MISSOULA — Montana men’s basketball player Trever Spoja has hung up his sneakers after three years with the Griz.
The legacy walk-on player decided in April that he would focus on school as a senior at Montana as he’s on pace to graduate with a business marketing degree in May. He finished his career with 19 points, four assists, three rebounds and one block in 75 minutes.
Spoja is the son of former Griz Chris Spoja, who scored 1,111 points from 1993 to 1997. He moved around as a child as his dad chased pro basketball and arena football opportunities. He spent his first three years of high school in Boise, and he graduated from Billings West in 2015. He was the lone player from the state who was on the Griz or Cats this past season.
Spoja is currently doing a summer internship with the Albertson’s marketing department at their headquarters in Boise. The Missoulian caught up with him for a conversation reflecting on his decision to leave, his time playing for the team he grew up rooting for and what’s next for him.
Q: How did you come to the decision to leave the basketball team?
A: It was largely a financial decision for me. It was pretty difficult for me to take out loans as well as play basketball and not have a job. That played a big factor into it. This internship I have in Boise, I think it’s going to be a strong resume builder. I felt like between those two factors, that it was the best decision for me to focus on school and not coming out with a ton of student debt and build my resume while I do it.
Q: How tough of a decision was it to leave the team?
A: That was one of the most emotionally taxing decisions I’ve ever made. It’s been a dream, watching my dad play for the Griz growing up and always being part of the Grizzly family. Getting to finally do it and have it cut short was a really tough decision. I think in the end it’ll probably be the best for me, but it was not easy to make by any means.
Q: How would you sum up and describe your time at Montana?
A: Being a part of that culture, the Montana Grizzly Way — if you could say it that way — is different. To be a part of that is really special. To live a dream that I’ve had since I was 3 years old will be some of the best experiences I’ll ever have in my life. I’ll be forever grateful to have had an opportunity to be a part of that.
Q: What did it mean to you to wear a Griz jersey for the past three years?
A: It was pretty surreal. It never really kicks in when you’re in the moment. Once that moment’s gone, you feel how heavy it was. It was a lifetime dream, and to be able to live that dream for three years, you can’t ask for much else.
Q: Has it hit you yet that you’re done?
A: I think it hit me when these guys started workouts in the spring and I wasn’t part of it. It was tough. You have to take a step back and look and realize what’s best for yourself. It hit me then, I’d say. That’s not easy for sure.
Q: Especially when you’re living with three other players, right?
A: Yeah, and I’ll be living with Bob (Moorehead) and Mike (Oguine) for the next year. I think it’ll be nice for me because I won’t lose any connections. These guys are like my brothers. I’ll never feel like I’m not friends with them because I’m not on the team anymore. The bonds I’ve built will definitely stay forever, I think.
Q: What moments are going to stand out the most?
A: My very first game, I was a redshirt on the bench. I was going nuts for that Boise State game. To be able to beat a Mountain West school and be in that position and to do it in front of a sellout crowd, that was really cool. That was one of my favorite moments, along with this year’s Big Sky tournament. Between that Northern Colorado game and Eastern Washington, those moments will stick with me forever. That’s for sure.
Q: Did you grow up a Boise State fan in addition to be a Griz fan since you spent some time there?
A: I would say I’m always a Griz fan first, but I grew up going to a lot Boise State football and basketball games. I would cheer for them as long as the matchup was right. If Griz played Boise, I was rooting for the Griz. But it was cool to beat them, a team I watched growing up.
Q: You mentioned UNC. What were you thinking when they had the two free throws in the tie game with one second left?
A: I was absolutely scared out of my mind. At the same time, I’ve always had confidence in these guys. As long as there’s time left on the clock, I thought we’d be able to pull it out. I felt like whoever had the ball last, it was meant to be on that night. I thought even if he did hit one of those free throws, we’d find a way to get the game to end our way.
Q: What was the NCAA tournament experience like for you?
A: It’s really cool to go into the NCAA tournament as an underdog. You’d prefer to get the highest seed possible, but when you are the underdog, it feels like you have the whole arena rooting for you, especially at a neutral site. To hear there’s a Montana Grizzlies chant going throughout the arena and there’s probably only like 75 people that made the trip from Missoula to Wichita, that was really cool. That’s a dream for any kid growing up to play in March Madness. I’m grateful to have been able to do that.
Q: Did you see what happened when (head coach) Travis (DeCuire) slipped toward the end of the (NCAA tournament) game?
A: That was pretty popular on Twitter. It was a tough moment because we were losing. I think we were down double digits. You know Travis is never going to stop coaching, no matter what the score is. He was all fired up. He just took one wrong step. He had a similar situation in the Virgin Islands when he was out on the court trying to get the attention of somebody and found himself in the middle of a fast break not expecting it. That’s the kind of guy Travis is. He puts his heart out there on the floor, whether he’s there or not.
Q: You wore No. 15 your first two years and then changed to No. 13 this past season. Why change, and did either of those have a special meaning to you?
A: I originally was given 22 the summer of my freshman year. That year, Zach Camel, JR Camel’s nephew, came on the team, and JR Camel wore 22, so I gave Zach 22 and switched over to 15, which didn’t have much meaning to me, but I kept it just because. When Jamar (Akoh) came, he had been wearing 15 for a long time. He asked if I was willing to switch with him. 15 didn’t really have much sentimental value, and I was able to switch over to 13, which was my favorite player of all-time, Steve Nash. If there’s a number that doesn’t mean much to me and means something to someone else, I was always willing to give it to them.
