LAS VEGAS – Moments after cracking open the double doors of Liberty High’s gymnasium, assistant principal of athletics Preston Goroff tells two visitors they’re walking on hallowed ground.
“It’s the house that Strawther built,” he said.
That’s not an exaggeration, either.
Hanging on one of the stone walls inside the atrium of the large gymnasium in Henderson, Nevada, is a Gonzaga jersey with Julian Strawther’s name and No. 0. His older sister, Paris, has a red No. 3 UNLV jersey hanging on the adjacent wall – a subtle reminder that although Julian is starring on the No. 1 team in the country, he wasn’t the only Strawther to lay bricks at Liberty High.
Julian’s senior photo hangs on another wall where the school commemorates its “Athlete of the Year” recipients and another slab of wall, designated for Liberty athletes who’ve played at the next level, includes placards for Julian and his sister.
Julian’s 2,252 career points and 839 rebounds – both program records – may be one way to measure his impact at Liberty, located just 10 miles from the T-Mobile Arena where Strawther and No. 1 Gonzaga have taken up residency this week for games against Central Michigan, No. 2 UCLA and No. 5 Duke. His father, Lee, still has a replica basketball from the 2019 HoopHall Classic, where Strawther put on a dazzling 51-point display in December 2019.
Two years later, Stefan Berg can still recite the box scores and the records, but when he says he hasn’t seen a player quite like Strawther, the former Liberty High coach doesn’t stop at the guard’s silky 3-point shot, unique ball-handling skills or pro-level athleticism.
Berg’s favorite Strawther story does involve basketball, but only as a secondary character. Liberty’s team was participating in the 2020 Quincy Shootout in Illinois, but Strawther wasn’t slated to play after suffering an ankle injury. During a game-day shootaround at a local elementary school, a second-grade student who’d been walking campus grounds heard balls bouncing in the nearby gym and popped in to take a peek.
As the story goes, Strawther invited the young, wide-eyed boy to rebound and shoot with the team. The boy, who claimed he’d never been around “real basketball players,” had a chance to snap a photo with Strawther before returning to class. The next day, an e-mail from the boy’s paraprofessional was forwarded from Liberty’s principal to Berg. It left both stunned.
“See, my student is an African American boy who has been moved from foster home to foster home, feels like no one cares about him, and has hardly anything,” the email read. “I could tell him all that, but my student just sees that as me having to do my ‘job’ and feed him that stuff. Your player, Julian Strawther (a young African American man who is a basketball superstar), took time out of his day and made him feel so special and made him feel like the coolest person in school today. I don’t think that Julian will ever know the impact that 5 min conversation had on that little boy.”
Meanwhile, Strawther’s impact on Las Vegas is unmistakable. It’s why a public address announcer at Tuesday’s game between the top-ranked Bulldogs and second-ranked Bruins read off the names of four other GU starters before finally getting to the hometown kid, whose reveal produced a stirring response from the T-Mobile Arena crowd. Strawther’s connection to Vegas is authentic – a product of the relationships he’s formed here, both with those who are still around and also those who’ve left him.
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He thinks about how she would’ve reacted Tuesday night to seeing him on the national stage, starting for the country’s No. 1 team, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds less than 20 minutes from the house where they grew up.
The first thing to know is Lourdes Cordero was Puerto Rican, perhaps more by personality than by blood.
“The main thing about my mom, especially at a basketball game, is you knew she was there because she was the loudest person in the gym by far,” Julian said. “Like, she was screaming at every little thing. I’d touch the ball, she was already screaming. I didn’t shoot it, I didn’t dribble, I didn’t do anything. She made sure I knew she was there. I always cherish that.”
Julian was only 9 years old when Lourdes, or “Cookie” as many called her, died from breast cancer. Before his freshman season at Gonzaga, Strawther tattooed his upper-left arm with the name of his mother, a cross and a breast cancer awareness ribbon.
The ink stain on his left arm not the only piece of Lourdes that’s still with Strawther. Her Puerto Rican heritage means Strawther is eligible to play for the territory’s national basketball team, something he’s done at youth international competitions and would like to do someday at the Olympics.
“It means everything, because I know she would be so excited about that,” Strawther said. “She’s really, really, really Puerto Rican. That’s like their main personality trait, so I know she would love that and I love that I can do that for her.”
Whenever Strawther is home, memories of his mother are never too far. A bag in the family room of the Vegas-area home owned by his oldest sister, Paige, contains a camcorder Lourdes frequently used to film trips to Disneyland, basketball games and other family outings.
“We had a very beautiful family dynamic. She and I were married 20 years when she passed away,” Strawther’s father, Lee, said on Monday. “… They’re at that stage now and (Julian) just wants to make her proud. He wishes, of course, she was here to see all this because she’d be the biggest cheerleader out of anyone.”
Strawther’s trademark smile, captured in dozens of hype videos produced by Gonzaga’s social media team the past two years, along with nearly every social media photo the sophomore wing has posted, is also something that was handed down from Lourdes.
“That’s something you see on Twitter and on Instagram. A lot of the pictures that I’m in, I’m smiling,” Strawther said. “Real, real wide, and that’s something I get from her.”
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Paris Strawther vividly remembers their games in the kitchen. Julian is still trying to forget them.
“I played him when I won until I knew it wouldn’t be beneficial for me anymore,” Paris said. “Then it was more of like, I can compete with him in shooting competitions, but that’s about it.”
As for Julian’s side of the story?
