When he played basketball at Gonzaga University 15 years ago, Jon Kinloch noticed the high school coaches coming in the side door at practice, hoping to cadge a drill or a half-court set or even an hour’s entertain- ment from the emcee, Dan Fitzgerald.
It’s when they started to clump up in twos and threes that he started to fret.
“That was the flip side,” Kinloch said, laughing at the memory. “If too many guys were there, we called it ‘Showtime.’
“It might be the day before a game or even shoot-around the day of and there’d be a few coaches there and maybe a little media, and all of a sudden we’re doing a loose-ball drill – like he had to live up to the reputation of ‘That guy’s crazy.’”
But whether it was one coach or 100, Fitzgerald welcomed them all. A manager would be dispatched to procure a folding chair and a can of soda, and the after-practice exchange inevitably went after hours. Fitz’s appreciation – his respect – for high school coaches was profound. He’d tilled the same earth and lived their challenges. He valued those who put in overtime to learn and grow. And he could always use an audience for his story about losing to a nun in his first job coaching JVs.
It’s just one reason why The Fitz – the Dan Fitzgerald Memorial Basketball Tournament – under way this weekend at Lewis and Clark High School is such a good idea. There are scads of others: the worthy causes which will benefit, a lasting tribute to a larger-than-life influence, the chance to impress upon the young participants the value of being involved in their communities – in the context of an event that has to be pretty big-time for them.
If they don’t get it initially, chances are their coaches can nudge the message along. Among the more fitting connections of the inaugural event is the presence of guys like Tim Gaebe of Shadle Park and Glenn Williams of Mead, who particularly treasured their long associations with Fitz.
But that the field includes a former Fitzgerald player is a particularly endearing stroke.
Kinloch is in his second year soloing as head coach at West Valley (Yakima), after four years sharing the job, and the Rams opened Friday with a 62-47 win over Cheney. There had to be some juggling of the schedule, but the one-time Gonzaga sharpshooter “couldn’t imagine not being here” and felt especially rewarded at the tournament banquet Thursday night.
“Trying to give these kids a glimpse of what he stood for was important to me,” he said. “I realize some of my stories about him don’t make as much sense to them, but I think most kids are mature enough to realize we all have those types of people in our lives.”
Not that he was necessarily prepared for Fitz showing up at GU out of Sehome High School in Bellingham.
“I’m not sure anybody would be,” Kinloch said. “He would introduce me to people, ‘This is Jon Kinloch – pretty good shooter, pretty smart player, couldn’t guard me.’ But he said that if at the end of your freshman year you could remember your first name, it was a pretty good year.”
“He used a lot of other names for you that first year,” Kinloch said.
Kinloch can summon the stories on demand. Fitz and Scott Snider having a half-court contest throwing a football through the hoop, the stakes being whether the Zags would have to do the coach’s dreaded Iron Cross drill during the year (Snider, an ex-quarterback, won). Fitz seething about the third-class accommodations the Zags received during their breakthrough NCAA tournament trip in 1995 and raging, “We might be the first team ever that doesn’t go.”
But now 38 and with a decade of coaching behind him, Kinloch appreciates even more the balance his former coach struck between his driving, demanding side and the devoted one.
“It’s hard to be coached,” he said. “It’s hard for kids to put themselves at risk, to think they may put all this in and there’s no guarantee of success. I’m sure some of my guys think that I’m never satisfied with how they’re playing, but I’m going to expect more out of them and that’s absolutely attributable to Fitz.”
But as a former Division I player, Kinloch hopes he has something to offer kids who aspire to that level, and has reached out to college coaches not only for his own players but others in his league – another leftover from Fitz.
“You’d see this guy going crazy on the sidelines, but he was such a giving person – and that’s what’s great about this event,” he said. “It’s going to make a difference.”
For some of the participants, it already has.