Q: Did either of the guys give you something in exchange for changing numbers? You sometimes here about that in pro sports.
A: No. I didn’t ask for anything in return. I should have. In hindsight, that would have been a good idea. But I was willing to give it to those guys. Those guys are my brothers. I would feel bad about myself if I asked them for anything in return.
Q: You probably knew coming in as a walk-on that playing minutes wouldn’t be huge. What kept you going the past three years?
A: It was always a dream to play for the Griz, so that was what got me there. I had other opportunities at the NAIA level and D-II. I felt that if I didn’t at least give it a shot, I’d always regret it. These past three years, I knew nothing was going to be given and I’d have to go take everything. I felt I had some opportunities that I didn’t do exactly what I should have done. I felt like I left it all out on the floor. I feel like everything I got was deserved. I don’t ever blame Travis for not enough playing time. That was all on me. There’s no hard feelings. What kept me going was the pride of the program. I understood even if I wasn’t playing, there were other things I could do to contribute and help this team win. I tried to do everything I could.
Q: What were some of those opportunities where you felt you left things on the table?
A: The one that sticks out the most is when we played Pitt and I got the first-half time and made a mistake of not shooting the ball when I had already jumped up to shoot it. I think I was a little rattled going into my first real minutes playing Pitt. It didn’t work out exactly how I planned. It didn’t look very good. That’s a big moment that stuck out to me. Even though it didn’t work out playing time-wise, there’s definitely no regrets on my side of the table. I assume there’s probably none on the coaches’ side either. The relationship I got to build with the program has been far worth it.
Q: So no regrets with playing time, but do you have any regrets about walking on when maybe you could have used that time for something else for school, work or personal stuff?
A: None at all. To do what I’ve been able to do these past three years is more than I could ever ask for. If I could have kept going, I absolutely would have. The opportunity I had and the experiences I got being a part of this program, it’s priceless.
Q: Your dad played here and your mom went here. When did you first realize that he played for the Griz?
A: I was there when my dad won the Big Sky Conference at Northern Arizona. I got to watch them play Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. My family has some great photos with my dad holding me with the net around my neck. That was possibly what sparked my whole dream of playing.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was 1-2 years old. Not old enough to remember but I was able to look back at the pictures and go like, ‘This is something I want to be a part of.’
Q: I was looking at some numbers earlier. Did you know you and your dad combined to score 1,130 points at Montana? That’s got to be pretty cool to tell some people.
A: Yeah, there you go. As long as we don’t get too far into the details of that, I’m OK with that.
Q: Did you give any thought or been asked about being a student manager?
A: There wasn’t a ton of talk about that. I think I needed a break from basketball to be able to fully come to terms with everything. I talked to Travis about doing a job within the team that wouldn’t involve me there every day because that’s a big time commitment. Right now, I just need to focus on all my studies and be able to get back on track to where I want to be at.
Q: Do you plan to attend any games as a fan?
A: My goal is to be at every game to support these guys. This is my family still, whether I’m on the team or not. I would love to be there for every game that I possibly can be. That’s absolutely my goal.
Q: When was the last time you went to a Griz game as a fan?
A: Not since I was really young. It’ll definitely be a different experience. I haven’t been in the stands since I was 2 or 3. It’ll be a little different not being able to do celebrations with the guys on the bench or not having to be there two hours early before the game.
Q: Do you think you’d get on some of the guys during the games, yelling at them from the stands?
A: No, you know Travis wouldn’t put up with that.
Q: Any desire to stay around basketball going forward?
A: In the future, I’d love to coach camps or help out with anything like that. I don’t know if I’m built to be a coach. I’m not mean enough to yell at kids or anyone. I don’t know if coaching necessarily is in my future. I’d love to help young kids grow to love the game. That’s what I had is I had someone inspire me as a high schooler to work harder and get my game right to go the farthest I can. I’d like to be able to do that for somebody.
Q: Was there someone specific you did that for you?
A: My high school AAU coach (Ian Rumpp), when I was a freshman trying out, he took me on the team even though I was going to be cut and really just worked with me solo and helped build me up as a player and build my confidence. He’s one of the main reasons I was able to go as far as I did. If I could do that for someone, that’d be outstanding.
Q: Do you think if you got cut from that team, you might not have pursued basketball as much as you did?
A: I think my growth would have been stunted basketball-wise because I wouldn’t have had that whole summer working out with him and working out with the team. Without him, I don’t think I would have been able to make it nearly as far as I have.
Q: Lastly, with the returning players, guys coming back from injuries and newcomers, what do you think of the team’s potential next season?
A: I know their expectations are as high as they’ve ever been. As we’ve all seen, it’s not the most talented team that goes on to win, it’s the team that works the hardest, plays the best together. These guys definitely have the opportunity to be one of the best Montana teams that Missoula has seen in a really long time. I think Travis is instilling in them that it’s not going to be easy and just because we did it this year doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to do it easier next year.
Q: Anything we didn’t touch on?
A: Just to help this program has been a surreal experience. Without them, college wouldn’t have been the same.