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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Steve Christilaw: The best basketball is gritty, tough – and usually wearing a ponytail

Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier talks to player on the court during second half of an NCAA basketball game Jan. 5, 2017, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

I have, from time to time, confessed the fact that I am not, in fact, a basketball fan.

Basketball games have taken up large swaths of my career and I like to think I have a healthy, professional relationship with it. I understand the game and its intricacies after years and years of practice.

I just don’t have a love affair with the game and it grows less so the higher the levels go. I simply cannot sit and watch the NBA. And while I follow college basketball closely, it’s my job and not my passion. Outside of my alma maters (Gonzaga and Eastern Washington), that is.

Girls basketball, and women’s basketball, are the exceptions. I enjoy the women’s game and consider myself a fan.

The women’s game is a team game. Where the men’s game can give way to personal ego, the women’s game, more often than not, is predicated on team chemistry.

That’s true at Central Valley, where the Lady Bears have a culture based on unselfishness.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves, when he was at Gonzaga, broke it down this way: The men’s game is about making sure players get what they need – i.e. minutes, points, shots, etc. The guys keep their eyes on the prize because it’s one of their goals. For women, it’s about the journey. They’re more concerned about relationships they create along the way. It’s not just about the destination, it’s about how they get there.

That’s always been my experience as an outside observer.

For a while there I was convinced that what the women’s game needed was an influx of women coaches. But I’ve changed my mind over the years. I do believe there is always a need for good role models, and coaches are excellent role models, but overall I think gender is far less important than an ability to communicate – and by that I mean someone who can listen as well as talk.

The best girls basketball coaches I’ve known have been far less about screaming and yelling and much more focused on team building and encouraging player growth.

C. Vivian Stringer, the long-time coach at Rutgers, is one of my heroes. Chris Gobrecht’s years coaching at Washington made for some of the best women’s basketball I’d seen until Graves turned Gonzaga into a powerhouse and former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors still has one of the best jump shots I’ve ever witnessed.

I’m not sure, but I think I’m developing a schoolboy crush on Notre Dame’s Muffin McGraw. How can you not love a head coach named Muffin?

Truth be told, while I really enjoyed Graves, I think we’ll all have even more fun with Lisa Fortier running things at Gonzaga. Her West Coast Conference Coach of the Year honor this season is the first of many she will earn.

The first Gonzaga women’s game I covered with her as head coach was a typical Bulldogs win. Fortier was in her first year and she had been up most of the game, stalking the sidelines.

But when she came out to talk to the gathered media types after the game, the coach looked shorter than when she’d been on the sideline. Graves towered over most of his questioners, and I began to wonder if Fortier had shrunk after being in a steamy locker room.

Don’t coaches come pre-shrunk?

I looked down and discovered the coach was barefoot. She saw me checking out her feet and she, for the briefest second, got one of those “you caught me” looks on her face, but she never broke stride with her answer and never lost the twinkle in her eye.

That’s when I knew I was going to really enjoy this coach.

I have really enjoyed the girls side of the State B over the years.

There have been books written about the boys side of the State B. I think the girls side has been every bit as much fun and deserves its own book.

That all came back over the weekend, watching girls Class 1B games at the Arena.

Eastern Washington girls basketball is a different breed at that level. While they’re no longer around, the traditions of the Bi-County League, the Whitman County League and the Panorama League are still alive and still kicking.

Getting up in the face of a guard and going grill-to-grill may be intimidating somewhere else. In the Bi-County League it was considered an invitation to dance. And those girls love to lead.

Girls teams from the Whitman County League have always treated a loose ball the way most teenaged girls treat an invitation to a party. Y’all come.

They learn to drive early out there in farm country. Especially when you leave them a lane to the basket.

Here’s what I’ve learned over years of tournament watching:

When you come to the Spokane Arena from the other side of the state, you have to gear up to play this kind of basketball for three or four games, max. The Eastern Washington teams have been doing it every night. In practice, because you can count on the fact that the junior varsity goes just as hard in practice every day, and in every game they’ve played to get to the Big Dance.

It’s gritty and tough. It’s hard-nosed and generally wearing a ponytail.

And you just have to love it.