Dan Fitzgerald was a “cause guy,” though the singular modifier was misleading. There was never just one.
In this respect, the basketball tournament that bears his name and which begins this afternoon at Lewis and Clark High School has managed to become an impossibly faithful reflection of its inspiration.
But how best to illustrate the coupling of basketball and service that was Fitz, and is “The Fitz?”
Well, sure. A Fitz story.
This was an oft-told favorite – did he have another kind? – dating from a few years into his second tour as head basketball coach at Gonzaga University, when the team wasn’t so hot and Fitzgerald embraced a plan that would make it worse before it got better. A core of terrific players who would launch the program’s revival in the early 1990s was being redshirted, and the upshot was an 8-20 season – the low point of the last 62 years of Bulldogs basketball.
College athletics doesn’t traffic in silver linings. Everybody’s about the bottom line.
As he loved to tell it, Fitzgerald was dropping off some clothing at the Union Gospel Mission, one of those many causes of his. The Zags had a home game that night, and the volunteer who took the donation wished the coach good luck – which gave one of the mission’s hard-luck visitors warming up nearby entrée into the conversation.
“Who are you playing?” the man growled.
“Oregon State,” Fitz answered.
And as he turned and headed out the door, he got a scouting report he hadn’t bargained for:
“They’re gonna kick your ass!”
Fitzgerald laughed all the way out to his car. And a week or so later, he was back at the mission helping with meal service.
This was his deal, and he had his reasons.
Which brings us back to the second installment of The Fitz, and a new perk the tournament fathers have lined up for the participants. In addition to the all-they-could-eat banquet Thursday night, the snazzy rooms at Northern Quest for the four outside teams, the Nike backpacks and just the opportunity in being part of a special event, the players will put in a shift serving and dining with the mission’s needy today.
Not sure the future LeBrons and Nowitzkis at the various holiday slam-bam-jam events where the nation’s elite high school teams jockey for strokes in the USA Today Top 25 will do similar duty.
If not, it’s their loss.
This is on top of the good the tournament does its other beneficiaries: Spokane’s Boys & Girls Club, Hoopfest’s Midnight Basketball program and a scholarship fund at Archbishop Mitty High School in California, where Fitzgerald coached and where another benefit game takes place for the same causes.
It’s heartening that any number of the area’s athletic programs continue to reveal an empathetic heart. Whether it’s the Zags adopting a youngster with a few weeks to live or the Cougs throwing themselves into an elementary reading program, the motives and results can make the excesses of big-time athletics easier to swallow.
It can also leave a lasting imprint on the servants.
Jeff Brown played on Gonzaga teams that first got the Zags a taste of postseason play in the ’90s, and yet as much as he remembers that success and his coach’s outsized personality, he remembers dishing up food at the UGM and what it meant. So when Jim McPhee tossed out the idea to The Fitz committee of having the tournament participants give back in that way, too, Brown thought, “That makes all the sense in the world.
“It’s the perfect thing to weave into this event,” he said, “because that was Fitz. It was his way of showing us it’s not just the sheltered life we had at Gonzaga, and that most of my teammates grew up in. It’s that this is the real world and how do you help out a fellow human being who, for any number of circumstances, is at a point in their life when help is needed.”
His Zags may not have grasped why it was necessary, only that it was – and that it was of searing importance to their coach. It did not surprise them when they learned that after he left Gonzaga and joined the business world, he occasionally hired some of those mission regulars, and even ferried them to work.
McPhee noted that Fitzgerald rarely limited himself to a few words, but five seemed to be most important:
“Don’t forget to say thanks.”
The message can be delivered in any number of ways. This weekend, you can hear it between the bounce of the balls.