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Rillie’s perennial pastime

Former Bulldog, now helping out at Boise State, can’t get enough basketball in his life

Tuesday nights, in case anyone was wondering, are when John Rillie plays city league games in Boise.

And, of course, daily with the Boise State professors, athletic department staffers, grad students and whomever else shows up for noon-ball, something he did even as he fashioned a remarkable career at Gonzaga from 1993-95, the ground floor of the program’s rise to national prominence.

To this day, basketball is an itch that Rillie can’t completely scratch. It brought him from his native Australia to the U.S. as a freshman walk-on at Tacoma Community College. It led him to Gonzaga, where he became one of the most prolific shooters in program history. It triggered a 16-year professional career and a trip with Team Australia to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where Rillie roomed with former GU teammate Paul Rogers.

And last January it brought him back to Spokane for the funeral of Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga’s coach from 1978-1997, sans four seasons in the early 1980s. While paying tribute to “Fitz,” Rillie also spent some time getting to know then-Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice.

“He must have caught me on a good day when I said something sensible,” Rillie said.

When Rice took over as head coach at Boise State in March, Rillie phoned Rice and landed the title of director of basketball operations, a non-coaching position but nonetheless a foot in the coaching door. BSU is 11-7, 4-2 in the WAC, with a road game against Idaho in Moscow on Saturday.

The 39-year-old Rillie is loving every minute.

“I came in with an appetite to learn,” he said, “and nearly every day you walk away and you’ve learned something.”

His appetite for the game sprouted at an early age. He already had it in his mind that he wanted to play college basketball in the U.S. when Seton Hall, with Aussie forward Andrew Gaze, faced Michigan for the 1989 NCAA title. Rillie convinced his parents that his time was better spent watching the game live on television than going to school.

A prominent Washington prep coach helped steer Rillie to Tacoma C.C. He scored 22 points in the first half of his first game and soon was generating recruiting interest from a couple of young Gonzaga assistants named Dan Monson and Mark Few.

“To make a long story short, Mark actually gave me an individual workout and they put me through a number of offensive drills, shooting drills,” Rillie said. “Without sounding too over the top, I probably shot about 90 percent in those drills.”

Rillie appreciated that Fitzgerald was “willing to take a gamble” on him, but the coach left nothing to chance when it came to academics.

“Truthful story,” Rillie said. “Back in those days you used to get an ‘A’ for basketball and that was one credit and you’d take another class for credit. In my mind if I got a ‘D’ or so that would equal out to be a pretty good GPA. Fitz didn’t see it that way. That philosophy of mine went out the window.”

On the court, Rillie had unlimited range and Gonzaga was beginning to make a mark. Back then, Pepperdine and Santa Clara, with future NBA MVP Steve Nash, were tough to beat, and Portland and Saint Mary’s mounted one-year runs.

The Zags won the West Coast Conference for the first time in 1994, but lost in the conference tournament and settled for an National Invitation Tournament berth, also a program first. Gonzaga, with Rillie and a group of seniors that included Jeff Brown, Geoff Goss, Matt Stanford, Scott Spink and Marty Wall, upset Stanford before falling at Kansas State.

In 1995, Gonzaga started out 0-6 in WCC play, but rallied to earn the fourth seed in the tournament. Rillie made 20 of 28 3-pointers (71.4 percent) in three tournament wins, earning MVP honors and sending Gonzaga to its first NCAA Tournament. GU lost to No. 3 Maryland in the opening round.

“I was so fortunate to be involved in a lot of firsts,” Rillie said.

Rillie, a 43.9-percent career 3-point shooter, ranks fifth on GU’s all-time list with 230 3s, behind four-year players Blake Stepp, Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo and Derek Raivio.

After finishing at Gonzaga, Rillie returned to Australia and stayed for most of his 16 years in the pros. He married Heidi, who he met at Gonzaga, in 1999 and they have two sons and a daughter.

Australian Axel Dench followed Rillie and Rogers at Gonzaga from 1997-2000, but the Zags’ international efforts recently have centered on Europe and Canada. Saint Mary’s, which has scouted Australia for years, has emerged as GU’s primary conference rival, in part because of Aussies Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.

“When Dellavedova was getting recruited, Gonzaga had guys like Raivio and (Jeremy) Pargo,” Rillie said. “Timing is everything. Sure we would have liked some of those guys, but with Gonzaga’s talent level you have to be pretty good to fit in there.”

Rillie hopes to be a head coach someday. He also wants to complete his degree and plans to take the required courses at BSU.

“As much grief as a lot of people give me that’s something I want to get done for my self satisfaction,” said Rillie, noting that Fitzgerald would have wanted him to finish up.

Rillie finished playing, professionally at least, last January, but stills laces ’em up when it fits his schedule.

“I try to convince Leon that practice should be no earlier than 3:30 so I can get to noon ball, and we have to be finished by 6:30 so I can get to city league,” Rillie said. “I just love the game and that’s my way of scratching my itch.”

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