Before Bob Bender the program was going nowhere, buried in an avalanche of ennui.
Who wanted to come to Washington to play basketball? All the years of losing. A drafty, empty old building. The musty certainty of life in the Pac-10’s cellar.
One coach, Andy Russo, alienated every fan in the state, bad-mouthing the quality of Washington high school basketball. Another coach, Lynn Nance, couldn’t recruit because of his stern disposition and dull offense.
Washington was a football school. You came to Washington to play in the Rose Bowl, not the Final Four. You came for the long, lush autumn afternoons, not the cold, dark winter nights.
This was a dead-end job. A one-way ticket to anonymity.
When Bob Bender arrived in 1994, Washington basketball had fallen and couldn’t get up. Bad? Washington was the 11th-best team in the Pac-10.
“I didn’t even know about it, to be honest,” said sophomore Chris Walcott, a recruited walk-on from Sammamish High School. “I didn’t even think of U-Dub as basketball at all. I never thought of it as a place to go to play basketball.”
These were the problems Bender faced. Coaching basketball at a football school. Creating interest in a hoop cul-de-sac. Getting to the NCAA Tournament with a program that had grown comfortable with losing.
Jason Hamilton was a promising point guard at Hazen in 1992. He was recruited by Washington but wasn’t interested. He went to San Diego State, was voted Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year, then transferred to Washington the next season when Bender arrived.
Bender was selling hope. It was all he had. The present offered nothing. He had to sweet-talk the future.
Now an assistant coach, Hamilton has experienced all of Bender’s growing pains.
“People have no idea what it takes to get a kid to believe in a goal and something that is unseen,” Hamilton said. “You have to have a lot of faith in the coach. Unless you’re really in it, it’s really hard to describe.
“A lot of guys didn’t buy into it. When I was in high school this really wasn’t the place to be. But the guys we have here now have bought into it. When I was being recruited (by Nance), I didn’t see the improvement, year to year. They never really exponentially grew.
“But now, obviously you can see Coach Bender’s growth, from five wins, to nine wins, to 16, 17, and 18 this year. You can see the improvement every year. I didn’t see that coming up, but the people that are coming up now, they have to take a strong look at us.”
Bender, 40, is the best thing to happen to Washington basketball since Bob Houbregs. He is the perfect pitchman for a school that still is trying to convince the city that Washington can be a Cincinnati, a South Carolina, a Purdue, a contender.
He is a likable live wire, all energy and enthusiasm. He is a good basketball mind, with the kind of Duke pedigree that brings with it a certain amount of instant credibility.
Five years after he took this seemingly dead-end job, Bender has his team in the tournament. Washington will play Xavier Thursday in the first round of the East Regional. For the first time since 1986, the Huskies are dancing in March. Now he has something to sell besides hope.
“I remember coming to the game when I was younger and there weren’t many people in the stands,” said junior Donald Watts, who came to the Huskies from Lake Washington. “Me and my dad would watch, and we noticed that when Coach Bender came, they didn’t win right away, but he got them to play hard.
“He’s such a competitor. He’s a younger guy. He has a lot of energy. You can just tell sometimes that he just wants to get out there and do it when we’re not getting the job done.
“You can tell when he gets upset with us he’d like to go back to the days when he could throw on the uniform. You’ve got to admire that about a coach. You’ve got to respect that.”
Now there is a future at Washington. Bender, who used to move easily around town without being noticed, is getting recognized.
At KeyArena, watching “Aladdin on Ice” with his wife and daughter, he was asked by a stranger about his NCAA chances. Last week, at the state high school tournament, a custodian at the Kingdome wished him well.
“I’m very thankful for the patience people have shown for us,” Bender said. “Our fans and the city of Seattle, everybody. It was a five-year, step-by-step process and there are times when a lot of other places, a lot of other people, wouldn’t have been as patient.”
This was the giant step Bender needed. This is a passport to the future for a program that was selling only dreams.
And now the secret is to return. And to win. To become like Utah, or Stanford, or Maryland, where days like Sunday aren’t surprises but expectations.