ANAHEIM, Calif. — Pat Gasser would pile up the pillows at one end of the room before dropping to his knees and acting as a human roadblock in front of them.
He knew he had to brace for contact when his 4-year-old son came running at him, football in hand, because the boy rarely tried to go around him. To get to that imaginary end zone line in front of the pillows, little Joshua Patrick Gasser was either going to attempt to dive over his father or, more likely, lower his head and try to ram through him.
“This might embarrass Josh, but he’d end up in tears sometimes because my husband wouldn’t just automatically let him win,” Joan Gasser said. “He’d just be slamming into Pat and grunting and groaning the whole way to get the necessary yards. It was a ridiculous game.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d be yelling from the next room, ‘For the love of God, let him win to get this game over with.’ ”
Some kids might have eventually walked away from the situation and found some cartoons to watch or toys to play with. But not Josh. He wouldn’t quit.
Today, he is a fourth-year junior guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, which plays Baylor in an NCAA tournament West regional semifinal tonight at the Honda Center.
While Gasser is often overlooked by people outside the program because he’s the only starter not averaging double figures in scoring, he’s universally admired in the locker room and by coaches because he’s so tough, gritty and competitive. UW coach Bo Ryan loves players with moxie, which is why Gasser has been a fixture in the lineup since he arrived in Madison.
What Gasser does is “vital for this team,” UW assistant coach Lamont Paris said. “I don’t think we’re here without him doing that. He’s the leader in those categories. I just think that guys see him doing stuff like that … and they’re inspired a little bit more.”
Ready for action
Ask those closest to Gasser about his will to win and they’ll tell you he’s always been that way.
The Gassers are a competitive family — warning: it’s best to steer clear of them after a Green Bay Packers loss — but the youngest of Pat and Joan’s four children takes it to a different level.
“We just don’t like to lose,” said Becky Plier, the first born of Josh’s three older sisters. “But Josh definitely is by far the most competitive of all of us. And he always has been since he was a kid. It’s kind of insane, actually.
“He took losses very personal. It didn’t matter how good he played. If they lost in any sport — T-ball even — it was hard on him. He wanted to win that bad.”
It was clear from an early age that sports were going to be Josh’s thing. Pat and Joan would wake up on Saturday mornings to the sounds of a basketball being dribbled in the living room or a tennis ball being thrown up against the wall.
Joan remembers playing the role of catcher/umpire in the backyard with Josh serving as the pitcher. He was maybe 6 years old at the time and, according to Joan, “would get really upset if balls were called or, God forbid, he ‘walked’ the imaginary batter.”
Pat, a former wrestler and football player, wanted to instill toughness in his only son, which is why he made Josh work for every touchdown in that pillow football game and every basket when they were in the basement playing one-on-one on the Little Tikes basketball hoop. Along the way, there were stitches and even a broken arm as Josh went all out to beat his father.
“I was the only boy in our family, he had three girls before me, so I think he was probably pretty excited that I came along,” Gasser said. “Competing with him, I never wanted to lose. There was nothing that was going to let me lose to him. Looking back on it, he could have beaten me whenever he wanted to. He sometimes let me win and, when I didn’t win, I would definitely be in a bad mood. I think it definitely toughened me up.”
Gasser was always in a position of leadership while usually playing against kids a year older than him until he arrived at Port Washington High School. He was the point guard on the basketball team, the quarterback on the football team and the shortstop on the baseball team.
Adam Prom, Gasser’s childhood friend, said his buddy’s toughness was always on display. When Gasser would get sacked, he’d pick himself up off the field and return to the huddle as if nothing ever happened. When Gasser came up with a bad case of food poisoning after the basketball team’s visit to a Chinese restaurant, he bounced back from the sickness and played well in a game two days later.
“Obviously, I always hated losing, but he always kind of wore it on his sleeve a little more,” Prom said. “But he would always bounce back. He’d probably have his best practices the day after (losses).”
Long road back
It was rare for Gasser to miss a practice in any sport, Joan said, because he would fight through pain or an illness to show up.
Which is why last season was so devastating to Gasser, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and damaged the lateral collateral ligament and meniscus two days after Ryan had officially named him the team’s starting point guard.
Joan was at home that Saturday morning — Oct. 27, 2012 — when she got a call from UW team trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
“I don’t even remember saying hello to him,” Joan said. “I think I just said, ‘What is it?’ I just knew something was wrong. Slowly, Henry told me, ‘We’re on our way to the hospital and I have Josh with me. In my mind, in those two seconds, I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, don’t say it.’ And then he said it. ‘It’s his ACL.’ ”
Pat and Joan made their way from Port Washington to Madison, trying to make sense of it all.
“We’re a family that we always tell our kids and tell each other that things happen for a reason,” Pat said. “On our way to Madison, we just kept saying, ‘What do we say? We always say things happen for a reason, well why would this happen? What would be the reason for something like this happening?’ It was weird.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Gasser started working his way back. But it was a long season, and Gasser hated watching as the Badgers went 23-12 and lost their NCAA tournament opener to Mississippi.
“He was very close with that senior class,” Joan said. “He was just looking forward to the whole season and it was just really, really a blow. It took a long time to wrap your mind around it.”
Nobody, not even his biggest fans, expected Gasser to play as much — or as well — as he did this season. He’s averaging 9.2 points per game and is shooting a team-high 45.6 percent from 3-point range and was also named to the Big Ten Conference all-defensive team for the second time in his career.
“I know he’s a tough kid, I know he doesn’t give up,” Pat said. “So I knew deep down he would do whatever he could to get back on the floor and get playing time. But I never imagined this.”
When the Badgers take the floor tonight, Gasser will be playing in his 106th career game and making his 92nd career start. He’s already 10th all-time at UW in minutes played with 3,342.
It’s also not a coincidence UW has advanced to the Sweet 16 in each of the three seasons Gasser has played. At this time of the season, toughness, grit and moxie are more important than ever.
But the losses in those regional semifinals — to Butler in 2011 and Syracuse the following year — still stick in Gasser’s craw. It’s why his will to win is stronger than ever, why he’ll be willing to do whatever it takes to help UW get past Baylor and reach the Elite Eight.
“Teams are so good at this point,” Gasser said. “You’ve got to make some shots, but really you’ve got to play harder, you’ve got to want it more.
“You can’t be satisfied with only making the Sweet 16. I’ve made two already, and that’s great, but I definitely want a lot more and I think this team is special.”
“I know he’s a tough kid, I know he doesn’t give up. So I knew deep down he would do whatever he could to get back on the floor and get playing time. But I never imagined this.” — PAT GASSER,