Given how his senior season unfolded at Gonzaga, it may be surprising to some that Zach Gourde has constructed a lengthy, successful professional basketball career in France.
As Gourde prepares to leave Spokane for his sixth pro season, he packs the satisfaction of rekindling his love for the game along with his faithful miniature Australian shepherd Riley and two suitcases of belongings that will sustain him for the next nine months overseas.
“I’m enjoying it quite a bit,” Gourde said. “It took a while for me to be able to say that.”
Gourde’s passion for basketball was severely tested during his senior season (2002-03). He slid from first-team All-WCC as a junior to a diminished role as Ronny Turiaf emerged on a deep frontcourt that included Cory Violette and Richard Fox.
Gourde, a member of GU’s 1,000-point club, averaged 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds as a junior, but dropped to less than five points and three boards in a senior season that ended with a double-overtime loss to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Gourde’s confidence sagged and he acknowledged that he soured on basketball “when I’d invested so much and it ceased to be fun because I wasn’t being successful.”
Still, he received numerous offers overseas, but only a few he classified as good ones.
He gave serious thought to quitting basketball and finding a job but decided to give the game one more shot in Feurs in south-central France. Gourde consulted with the Frenchman Turiaf, who told him that Feurs was a small, semi-isolated agrarian town. Turiaf’s scouting report was accurate, but Gourde said the residents were welcoming.
“But even that first year I was thinking, ‘Go see Europe, have some fun and I’ll give it one year,’ ” he said.
Five years later, Gourde has made a comfortable salary, embraced the basketball and the country, and become proficient speaking French. His travels have included England, Belgium, Germany and Spain. His current team, Le Portel, has discussed a long-range plan that involves him becoming an assistant and transitioning to head coach. He has started the paperwork process toward receiving French citizenship.
Gourde produced big numbers in his first three seasons with Feurs, which plays in the first, or top, division of France’s three national leagues. He played last year with Le Portel, a Pro B team that ranks above the national leagues and below Pro A. Gourde led Le Portel in minutes played and was second in scoring and rebounding.
He left this morning to return to Le Portel for the upcoming season. When he arrives, he’ll settle into his team-provided apartment and renew acquaintances with the 50-60 non-basketball playing residents he knows by name.
Gourde said the basketball is a step higher than the college game, but well less than the NBA. The game is fast-paced with a 24-second shot clock. Teams are stocked with perimeter shooters. Still, there’s a place for the 6-foot-8 Gourde, who appears stronger and leaner than during his GU days.
“I still do a lot of the same things, shoot my odd touch shots with bizarre footwork that a lot of people probably look at as, ‘That’s a travel,’ or ‘How did that go in?’ ” Gourde said. “I’m better at the things I used to do, more refined and more efficient.”
Rules limit the number of Americans on French teams. U.S.-born players typically earn more, but they face added pressure to produce. Gourde’s confidence returned quickly in France because he was counted on to fill the stat sheet and was given the freedom to do so.
“I had a green light like you can’t imagine,” he said.
Learning how to say “green light” in French was a different matter. He essentially had no exposure to the language prior to stepping on French soil. Like everything else, the cerebral Gourde took a studied approach and picked it up the fairly quickly.
“I was functional in two years, comfortable in three and fluent in four,” said Gourde, adding that it helps he speaks the language daily with his girlfriend, who is from Boulogne-sur-Mer, near Le Portel in northern France. Gourde has occasionally helped review contract documents for Le Portel teammates who hail from the U.S.
Gourde purchased a house in Spokane three years ago that he rents out while he’s in France. Returning to Spokane each summer allows him to stay in shape with quality pick-up games at GU, see numerous former Bulldogs and stay in touch with other friends.
He still gets recognized in Spokane, although a few people have confused him for current Zag Josh Heytvelt, probably because both are tall and sport a buzz cut. Gourde hears two common reactions from Spokanites.
“It’s probably split about 50-50,” Gourde said. “People are very surprised (he’s still playing). And the other is that they’ve never seen a player who would fit in over there better than me.”
Gourde isn’t sure what his future holds, but he’s always enjoyed tackling a variety of challenges.
“If I come back, I’ll probably go to law school,” said Gourde, who doesn’t rule out the possibility he could still be playing in five years. “There’s a constant broadening of perspective. The situation I’m in allows me a lot of time for informal education. I do have decent amount of down time, in small chunks, but it’s broken up so I can spend hours just browsing and trying to educate myself in depth to my fancy of the moment.
“It’s a constant education.”
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