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John Blanchette: A fitting tribute for Frank Burgess

Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth, right, shakes hands with legendary alum Frank Burgess who played for the Zags in 1961. Dozens of former players made the trip to the last game to be played in The Kennel on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004, and they were introduced at halftime. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth, right, shakes hands with legendary alum Frank Burgess who played for the Zags in 1961. Dozens of former players made the trip to the last game to be played in The Kennel on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004, and they were introduced at halftime. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Funny thing about how they retire jerseys at Gonzaga University:

Whenever the school actually gets around to it, it turns out the number has been mothballed already.

It was true when they hoisted John Stockton’s No. 12 in the old Kennel last year – no one had been issued it in the ensuing 20 years. And it’s the case again today when Frank Burgess sees his No. 44 go up in the rafters at the McCarthey Athletic Center – a cool 44 years after he last wore it as a Bulldog.

It’s as if someone was serving as a self-appointed caretaker of GU’s basketball history, waiting until the school realized it had one.

In this case, it was likely Burgess’ coach, Hank Anderson, who slipped the old short-sleeved 44 in a drawer for a few years. Eventually, all numbers above 40 were phased out of fashion at GU, so a latter-day Zag couldn’t even put it on by accident.

So today’s ceremony for His Honor – Burgess is, of course, a U.S. district judge in Tacoma, as well as GU’s all-time leading scorer – at halftime of the San Francisco game is a formality, but a necessary one.

“It’s due,” said Charlie Jordan, one of several teammates who made the trip to Spokane for the presentation. “He was really one of a kind, and ahead of his time.”

In Gonzaga’s case, he was right on time. Anderson used Burgess’ arrival on campus as the opportunity to take the Zags into what is known today as NCAA Division I basketball, and to give the campus an athletic focal point that had been mostly missing since the abandonment of college football in 1941. And Burgess made it more than just local-focal by leading the nation in scoring his senior year with a 32.4 average.

All things considered, it was a remarkable conspiracy.

Anderson had begun tapping a new talent well as he tried to upgrade his program – the armed services. Blake Elliott, the defensive stopper of that era, had served four years in the Air Force at Geiger Field. Art Taylor, who arrived as a freshman Burgess’ senior year, was another airman. (Both, as it happened, grew up in Arkansas, not all that far from Burgess’ hometown of Eudora.)

Burgess had been spotted at Hahn AFB in Germany by a captain named Mel Porter, himself a former GU student whose father ran a cleaners on Division Street. Naturally, the discovery hadn’t been made in a vacuum; USC, Loyola of Chicago, Wisconsin and Kansas also made overtures.

These days, Gonzaga can recruit head-to-head with – or head-and- shoulders above – those schools on the basis of its basketball program. In Burgess’ case, the Zags prevailed because in a stroll around campus, president Fr. Edmund Morton actually mentioned books – or, as Burgess himself once put it, “They seemed to care about more than whether you could bounce that ball.”

Of course, he could do both.

A 6-foot-1 guard, Burgess was not an intimidating physical presence like, say, Idaho’s Gus Johnson or even Seattle U’s Elgin Baylor, to name two contemporaries. But he could score in almost every conceivable manner – and some that wouldn’t come along for decades.

“I’m convinced that if they’d had a 3-point line in those days, Frank would have averaged 40 or 50 points a game,” said Taylor. “He could drive it, too, but so many of his shots were from the outside and he was just a tremendous shooter.”

Just how he got those shots is a significant part of his legend.

“He had a signature move,” Elliott recalled. “He would take the ball and step out and fake a pass around a defender. The defender would turn to follow the ball and he’d still have it in his hands. Or he’d fake the pass over his head and shoot it with two hands.

“It was embarrassing for me guarding him in the old gym on Boone Avenue. Imagine what it was like for those other guys in front of 5,000 people.”

The Zags didn’t play in front of 5,000 often at home, even though Anderson had moved games into the old Spokane Coliseum to accommodate the audience Burgess and Co. deserved. So the coach made it a point to take the act on the road just so the opinion-makers of college basketball could see Burgess wasn’t putting up his numbers against correspondence schools and townies.

Gonzaga’s Eastern swings were memorable in many ways – Elliott remembers going to a rock and roll show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with Burgess and Jordan to see Chuck Berry – but especially for giving Burgess a showcase.

His senior year, the Zags played three Top 15 teams – Detroit, Providence and St. John’s – in four nights on a trip that also included a stop at Xavier. Against competition like future NBA/ABA stars Dave DeBusschere, Johnny Egan, Leroy Ellis and Kevin Loughery, Burgess averaged 33.3 points a game and shot 49 percent from the field.

“Watching the guy was a pleasure,” said Jordan, “and playing with him was an honor.”

Because as much as his teammates remember his moves, his shot and the completeness of his game, they better remember his resonating laugh and teasing manner.

“He was all business on the court,” Jordan said. “But off it? Nothing but laughter.”

Surely, then, he’ll appreciate this: though he was the last Zag to wear No. 44, he wasn’t the first. It was actually Jordan’s number the season before.

“Then I can say it was the jersey and not Frank,” Jordan joked. “I had it and he just put on the magic jersey.”

Oh, there was magic. But it wasn’t the jersey.

Follow along with the Zags

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