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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Idaho basketball

John Blanchette: Idaho basketball christens its new basketball arena in the best way possible – with a nod to the past

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 9, 2021

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

He would see the inner workings up close at his dad’s practices, and maybe pick up on a secret or two when he’d bring his laundry home and cadge a Sunday dinner.

But to Dan Monson, the essence of the brief, frenzied Golden Age of basketball at the University of Idaho could be found around sundown in the residence halls – the four wings of Wallace, or the upper reaches of Theophilus Tower.

“As a student in the dorms on game days, you’d have to get over to the dome early to get a seat in the student section,” he remembered. “There was a buzz about it. It wasn’t just a team; it was the campus’ team.

“Brian Kellerman, Phil Hopson – those guys lived in the dorms with us. It was a small campus so everybody knew everybody, but those guys were so approachable anyway. And they were local guys. Kelvin Smith was from Pasco, Gordie Herbert had gone to NIC. They weren’t just ‘the players.’ You knew them as people.”

People who, during a stretch of 37 months, they never saw lose a basketball game.

Don Monson’s people.

On Wednesday night, the school ushers in a new era of basketball – or at least new digs, which have been known to set the table for better times. The $51 million ICCU Arena gets its regular-season christening in the best way possible.

With a nod to the past.

The first addition to the décor of the 4,200-seat wood palace will be banners honoring Don Monson and the 1982 NCAA Sweet 16 team, ceremony enough to get him down from his Spokane home. But just in case, the Vandals also arranged a game against Long Beach State, where son Dan begins his 15th year as head coach.

Don’t think the crusty old coach isn’t touched.

“You take pride in things along the way,” he said, “but when you’re 88 years old, you’re lost for words to see your name up there.”

Now, they’ve done this family exercise before in Moscow – back in 2010, when the Vandals and the Beach got paired in ESPN’s old Bracket Busters contrivance, a 77-66 Idaho loss. Don Monson’s review of that experience was typically succinct.

“Miserable,” he said.

Loyalty tugs-of-war are hard on everyone.

“Look, Idaho is still my school,” he said. “I’m an Idaho guy, a Coeur d’Alene guy, an alum. But not in this game. For these, I’m a family guy.”

And there’s lots of family.

“They gave us 40 tickets,” said Dan Monson about the visiting team’s allotment. “Our point guard took two of them because his AAU coach is coming. I got the other 38.”

The irony is that this glorious new building and its 4,200 seats wouldn’t be half enough to handle the demand from the Monson era being feted this night. In his time as UI’s head coach, Don didn’t just take the Vandals from four wins the year before his arrival to 27 in ’82, but he also took attendance through the Kibbie Dome roof – up more than 80%. By 1983, the gates at games with Washington State and Montana topped 11,000 – with, yes, a lot of them coming from the emptied-out dorms. They saw the Vandals win 43 straight at home, make back-to-back NCAA appearances and two years running sweep the four Northwest schools of what’s now the Pac-12.

“I remember him calling home his first year after a game at Montana or somewhere, and saying, ‘I don’t know, son, if I can turn this thing around,’ ” Dan said. “But he did it so quick after that – and to levels, for lack of a better analogy, that were Gonzaga-ish.”

He’s allowed to make that analogy. He was, of course, GU’s head coach when the Bulldogs made their leap into the national consciousness in 1999 – and you know the rest of that story.

And for both Monsons, opportunities at better-resourced, power-conference schools – Oregon for Don, Minnesota for Dan – quickly materialized. Neither has ever found reason to regret those leaps, even if things didn’t work out in storybook fashion. Competitors aspire to challenge themselves at the highest level.

“I do think we proved at Idaho then that you could compete on the national level,” Don said, “that you could get in the polls and beat some of these teams and get people to come out. We did it. Now, a lot of things go into sustaining that.”

Idaho had neither the continuity or the institutional vision and commitment at the time to do so.

A few good years and some sad nadirs have followed in the course of four decades, but ambitions don’t have to be sky-high now to grow something worthy and appealing. And now the Vandals no longer have to recruit to a football stadium or play half their games in old Memorial Gym.

“People will think we hit the lotto with this building,” Don said.

It’s spiffy and cozy, a home of their own, where the right players and the right style – and the right results – can create an atmosphere. And maybe a little buzz in the dorms.

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