One word that mesmerized fans and vanquished foes wouldn’t expect to be associated with Gonzaga’s record-breaking point guard is “shy.”
But when GU coach Kelly Graves suggested Courtney Vandersloot call up the greatest point guard in school history and ask him for help, “It took me a couple of weeks to build up,” she said. “I’m shy.”
Her need to win and her desire to get better finally prevailed.
That phone call to John Stockton and the subsequent sessions were the latest building block in pushing Vandersloot into the discussion as the best playmaker in the women’s game and Gonzaga’s continued rise in national prominence.
Getting tips from Stockton was “just an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.
One-handed passes, floaters in the lane, footwork, “things that no one would ever think of, but he has that knowledge he can share,” Vandersloot said.
“The things he does are all based on confidence,” she added. “The things he was teaching, I was thinking that had to be a low-percentage pass or low-percentage shot. The fact is, if it’s done with confidence it becomes a high percentage. That’s what he always harped.”
The results have been staggering. Vandersloot is averaging a career-high 18.6 points with a vast array of shots heading into next weekend’s NCAA Tournament, along with leading the nation in assists (10.2) for the second straight season. She is only the fourth woman to surpass 1,000 assists in a career. She is a three-time Player of the Year and three-time tournament MVP, unprecedented in the West Coast Conference, and will soon be Gonzaga’s only three-time All-American.
“She’s pretty much a self-made player,” Stockton insisted. “I would love to find a way to take credit. She kind of defies what you expect from a woman basketball player. She has the knack of a boy.”
There were plenty of drills with players such as Stockton’s son David, a GU point guard, but even more time spent talking about the game.
“I don’t want to dramatize it too much but she’s like (Wayne) Gretzky in hockey,” Stockton said. “There is something that separates Courtney from others. (Former GU NCAA scoring champion Adam) Morrison was a little bit the same way.”
Those transcendent athletes have confidence in themselves and make the players around them better, he said.
The Bulldogs have lost just three of 56 league games in Vandersloot’s four seasons, been ranked in the top 15 and made the NCAA Tournament three times, including a first trip to the Sweet 16 a year ago.
“She is the face of the program,” Graves said. “I don’t think it takes away from anyone else. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime player.”
Playing hoops with the boys
Bill Vandersloot is at a loss to explain exactly how his daughter reached this point.
“I wish I could tell you that,” he said. “I wish I had that magic ball so I could share it with you.”
His daughter didn’t hesitate: “I always credit it to I always played with boys growing up” in Kent, she said. “I grew up in one of the coolest neighborhoods because we had so many kids right around my age and all we did was play sports, all sports.
“My dad put in a sport court behind the house. I probably played there twice and it was the sweetest court. But if I went back there nobody could see me so I’d go out in the front, where our neighbor put up a regular hoop, and they would see me and come out and play. I would always be the first one out there and I wanted to play so bad with the boys.”
Bigger, stronger, faster opposition made her develop her game.
Bill did whatever he could, including stepping back as her coach when he noticed “she was doing things out there I never taught her.”
But she was a soccer player first.
“I grew up wanting to go to North Carolina because of Mia Hamm,” she said. “Once I got into high school and basketball started interfering with club soccer I found I dreaded going to soccer practice. I was having so much fun developing my game. I just fell in love with it.”
Vandersloot’s newfound passion for basketball made her an easy mark to travel shotgun with a friend who wanted to cross the state for a basketball camp at Gonzaga.
“I just fell in love with this place,” Vandersloot said of the trip before her sophomore year at Kentwood High School. “I felt so comfortable here.”
As far as she was concerned her future was set.
The Bulldog staff was equally sold on Vandersloot, except for Graves, who really didn’t get the opportunity to see her until the day before the state tournament her junior year. He watched her practice and offered a scholarship on the spot, though he didn’t stick around for state.
Vandersloot averaged more than 18 points and seven assists as the Conquerors made their first trip to state (losing to University High School and Angie Bjorklund in the second round); people started asking her if she was going to go Washington, or at least the Pac-10. Any thought of that was short-lived when a Pac-10 assistant told her high school coach she was too small.
“I didn’t want to play for somebody who thinks that,” she said, without a trace of bitterness. “I want them to have confidence in me. That’s what coach Graves did, he had confidence in every ability I had.”
There’s is a story around the GU basketball offices about how Graves almost made an unforced error when the Vandersloot family visited in the spring.
“I really hadn’t seen her play in a game but I knew she scored well,” Graves said. “We pride ourselves on development and I wanted her to know we would work with her so I said, ‘We really think you have to be a better passer.’ ”
Apparently she took that as motivation and still signed with Gonzaga in November. In her senior season she averaged 26 points and seven assists as Kentwood went 28-1 and finished third in the state, losing to eventual state champion Lewis and Clark with future teammate Katelan Redmon in the semifinals.
“I was really fortunate with my high school coach, we had a great relationship,” she said. “I didn’t think I could have that again but when I met coach Graves I felt like it was a match made in heaven.”
Vandersloot’s attraction to Gonzaga has only increased in her four years in Spokane, just as much off the court as on.
“Hands down it’s the best decision,” she said. “I’ve made so many good friends off the court, away from the team, and the team is incredible.”
Recently Graves said Vandersloot seemed to be “embracing the fact that she’s a really good player,” but notoriety hasn’t changed her.
“She has obviously been a standout her entire life … but Court is a very caring person,” GU senior Rita Helmbrecht said. “She’s the best friend I can ask for. She’s helped me get through a lot.”
