Some time ago, a new member at the country club approached with the icebreaker, “Your brother …”
They always start like that. Sometimes, Jim Fitzgerald takes a reflexive step back, but by the end usually both of them are laughing.
“I sat in the back row of your brother’s class,” this guy said. “He could throw an eraser without even looking and hit me right in the face.”
This is not why Dan Fitzgerald’s name can be found in the Athletics Hall of Fame at Archbishop Mitty High School. Not exactly, anyway. He did make his mark there, and not just in chalk dust above a student’s eyebrows.
Before he was the basketball man about Gonzaga and Spokane, Fitz was a man about Mitty, at the time a still-new Catholic school in San Jose, Calif., with little in the way of athletic repute. Before he left in 1971, he’d coached the Monarchs to their first West Catholic Athletic League championship, the first brick in a wall of tradition that most recently includes back-to-back California Division II championships 2011 and 2012, and a runner-up finish in the Open Division last March.
And now a visit to Spokane to play in the tournament bearing their old coach’s name.
The third edition of The Fitz begins today, expanded to include a four-team girls event, with the same mission to service and charity. That includes proceeds benefiting multiple causes, spectators showing up with donations for Second Harvest Food Bank and players pulling shifts at the Union Gospel Mission.
But the involvement of Mitty is a special development.
Three Mitty alums launched the idea of The Fitz, and Jim Fitzgerald – himself a former Mitty teacher – steered them to do it in Spokane where his brother’s influence truly took root. A scholarship at Mitty in tribute to Fitz is one of the beneficiaries; the endowment is already $50,000 strong, and a second is being started, making it the most successful grassroots scholarship launch in the school’s 50-year history.
So why haven’t the Monarchs been a part of the tournament before?
Well, they’ve been busy. And good. And showcasing a great player.
If you caught Arizona’s victory over Duke on TV last Friday, you couldn’t have missed Aaron Gordon squaring off with fellow freshman sensation Jabari Parker as a worthy subtext. For the previous three seasons, the 6-foot-8 Gordon had been building up his resume for Mitty, and not just with state titles but major tournaments and TV games. Last year a Texas showdown with Travis High School featuring twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison (now at Kentucky) and a Basketball Hall of Fame date against the nation’s No. 1 high school team, Lone Peak of Utah.
But they pledged to come to The Fitz this year, and in the meantime made a gesture every bit as significant – donating the receipts from last season’s home game against Jesuit of Sacramento to the tournament’s causes.
Tim Kennedy is in his sixth year coaching the Monarchs, and if he doesn’t have a top-five player, he has a couple of solid senior guards in Connor Peterson and Matt McAndrews and a few other holdovers from a 28-6 team. He also has a deep appreciation for the need to be here.
“He’s still having an impact on Mitty today and that’s impressive,” Kennedy said. “To be a part of this is something special.”
And then there’s this: Fitz tried to recruit him.
Kennedy was a senior at Serra High School at the time, a classmate of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady no less. And while he couldn’t see himself in Spokane – maybe the cold this weekend will give you an idea why – he thought to himself, “I could play for that guy. You’d consider a school just because of him.”
Instead, he went to play at Loyola Marymount – where, as irony would have it, the games in Spokane became a highlight.
“They weren’t yet the national program they are now, but it was always fun in the old Kennel,” Kennedy said. “They had the best fans in the league.”
And they took their cue from the ferociously competitive coach who paced the sidelines and set the underpinnings for greatness. Not unlike what he’d done at Mitty 30 years before.
“We’d had a terrible coach the year before,” recalled Mike Maghan, one of The Fitz founders. “We were hoping the new one would be different, but the first couple of weeks – with the conditioning and discipline – it was, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But beyond everything else, it was about relationships. He wasn’t fake in how he cared for players and students.”
It’s always said that our best teachers impart not just knowledge and wisdom, but passion and enthusiasm.
And occasionally, a lesson in when to duck.