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Sunday, March 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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GSL coaching legend dies

Leukemia claims Robertson at age 79

Robertson (The Spokesman-Review)
Robertson (The Spokesman-Review)

High school basketball in Spokane has had defining figures for every era of its evolution – and Dave Robertson indisputably set the standard in his.

The hall of fame coach, who steered Shadle Park to a memorable 1981 state championship, died early Monday morning of leukemia. He was 79.

Memorial services will be Monday at 1:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

Robertson was a head coach for 20 years in the Greater Spokane League – 16 at Shadle, four at Gonzaga Prep – and won championships in 10 of them, second only to Lewis and Clark’s Squinty Hunter. And it wasn’t his style to do it as an underdog.

“He did a great job in instilling confidence in the players,” said Mike Haugen, who assisted Robertson before succeeding him as head coach at Gonzaga Prep. “He wasn’t bashful. He’d say, ‘Yeah, we’ll be the league champions.’ Most of us want to sandbag a little bit, but that wasn’t Dave.”

Never was that reflected more than in the 1981 Shadle team, the first GSL representative in the state title game in 13 years. The Highlanders beat Mercer Island 66-65 on a shot by Greg Schmidt that referees ruled beat the buzzer, a call bitterly disputed by the Islanders – to the extent that tournament officials opted against a post-game trophy presentation in the old Seattle Coliseum arena because chaos reigned on the floor.

Not being able to celebrate the championship properly long remained a sore spot for Robertson and the Highlanders.

“My dad won a lot of games – but he lost his share, too,” said his son Jack, who played for his father on two earlier Shadle teams. “If that outcome had been reversed, you never would have seen him handle it the way the Mercer Island people did. It would have been done honorably.”

Robertson did win a lot – 399 of 555 games, which included stops at Sanford and La Jara, Colo., and Alamogordo, N.M., before he joined the staff at Shadle in 1962 and was elevated to head coach in 1966.

He left in 1982 to take best advantage of the state retirement guidelines, but found it hard to get basketball out of his system and returned to coaching – and teaching, part-time – in 1988 at Prep, where he won two more GSL titles.

In all, his teams qualified for six state tournaments and took home five trophies, among the credentials that got him inducted into both the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association and Inland Northwest Sports halls of fame.

As Hunter’s teams dominated the City League landscape post-World War II, so did Shadle during the Robertson years – in no little part because he invested considerable effort into his summer basketball camp, not just for his high school players but grade schoolers, as well. Haugen called him a “pioneer” in that regard, and his players agreed.

“I remember becoming a part of his program as a fifth grader at Westview Elementary,” said Mark Rypien, the point guard on that 1981 team and the Super Bowl MVP 11 years later. “We learned the fundamentals early on and he had tremendous knowledge and love of the game that was passed on.

“I’m shocked and I’m saddened (at his death), but I was fortunate not only to have him as a coach but as a friend – and he was one heck of a math teacher, too.”

A native of Forrest, N.M., Robertson attended high schools there and in Tucumcari, where he earned all-state honors and a scholarship to the University of New Mexico at the age of 16. He later transferred to Adams State College in Colorado, graduating in 1952.

Jack Robertson said his father had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome about 10 years ago, but that only in the last two weeks was it determined that he had leukemia.

“We were hoping he’d have some months to live, but it quickly ran its course,” he said.

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