think he kind of liked it." Megan Timme, watching from the stands, gasped in a uniquely maternal way, convinced her son had just chest-bumped his way into some community college somewhere. Instead, the Timme-Few chest bump has become tradition, partly because the Zags have lost only four times in the 60-plus games the chest bump -- which, honestly, remains about 95 percent Timme, 5 percent Few -- has been employed.

"He's got a lot of stuff going on pregame," Few says, his words dry enough to spark a fire. "I would probably just prefer he focus in on our game plan and our defensive coverages and offensive sets."

THE ZAGS ARE huddled in the tunnel in the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. They are about 20 minutes away from playing BYU, and 19,000 people, nearly all of them hostile to their cause, await them on the other side. But for whatever reason, Gonzaga is having a hard time getting amped up.

Their motivational efforts are half-hearted, at best. There are fans and media wandering around the huddle, making it awkward, and when someone yells that it's time to go out there and shut all those fans up, it is so inorganic it causes some laughter from the edges of the huddle.

But while the teams were going through their layup lines minutes before tip, music boomed from the arena's massive speakers and the video boards began to show a highlight reel of BYU's 2020 win over Gonzaga. Most of the Gonzaga players ignored it, but Timme stopped, looked up to watch for a few seconds and became visibly agitated. In the stands his father, Matt, a former power forward at SMU, looked down at his son and said to Megan, "Oh, boy -- here we go."

Timme loves to play at BYU. He loves that the fans hate him, that they ride him incessantly, that there are just so damned many of them. And this ... this video ... this insult ... well, it provided whatever motivation might have been lacking seconds ago in that tunnel. Timme went from teammate to teammate, pointing to the board. "Are y'all going to let them disrespect us and be ignorant on us? Let's shut these guys up."

A week later, sitting in Gonzaga's empty arena, the 33-point humbling of BYU receding into the distance, he still can't let it go. "That was so ignorant," he says. "I looked up and saw that video and thought, 'Y'all haven't done anything since then.' Maybe if you beat us this year you could do that, but we 30-balled y'all twice. Yeah, you beat us when we were No. 1 or No. 2, and I'm sure that was a cool experience for y'all, but I wouldn't play that if I were you."

And just like that, there it was: Timme morphing from the self-aware, curious, laid-back goofball to the fierce competitor. At J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, coach Marc Johnson at times found it difficult to keep Timme motivated. Drew and his family chose to remain in the local public high school instead of succumbing to the entreaties of the private schools and basketball academies, which meant Timme was able to go to the prom and be a kid with his neighborhood friends. It also meant there was no one on his high school team to challenge him in practice.

"I knew there was one way I could get his attention," Johnson says. "Tell him we're keeping score. That always lit him up."

Timme played for Jermaine O'Neal's Drive Nation AAU program in the summers, and he'd walk into gyms wearing his headband and a shooting sleeve and his Uggs and hear the snickers. "They'd look at me and say, 'Nah, this guy's not that good. He looks like a goofy white kid at the rec.' And then you go out there and just kick people's asses. There's no better feeling."

His one-on-one work with O'Neal helped Timme develop the intricate footwork -- O'Neal compares him favorably to Hakeem Olajuwon in that regard -- necessary to counter his more modest athletic ability. "God's honest truth, there are guys in the NBA right now that Drew Timme destroyed in high school," O'Neal says. "He was maybe my favorite kid ... no, he was my favorite kid I ever coached. We had really good players on that team -- Drew, Jahmi'us Ramsey, Tyrese Maxey -- but Drew was my favorite because he was so coachable. I would dig into him to see what his response would be. You've got to run faster. I need you to go harder. He never said, 'Coach, you don't understand.' It was always, 'Got you, Coach.'"

Since deciding to return to Gonzaga, Timme has worked on the two deficiencies he heard most frequently from NBA scouts: on-ball defense and 3-point shooting. "I have a lot of room to grow in both," he says, "but the progress I've made is promising, and shows I'm OK with working on things I suck at, even if it's not always fun. I might not be the ideal lottery pick, but I get things done. That's something I take pride in: I'm my own player."

His life's work takes place in the post; by the time he receives the ball, he knows the move he's going to make, the move off the move if the first one doesn't work, and the number of jab steps it'll take for all of this to be accomplished. He's the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once post player.

"Sometimes he'll make a move and I'll think, Three years, and I've never seen that one," Michaelson says, to which Timme says, "Sometimes I think I have too many moves."

He returned to school for a lot of reasons: to get better, to bask in the BMOC lifestyle, maybe even to cash in on the NIL deal. But he was the one who gathered his dazed teammates on the court after the title-game loss to Baylor to tell them to remember the horrible feeling but never forget the achievements that led up to it. And he was the one who, in the wake of the loss, says he was bombarded with hate -- and even death threats -- on social media. "Stupid stuff," he says. "If you would say that to my face, I would respect you, don't just make a fake account and tweet it. At the end of the day, bro, I'm really just a kid playing a game."

That experience is still in there, latent, waiting for a redemptive run over the next three weeks. He might live in the moment, but April 4, the day of this year's title game, looms. In the postgame interview session after Gonzaga's home win over Saint Mary's, Timme was told that his career shooting percentage against the Gaels is close to 80%, a fact he already knew. "Is there something you like about playing Saint Mary's?" he was asked. "Is there something you like about playing against Matthias Tass?"

He shrugged.

"I just enjoy kicking ass."

THIRTY-THREE MINUTES before one of the biggest games of the year, Timme and Arlauskas are taking half-court shots, to the delight of the student section. Their teammates are in their locker room, the Saint Mary's players are in theirs. The idea is to shoot until of them makes it and is declared the winner. This scene, performed before every game, home and away, makes me think about two statements: Few lamenting all the stuff Timme packs into his pregame routine, and Timme's mom talking about the years you'll never get back.

"This is what I love," Drew says. "I've met so many people and made so many friends because of basketball. I've gotten to experience different cultures and interact with people you would never see without the game. Everyone has the same end goal, but that doesn't mean we can't go out there and have fun while you compete."

But this half-court shooting operation, while fun, is taking some time. Most of Timme's shots smack off the backboard and roll back toward him. The fans, however, remain fixated. Timme passes to Arlauskas by play-acting various sports: a soccer player (no hands), a quarterback, something involving his head that might be a circus seal? (For all the joy Timme extracts from the process, he is not particularly good at this exercise; the backboard might never be the same.) Finally, Arlauskas banks one home and immediately sprints toward the locker room, Timme in hot pursuit, filled with mock anger, the crowd bouncing with delight.

Where else do you get this? It's Saturday night in Spokane, the building's rocking, the Zags are two days away from returning to the No. 1 ranking in the nation. The day before, Timme and his teammates delivered pizza to the students in the Tent City outside the arena. And now Timme and his buddy, a guy who rarely plays, are out here goofing publicly, to the adulation of their peers.

Timme loves the game, the back-and-forth, the repeated opportunity to enjoy the time-honored pleasures of kicking ass. He loves his school and his teammates and even his opponents, just not BYU. He ordered a new pair of size-18 Uggs slippers -- red this time, sure to rankle his mom -- that's due to arrive any day now. It's a near-certainty one of his casino commercials is playing on one of the local stations. He and his buddy get to stand at half court and play the roles of warm-up-act comedians before games. He can think of worse things than doing this one same thing for as long as possible. These are the years he'll never get back, sure, but they're here now, and whatever comes next has a big job ahead of it.