Gary Bell Jr. was tired of leaving his young family behind to continue playing professional basketball overseas, so he started looking at high school coaching jobs in the Phoenix area.
About the same time, Gonzaga, Bell’s alma mater, was looking for a graduate assistant.
One phone call from GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd brought the two together again. It was a call several years in the making.
“When I was here before (as a player from 2012-2015), Tommy thought I’d be a good coach one day,” Bell said. “For him to call and ask me to do this, he kind of saw it from the jump.”
Gonzaga sells its family atmosphere in recruiting, and it apparently applies in coaching searches. For Bell, it worked on two levels. He thoroughly enjoyed his four-year run as a starting guard on some of Gonzaga’s greatest teams. He also wanted his family under one roof after being separated for long stretches while he played in Poland, France and Greece.
“It was time,” Bell said. “My kids are getting older. I just want to be around a lot more than I have been. Seeing them maybe one or two months a year was tough. It was a no-brainer; I can get my master’s (degree).”
Bell’s duties include working out a few players, often transfer guard Admon Gilder and sophomore guard Joel Ayayi, and studying videotape. He’s learning the ropes on Synergy, which allows coaches to break down players and opponents in specific ways, such as watching countless clips of a how a guard works off a high ball screen.
Bell said he receives a small stipend, but “it’s mainly for the master’s and the learning experience.”
Bell endeared himself to the coaching staff and Zags fans as a rock-solid guard who could influence games with his deadly 3-point shot or adhesive defense. He was a fixture in the backcourt with Kevin Pangos for four seasons with the two combining for 264 starts.
“It’s going to be a great addition,” coach Mark Few said of Bell. “It already has been great. He has a bright future.”
Bell averaged 9.6 points during his career and hit nearly 41% of his 3-point attempts. He was the 2015 West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, which prompts the question: Who were the toughest opponents to defend?
Bell matched up against dozens of outstanding guards, including Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Arizona’s Nick Johnson, Illinois’ Brandon Paul, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Michigan State’s Keith Appling and Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
“I’d probably have to say (Matthew) Dellavedova (of Saint Mary’s) was hard to guard. So smart off ball screens, he’d kill your defense,” Bell said. “Tyler Haws (from BYU) was hard, he moved without the ball really well. I’d probably say Pierre Jackson (Baylor) was the scariest because you didn’t know what he was going to do. His handle was tight and he was so quick.”
Bell made his share of clutch shots, including a late 3-pointer that lifted No. 10 GU to a 69-68 road victory over No. 22 Oklahoma State in 2012. Bell delivered 17 points in the Zags’ 2014 NCAA Tournament victory over Oklahoma State.
He triggered a second-half rally that came up just short in a loss to second-seeded Ohio State in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Bell finished with 18 points and five assists.
Bell’s highlights include helping the Zags reach No. 1 in 2013 for the first time in school history and advancing to the 2015 Elite Eight. He hasn’t forgotten two memorable losses from those two seasons.
Bell barely played in the second half as Wichita State hit a barrage of 3-pointers late to upset the top-ranked Zags in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
“I was just talking to Brian (Michaelson, GU assistant coach) about that game. We’d never really talked about it, but it’s one of the toughest games to think about,” Bell said. “I think if we were healthy, we win that. I was playing through (a stress fracture in his foot) for a couple months but in that game, it was over.”
The Zags lost a four-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 35 seconds and fell to Arizona in overtime in December 2014.
“That atmosphere (McKale Center) was crazy,” Bell said. “That game was so live, high-level guys, a lot of pros.”
Bell jokes that shortly after leaving in 2015 the program “got all this new stuff.
“When I first saw it (Volkar Center and remodeled locker room), I was definitely a little jealous,” he said, “but we helped build a lot of this stuff and the guys are definitely in the gym and using it.”
Bell, 27, played four seasons overseas. His family joined him initially before spending the last few years in Phoenix, where his wife’s parents live. The hardest part was being separated from 5-year-old Gary III and 2-year-old daughter Leniya.
“I didn’t like being away from my family,” Bell said. “The money was OK. There wasn’t a problem with that.”
His new position brings Bell’s family together full time.
“My son started playing soccer, and he’s actually pretty good,” Bell said. “I’m putting them to sleep every night, and I take them to school. That’s the best part.”
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