“When I was younger, I always wanted to be like her,” he said. “She was obviously the better player at the time, bigger, stronger, everything like that. Those little Nerf hoop games would get really intense. I never won. I don’t think I ever won one time, never even got close and every time I’d almost end up crying and trying to fight her after.
“It was always a bad loss for me and I was a real sore loser about it.”
The imaginations of two hoop-crazed kids ran wild. With a Nerf basket set up in the kitchen, the Strawther siblings would play 1-on-1 games with a tennis ball, the only object that would fit into the tiny rim. With a microwave timer emulating a shot clock, Julian and Paris would get after it for hours.
“Microwave as a shot clock, set it on 5 seconds, 4, 3, 2 then the thing beeps and you’ve got to get it out of your hands,” Lee said. “… Well, that’s where he gets some of his handles from. He handled a tennis ball and he did this all the way up through middle school. So he’s always dribbling a tennis ball. So if you can dribble a tennis ball, you can definitely dribble a basketball.”
There was no shame in Julian’s win-loss record on the kitchen floor. Paris was a three-year starter who played in well over 100 games at UNLV, averaging 6.1 points and 5.3 rebounds as a senior. Lee equates their relationship to the one between former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller and sister Cheryl, a former USC star.
“It’s funny, because it’s kind of true,” Paris said.
Paris and the oldest Strawther sibling, Paige, felt they had to adopt motherly responsibilities when Lourdes died in 2011 and they continue to keep a protective eye on their younger brother.
“We call him our son, too,” Paris said. “He’s (Lee’s) son and he’s our son, too, so we definitely take pride in looking after him and making sure he’s OK and helping my dad with taking care of him, too. We’re all very close, a super tight-knit family.”
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Strawther experienced more loss in 2020. Not long after he left for Puerto Rico to begin training camp with the youth national team for the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Lithuania, he learned his longtime trainer, Wes Reed, had died from COVID-19.
The training partnership between Strawther and Reed dates back at least 13 years to when Lee Strawther was trying to locate a new AAU team for his daughter. Reed was a former UNLV player coaching the girls AAU Henderson Heat at the time, along with a younger boys team. Julian was reluctant to come out, but as Lee remembers, “We shoved him out there one day, he started playing with the guys and never looked back.”
Strawther came to Reed as a raw, unskilled fifth-grader and worked with him through middle school, high school and beyond. After Gonzaga lost in the national championship game, Strawther returned to Las Vegas immediately and worked out multiple times with Reed before leaving for Puerto Rico camp.
“When I went to (Reed), I could barely dribble the ball through my legs,” he said. “I was a real, real bad basketball player and he kind of taught me everything I know and taught me really how to play the game of basketball the way I do now.”
Reed was the ultimate disciplinarian, never hesitant to drop a curse word if it helped him get a point across. One time, Strawther’s unbeaten, 26-0 Silvestri Junior High team – a group that also included Oklahoma’s Jalen Hill and West Virginia’s Isaiah Cottrell – entered the halftime locker room of a city championship game facing a rare deficit. Reed, not Silvestri’s coach, waited for Strawther and Hill to come out of the locker room, before ripping into the duo.
“When they come out to warm up for the second half, he yanks both of them and he’s cursing. We can hear him cursing,” Lee said. “ ‘Ya’ll going to blow this game off and not go undefeated.’ Just got in them and they came back and won. It was a game they were supposed to lose.”
Though he didn’t always enjoy the tough love at the time, Strawther realizes in hindsight how it helped.
“He always made sure we were acting right and playing the right way,” Strawther said. “He never let us get too loose or caught up in the moment. Our main focus was always playing the right way.”
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Strawther’s emergence as Gonzaga’s starting wing, the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and top 3-point shooter may be a surprise to those who haven’t been following along, but it’s certainly no accident.
The second-year player made a tough call this offseason after spending time in Puerto Rico with the U-20 national team. After making drastic changes to his body and fine-tuning almost every aspect of his game, Strawther felt his development hit a standstill in Puerto Rico, so he withdrew from training camp just days before the team was set to leave for Europe.
“I know there was some bumps in the road last year and there were some tough times where we wanted to see him in action and he just couldn’t squeak those minutes out to do anything overly meaningful,” Lee said. “But this spring after the season, after the tournament, he just turned on this switch. This internal switch. I don’t know where it came from. And he said, ‘I’m going to work. I’m not doing this again, I’m not doing this again.’ ”
Lee had flown to Puerto Rico to support his son and initially pushed back against Julian’s decision to leave the team.
“We battled, battled, battled. I said, well evidently this kid’s serious,” Lee said. “I said ‘All right Ju, you’re going to have to man up, you’re going to have to get out of this car, walk to that coach’s office, pull those coaches and tell them yourself.’ He said, fine, slam.”
It also meant Strawther would have to fund his own trip home, an $800 plane ticket back to Spokane. The price of travel was worth the progress Strawther made when he returned to Gonzaga, working tirelessly with assistant Brian Michaelson.
“He’s been great and it’s kind of what we expected of him, quite frankly,” GU coach Mark Few said. “It’s the same thing Corey Kispert did. It’s just what you do at Gonzaga. That’s just how it happens and we reward those guys that are patient. Actually, the game rewards those guys that are patient, that work, and that’s what the program is all about.”
Strawther is thriving and this week, thriving in his hometown. There’s one task left: Friday against No. 5 Duke.
“It’s been everything I could ever ask for, this is about as cool as it gets for a guy on the No. 1 team in the country to come back to his hometown and play in the biggest arena in his hometown, the biggest games,” Strawther said. “All the family and friends everywhere. This is really just a dream come true.”