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Monday, October 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Spokane has rich history as basketball incubator

Gonzaga fans react to an official's call during a watch party as Gonzaga faces North Carolina for the national title on Monday, April 3, 2017, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga fans react to an official's call during a watch party as Gonzaga faces North Carolina for the national title on Monday, April 3, 2017, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

I’m trying to remember just exactly when Spokane turned itself into a hoops city.

I mean, this love affair had to start somewhere, right?

Yes, yes, I know, Casey Calvary tipping in the winning basket with four seconds left to beat Florida for Gonzaga to reach the regional finals in the 1999 NCAA Tournament got the love flowing. But that wellspring didn’t start with the first-round win over Minnesota. Or the second-round win over Stanford.

There was some first-date blushing going in the year before, when the Zags beat Wyoming in the National Invitation Tournament, but you have to think there was some serious note passing going on – you know the kind: “Do you love me? Check yes or no.”

Now that Gonzaga has made every NCAA Tournament in its players’ memories, it’s easy to be a basketball lover and Zag maniac. How do you not adore an underdog who grew up to be a serious national championship contender?

I just wonder why the spark never turned to flame over, say, Washington State when George Raveling was turning out quips and quotes. The man was Twitter before there WAS Twitter.

“Fans never fall asleep at our games, because they’re afraid they might get hit by a pass,” he said.

It’s still true.

“I know Virginia players are smart because you need a 1500 SAT to get in,” he quipped. “I have to drop bread crumbs to get our players to and from class.”

I was just a kid and I would grab the paper first thing to read what fun and funny thing he had to say. Those were the days before coffee, of course.

George had some horses at Washington State back in those days – taking two teams to the NCAA Tournament. Steve Puidokas ring a bell? James Donaldson? Don Collins? Surely you remember Craig Ehlo.

And the love affair with Gonzaga didn’t erupt when it was the late Dan Fitzgerald at the helm, which is a puzzle. Fitz was a fun guy to be around. I think the fan base was just burned out from trying to remember how to spell Adrian Buoncristiani.

The only answer I can come up with is that, once 1999 rolled around, Spokane was just a pile of basketball kindling ready for the right spark.

Spokane had produced some great basketball talent.

Look no farther than John Stockton.

They may not have teamed with Karl Malone, but we have a history of producing some very good basketball talent.

I still remember Doug Steck and John Chamberlain at University High back in the early to mid-70s. And Bevan Maxey from Lewis and Clark flying over some undersized kids at West Valley. Ryne Sandberg or Mark Rypien on a basketball court ring any bells?

How about Jud Heathcote from his coaching days at West Valley? Or Squinty Hunter at LC? Wayne Gilman at Ferris? Terry Irwin, who coached John Stockton at Gonzaga Prep and Kevin Stocker at CV?

Until those heady days of the Zags in the Big Dance, perhaps the best expression of how great a basketball town Spokane is came during the original March Madness. The State B.

Not the State 1B/2B. No, my friend. The B.

The names have outlived the old Boone Street Barn.

Gene Smith. Dale Smith. Pick a Wellsandt or a Soliday. Lyle Patterson. Dick Olson. Jim Stinson. Byron Beck.

The schools have come and gone, in some cases. Some have grown bigger and some have merged into a hyphenated afterthought.

Reardan. Davenport. St. John. Kalama. Skykomish. Brewster. Naselle. Wahkiakum. Oakesdale.

It’s good to remember those roots. And that’s not so much as touching on the great and rich history of girls basketball in the area and the local players who put the game on the map.

Let’s put it this way. Two players we were watching just a handful of months ago are now either starting or playing significant minutes for the Stanford women’s basketball team. This after winning a mythical high school national championship at Central Valley.

You can argue that the area produced a deeper pool of top-level women’s players.

Emily Westerberg takes a backseat to no one. Lisa Comstock. Briann January. Katelan Redmon. Jazmine Redmon. Tammy Tibbles and Aileen McManus (In the context of high school basketball you cannot mention one without the other). Angie Bjorklund and her sister, Jami at University High – as someone who saw their dad, Jim, play at U-Hi. I am officially not making any statements about who was better. Even if it’s obvious.

And now we have Lacie and Lexie Hull about to rock the basketball world on one of the nation’s most prestigious teams.

Spokane, we’ve done pretty darned well by the sport of basketball. Our love is hardly unrequited.

And now we’re about to start all over again with another fantastic season at all levels.

The game turns over, but like spring, something new always takes root and starts to grow.

Is there a national title on the horizon? Are there high school state champs starting their journey to the title? Are there new players just itching to write their names alongside the greats?

In order, the answers to those questions is: I don’t know, probably and you can bet your life on it.

Now buckle up. It’s going to be a fun ride.

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