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

Difference Makers: High school hoops tournament honoring late Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald supplies good basketball, good deeds

There are plenty of basketball tournaments each season that focus on the game itself, but one annual event in Spokane tries to look at a bigger picture. 

The annual Dan Fitzgerald Memorial Basketball Showcase, or “The Fitz,” as it is affectionately known, celebrated its 10th anniversary the first weekend in December with an eight-team field – four boys teams and four girls teams featuring locals and out-of-town opponents.

The tournament is part basketball, part fundraiser and part day of service for the participants in honor of Fitzgerald, the former Gonzaga University men’s basketball coach.

Locally, proceeds from the tournament benefit the Spokane Boys and Girls Club, the Greater Spokane League Needy Student Fund and the Hooptown USA Youth Basketball League.

The Fitz also supports the Dan Fitzgerald scholarship at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, where Fitzgerald coached early in his career.

The thing that makes The Fitz unique, though, is service. Participating teams spend part of their weekend at Second Harvest, the Ronald McDonald House of Charity or Union Gospel Mission, providing assistance to those in need.

“That’s a really key component,” tournament organizer Jeff Norton said. “That community service part of the weekend becomes a highlight for a lot of teams.

“I’ve had coaches who went on to win state trophies and they’ll mention that aspect of that weekend still resonates with their players as much as winning a state trophy. It’s a pretty powerful experience. Instead of just talking about it, it’s experiencing selflessness, it’s experiencing being a servant-leader. It’s experiencing being a teammate. A lot of those kids haven’t had those types of experiences.”

The tournament took a two-year pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. Norton indicated the pause forced organizers to “relearn” some things.

“It’s the generosity of our sponsors that keeps us going,” he said. “As long as the sponsors stay in place, we’ll keep going.”

The tournament, held at Lewis and Clark High School and featuring the Tigers’ boys and girls teams, kicks off the Spokane high school basketball season and attracts some of the Pacific Northwest’s best basketball teams each year.

“The preseason thing has worked well,” Norton said. “I think we’ve been able to attract some teams maybe we would not otherwise have been able to because they are already in a fancy holiday tournament.

“It generates a little excitement in early December.”

This is the third season the Mead girls team has participated in the tourney.

“We’ll come back whenever they want to have us,” Mead girls coach Quantae Anderson said. “It’s just a classy event.”

Fitzgerald is enshrined in the Washington State Sports and Inland Northwest Halls of Fame for guiding Gonzaga men’s basketball to 252 wins and its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

His coaching legacy is secure, as he assembled the staff that would succeed him at Gonzaga – Dan Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier – that lifted the Bulldogs into national basketball prominence.

“It’s simple – I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Fitz,” Few told the S-R in 2010.

Fitzgerald’s legacy is a draw for some of the teams that appear.

“The biggest thing is Fitz, himself,” Anderson said. “I’ve coached a couple of his former players’ daughters. Knowing that he’s a part of them as people, and it really translates to their kids as well. It’s an opportunity to continue his legacy.”

Norton said it “takes a village” to pull the tournament off every year.

“There’s a lot of people who are committed and helpful to make it happen from the basketball end, but also from the fundraising end. The people at LC have been awesome. Coaches, administrators, staff, boosters – everybody helps make it happen. It’s a pretty special group to be involved with.”

Presented by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Northern Quest Resort & Casino, The Fitz has raised more than $100,000 and thousands of pounds of food in its history.

Northern Quest provides lodging for the out-of-town teams and coaches, and hosts the annual banquet. Hoopfest is a business partner for the event.

“It’s right in line with what Fitz did,” Norton said. “He was very, very generous with his time and his attention, and that’s why we got started doing this. Philosophically, we’re just following his lead.”

Fitzgerald died after collapsing in a restaurant in January 2010 at the age of 67.

Norton, who at the time was the athletic director and boys basketball coach at LC, was part of a group that wanted to come up with a way to honor Fitzgerald – to “keep his name alive.”

A couple of players on the first team that Fitzgerald coached, a freshman team at Archbishop Mitty, came to Spokane with the original idea. They met with several locals about how to preserve the coach’s memory.

“We had lunch at The Onion one day,” Norton said. “We just hashed out some ideas.”

Norton offered up the LC gym for free, and the rest is history.

“It just kind of came to fruition out of this group of Fitz’s friends that wanted to do something with his name attached to it and to honor his legacy.”

At the annual banquet the night before the tourney, former players or associates of Fitzgerald talk about the impact he made on the basketball communities in Spokane and San Jose.

“The banquet is really, really cool,” Anderson said. “You get to hear about Coach Fitz, about his legacy and the groundwork he did to make Gonzaga what it is now. And who he was as a person.”

Norton hopes the players and their families take something more than basketball memories home with them.

“His lessons about selflessness and contributing to something that’s bigger than you are, being a good teammate – those kinds of lessons that Fitz taught are important to 16-year-olds, but also important for the 60-year-olds to continue to remember.”