Rem Bakamus has an uncanny knack for finding the best seat in the house during college basketball’s biggest games.
On Monday night, he’ll take up his spot behind the Baylor men’s basketball team’s bench as a graduate assistant coach while the Bears take on Gonzaga for the National Championship. And if Rem gives off the impression that he’s been there before, it’s because he has. It’s just that he was suiting up for Gonzaga as a player in 2017 the last time he was courtside for the final song of the big dance.
The son of longtime Mark Morris boy’s basketball coach, Bill Bakamus, Rem has spent more time roaming the sideline of basketball courts both near and far than nearly anyone his age. At first, before he grew into his feet, Rem was a reliable presence at the Monarchs’ home games and practices where he rounded up basketballs and heaved shots from his hip while helping to curate the family environment that envelopes the King’s Court beneath all of those baby blue banners hung on from the walls of their home gymnasium.
After a high school career in which he racked up personal accolades and helped the Monarchs maintain their decades long tradition of success on the hardwood, Rem made an outsized jump to the college ranks. Eschewing other offers that might have promised more playing time, Rem opted to head to Gonzaga where he earned a spot on the roster as a walk-on. And while the former Monarch was able to carve out a handful of opportunities to flash his game at the Division 1 level, he found an even more memorable way to endear himself to the home crowd and diehard basketball fans everywhere when he earned national notoriety for his end of the bench antics.
Today, Rem is as famous for his “three goggles” and his sideline air shredding on the “three-tar” as anything else. The latter celebration has even been memorialized in GIF format across social media platforms. As a result, Rem may very well be the most famous bench player the college ranks have ever known. His energy and enthusiasm for the game has even helped to bring together a nationwide fraternity of walk-on players who have taken his example and used it to fully embrace their unsung status at the highest level of the college game.
On Saturday, in Indianapolis, Rem once again found himself sitting nearly front and center for some of college basketball’s most thrilling moments in recent memory. First, Baylor was able to defeat Houston 78-59 in the Final Four to advance to the National Championship game.
But the Bears didn’t know yet who they were going to play. They’d have to wait one more unforgettable game, plus an overtime period, to find that out. And with Gonzaga facing off against UCLA in that second act of the Final Four, Bakamus found himself in a strange position just three years after turning in his blue and red gear for an assortment of green and gold.
So, when Jalen Suggs banked home a 40-footer at the end of overtime to give Gonzaga a 93-90 win over the Bruins in a game that went down as an instant classic to wo all who saw it, Bakamus found himself in a curious frame of mind. All at once he was overjoyed for the success of his alma mater while simultaneously thinking ahead to figure out how best to ruin their perfect run through the 2021 season.
“I was really happy for those guys,” Bakamus said. “I always want them to win until we play them.”
Bakamus noted that he was mostly grateful that Baylor had played in the early game so that he could let his hair down (figuratively speaking, since he’s since shorn his famous locks from his Gonzaga days) and simply enjoy the spectacle of sport that the Zags and Bruins put on display.
“I was happy we played the first game, that’s for sure,” Bakamus explained. “Then you don’t have to worry so much.”
If there’s been one common theme over the last 13 months of uncharted territory it’s been the prevalence of worry in the face of a life-altering pandemic. The onset of COVID-19 last spring cost college basketball the opportunity to run their paramount event, the 64 team tournament to decide a champion, but that shocking cancellation also paved the way for Monday’s marquee matchup between Rem’s former team and his new squad.
Specifically, the COVID-19 pause on regular activities also opened the door for Rem to return to Baylor for an extra season. Typically, graduate assistant gigs last just two seasons, but when the 2020 campaign came to an early end, Bakamus signed up to return for a third season on the staff in an effort to help attain the goal their team had been saying out loud since at least the summer of 2019.
“We’ve got such a great group of guys and this has sort of been the mission since I met them,” Bakamus said. “Last year, obviously, COVID robbed us of our chance so to see them come out and perform like this has been amazing.”
Earlier this season COVID-19 again threw a wrench in highly anticipated plans when a couple of positive tests in the Gonzaga traveling party forced the last-minute cancellation of a Baylor versus Gonzaga matchup in early December. Then, as now, the teams came in ranked number one and number two in the nation and college basketball fans the world over have been looking forward to another opportunity to see the top two teams tango.
