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Blanchette: Spokane quickly mobilizes to honor Fitzgerald

Of all the many descriptives applied to Dan Fitzgerald over his lifetime, one was invoked too seldom:


The simple fact is, the death in 2010 of the longtime Gonzaga University basketball coach and force-of-nature-about- Spokane left many of his countless friends at loose ends, not simply for the loss of an outsized character in their lives but as a no-guilt example of service and philanthropy.

So it’s good to see the example lives on.

It was no great secret anyway, but on Wednesday came the formal announcement of something called “The Fitz” – the Dan Fitzgerald Memorial Basketball Tournament, which will have its inaugural Dec. 2-3 at Lewis and Clark High School. The field of eight teams will include four from the Spokane area – LC, Cheney, Mead and Shadle Park – playing mix-and-match for two nights against Richland, West Valley-Yakima, Kelso and Camas.

That’s a lot of basketball with a chance to do a lot of good: Proceeds from the tournament are to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Spokane County, as well as a scholarship in Fitzgerald’s name at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., where he coached early on his career.

That scholarship drive was launched a month after Fitz’s death by a group of Mitty graduates that included Greg Heinrichs.

In the space of 18 months, they raised a $25,000 endowment and put their first student on aid – which encouraged them to turn their attentions to what might be done in the city where Fitz cut such a wide swath.

They were hardly prepared for the reaction – which is not to say they were surprised.

“I’ve been in sales all my life,” said Heinrichs, a vice president with Tradecard in Portland, “and this has been the easiest sell I’ve ever had. The community has been amazing, the support tremendous. These are people who have fond memories of Fitz and are very loyal to him.”

Sponsors? They all but lined up – starting with Fitz’s last employer, Northern Quest Resort & Casino, which will host a pre-tournament banquet on Dec. 1.

Hoopfest’s Rick Steltenpohl called Heinrichs to ask in, and that organization’s Midnight Hoops program will also get a boost from the tournament.

Activists? LC coach Jeff Norton not only worked the phones to arrange the field, but got his administration to donate the use of the gym.

Former players? Jim McPhee and Jeff Brown wrangled them, without much arm-twisting.

Bankers, lawyers, coaches, more. The network, there to begin with thanks to Fitz’s reach, has mobilized quickly.

“The impact this guy had really ripples throughout the community,” said Heinrichs, who will serve as tournament chairman, “to people I’m sure he didn’t even know he’d touched.”

Heinrichs, it should be noted, didn’t even play for Fitzgerald. He turned out for basketball at Mitty and lasted two weeks “and realized I was going to die in practice and never see the floor for games.

“But I think the common theme among all of us is that Fitz left an indelible mark on our souls. He taught some amazing lessons and foremost among them is this: You can always do more than you think you can do.”

Heinrichs remembers a sociology class he took at Mitty from a 26-year-old Fitzgerald.

“He gave us an assignment – and there wasn’t a lot of clarity, which wasn’t unusual – but he wanted us to go out in the community and put ourselves outside our comfort zones,” Heinrichs said. “Me and a couple buddies drove up to an area near Candlestick Park called Hunters Point that was pretty rough – four skinny white kids, and the first thing we see is a car drive by and a guy giving a ‘hello’ wave with a gun out the window. Another guy in class went and signed up with the Black Panthers.

“He just encouraged you to go beyond, in every way. I have to think that’s a key to the basketball program that got built at Gonzaga.”

And yet maybe the best thing about The Fitz will be it’s scope. Sometimes the best tribute to someone who was larger than life is something that’s simply grassroots and necessary – though, with a nod to the namesake, it figures to be a good show, too.

“We’ve had some great help from Eric Sawyer at the sports commission,” Heinrichs said. “He said he tells people who put on events like this, ‘Don’t expect to make money the first year or the second year.’

“Well, we are going to make money the first year and every bit will go to charity. That’s because of the amazing web he spun.

“And he did it just being Fitz.”