Helmbrecht was a player at Federal Way when Vandersloot was dominating the South Puget Sound League.
“It was quite frustrating,” Helmbrecht said. “I wasn’t very fond of her.”
Soon after arriving at Gonzaga, she was sitting in her dorm room with the door open when Vandersloot walked by, stopped and did a double take.
“We just immediately hit if off,” said Helmbrecht, who appreciates Vandersloot’s accomplishments to the point she made almost every road game this season, including Hawaii. “Just like on the court, Court takes the lead. If Court doesn’t want to do it, we don’t do it.”
Now they are learning to cook in an informal weekly cooking class with other friends, Helmbrecht said, adding that Vandersloot has had the occasional blonde moment in the kitchen.
Roommate Whitney McKelvey said, “Courtney’s just one of those people that walks in a room and lights it up. She can always get a group together to go to a movie. She’s a great leader on the court but she’s a great leader off. She’s fun to hang out with.”
McKelvey was thinking of leaving school when she was asked to move in with Vandersloot and teammate Claire Raap.
“They needed someone short to live in the basement,” McKelvey said. “I’m 5-1.”
She added, “I love Courtney and Claire too much to leave, so now I live in a cold, dark basement with spiders.”
For staying, McKelvey received payback, one of the most famous coaches at Hoopfest last summer.
“Our pathetic little Hoopfest team, she was trying to teach us plays,” McKelvey said. “People were probably wondering how we got her as a coach. She put the play together so I could get my only basket.”
Consider that another assist for Vandersloot.
And here’s another. The year before she arrived, the Bulldogs, on their way to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, averaged 1,492 fans. That doubled to 2,935 by last year and this year 3,824 fans, bolstered by two sellouts, have flocked to McCarthey.
Graves grasps everything that Vandersloot represents.
“She is a good person; she is a great teammate,” Graves said. “She knows she’s a great player but she has never used that status for anything other than to benefit her team. Not once.”
Work left to doVandersloot considers herself a work in progress, despite the fact she had 10 assists in her first collegiate game.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it’s like playing with all these people,’” she recalled. “I don’t ever remember throwing any super nice passes for a layup.”
That’s a common occurrence now, she has 1,078 assists to 19 different teammates, topped by 176 over three seasons to Heather Bowman, Gonzaga’s and the WCC’s all-time leading scorer who graduated last year.
Vandersloot recently received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the best player in the country 5-foot-8 or shorter. She’s a finalist for the traditional Naismith Award, as well as the Wade, Wooden and Lieberman awards.
“The only thing I don’t like is when people say all my awards, all the success, are because I play in the West Coast Conference,” said Vandersloot. “I was never one of those players in high school that said I wanted to play in the Pac-10. That didn’t mean anything to me. I wanted to win, I wanted to go to the tournament and I knew if I came to Gonzaga I would be in the tournament.”
That’s where the Bulldogs upended second-seeded Texas A&M, after beating North Carolina in the first round, to make the Sweet 16 a year ago.
“If there is one thing that could improve in the women’s game, it’s passing the basketball,” Aggies coach Gary Blair said before his team fell to the seventh-seeded Zags. “Vandersloot puts it in the pocket … always on the money. She’s the female version of John Stockton out there. That’s what you want to see out of the point guard.”
Yet, she said she could use improvement with her “decision-making on the floor.”
“Coming in as a freshman the game is so much faster that your decision-making has to be that much better and as a point guard they expect that,” Vandersloot explained. “I can see it with Jazzy (freshman teammate Jasmine Redmon). It’s there, she sees it, she just doesn’t see it quick enough. Back in the day I was lucky enough to have Rachel Kane, she was really good at that. … She helped me see those things.”
Vandersloot collected 191 assists as a freshman, including 36 to senior Michelle Elliott, now an assistant at GU. She broke the school record when she had 239 assists her sophomore year.
With another 321 helpers last season she passed the Gonzaga (600) and WCC (659) career records, which meant nothing to her.
“For my team to win I have to keep improving,” she said as if her college career wasn’t in the final days.
The sports management major has more basketball in her future. The WNBA draft is the week after the Final Four and Vandersloot has been mentioned as a potential first-round pick.
“There is a lot of my game that I need to get better for us to go far. I like having that expectation because I know I’m willing to do whatever it takes my team to win.”
With her 327 assists this year’s team is the highest scoring in the nation at 86.1 points a game. Double-figure scorers Katelan Redmon (17.3), Kayla Standish (16.6) and Janelle Bekkering (11.3) have been set up 232 times by Vandersloot on their 599 baskets.
“I think Gonzaga is special because of her,” Pepperdine coach Julie Rousseau said the day Vandersloot cracked 1,000. “They’re a great team but she makes them better. She is the consummate point guard. A thousand assists and she’s not done. I don’t think words can describe just how special that is.”
If the Zags can make another NCAA Tournament run, Vandersloot could score 44 points and be the first to have 2,000 points to go with 1,000 assists.
“I know it is something special, people tell me,” she said. “It says something about this program. I’ve developed so much as a player here. It’s something down the road I’ll reminisce and think about.”
Gonzaga has gone 109-25 since she arrived on campus and her career is now down to one more loss, which she won’t take lightly.
“The most important thing to me, and I know it’s super cliché, I just want to win,” she said. “Deep down I do not even look or care about those other things. I haven’t read one clipping, that’s just not my thing.”