“Now that we’re here it feels like it was supposed to be,” Bakamus said. “We felt like the only way we’d get to play them is to make the Natty so, God bless, here we are.”
And, against all odds, the local ties to the National championship game are not limited to just the crowned prince of the Monarchs. That’s because Kelso’s Tommy Lloyd, whom Bakamus refers to as “The Legend”, is an assistant coach for Gonzaga.
“It’s Longview versus Kelso in the Natty,” Bakamus said. “Tommy played at Kelso way back. My dad coached against him when he first got to Mark Morris.”
Lloyd, a 1993 graduate of Kelso High School, went on to play at Walla Walla CC before transferring to finish out his playing days at Whitman College. Now in his 20th season on the bench with head coach Mark Few, Lloyd has been on the bench at the tournament in 19 of those campaigns.
Still, with all of those connections and relationships to complicate matters, Bakamus has been doing everything he can to keep things simple.
“It’s no different than any other game. You scout and you prepare,” Bakamus said Sunday afternoon following the Bears’ team shootaround. “I try to help anywhere I can, in any kind of role, but ultimately it comes down to our players.”
As a graduate assistant, Bakamus can regularly be found cutting up film in preparation for team study sessions. Once those clips are put in order and filed away for the rest of the players and coaching staff to peruse at their leisure, Rem makes sure to be available to any players who want to get on the court for a one-on-one workout, or simply to chase down rebounds for guys looking to get up extra shots.
This season Baylor’s bench players have even earned national recognition for their high energy and their sometimes over-the-top celebrations. And while that bench culture may be reminiscent of Bakamus’ time shredding the air guitar on the end of the Gonzaga bench, he was quick to dismiss any notion that he’s responsible for instilling that All-American reserve ethos.
“Nah, we just have a fun bunch of guys who love each other and want to see their guys succeed,” Bakamus said.
Of course, coaches are always coaching even when they don’t realize it. That’s something that Rem learned firsthand while growing up under the direction of a father who has racked up more than 500 wins at the high school varsity level and is already enshrined in the Washington coaches hall of fame.
“I think my dad is my biggest inspiration in my life, especially when it comes to coaching. His ability to get guys to play hard and yet still criticize them,” Rem said. “Playing for him was never easy but it was always amazing just to see his ability to create a culture in Longview, Washington.”
And while Rem learned directly from one of the best coaches the area has ever had, he hasn’t yet become a carbon copy of his father’s all-encompassing and oftentimes overwhelming coaching style. For instance, Rem insists he’s never told a player that “Life is like a bicycle. You have to keep pedaling or you’ll fall off.” And he’s never found it necessary to remind Baylor’s players that, “In the fields of opportunity it’s plowing time again.”
“I think I’ll leave my dad’s quotes on his practice plan board for the most part,” Bakamus said while counting down the hours to the season finale. “But I did tell them that, ‘The hay is in the barn.’”
As any Mark Morris basketball alumnus can tell you, when the hay is in the barn it’s “Green Rivers for everybody.”
Before they start popping bottles, though, Baylor will have to take down an undefeated Gonzaga team that has vaulted the program from overachieving darling status to tournament favorites. It’s an achievement that Bakamus has been happy to observe, even if his ultimate goal is to ruin the Zags’ storybook run.
“I wasn’t going to learn from a better coaching staff than being at Gonzaga and ultimately the relationships I made there have put me in this position,” Bakamus said. “Going there taught me so much about the game of basketball and it’s made such a difference in my life.”
Monday night was likely going to be Bakamus’ final game on the sideline with Baylor but he isn’t planning on leaving the D1 ranks behind anytime soon. His hope is to latch on somewhere as a full fledged assistant coach, like Lloyd, before next season with a goal of becoming a D1 head coach himself someday.
For now, though, he’s simply enjoying the ride and marveling at the intersection of his roots in the game as they all come together in one final game for all the marbles.
“I take Longview with me everywhere I go,” Bakamus said. “It’s an honor to be able to represent Longview and Mark Morris on the biggest stage.”