It sounds so simple, to hear Rasir Bolton summarize his three-school collegiate odyssey.
“A journey,” Bolton says matter-of-factly. “It’s been a journey, up and down, good and bad, but I kept my head down and kept working and stayed the course.”
Bolton is currently experiencing the “up” and “good” portion of his documentary-worthy story as a key contributor for top-ranked Gonzaga. But the senior guard knows both ends of the spectrum, encountering plenty of the “down” and “bad” in previous stops at Penn State and Iowa State.
There was the extreme anguish Bolton felt when he heard Penn State coach Pat Chambers’ racially charged “noose” comment that caused Bolton to transfer to Iowa State after his freshman season. Chambers eventually resigned as head coach.
There was the nagging wrist injury Bolton dealt with for most of two productive seasons at Iowa State. That was followed by a meeting last spring with new head coach T.J. Otzelberger, who informed Bolton he didn’t fit into his plans, despite being the team’s statistical leader in several categories during a rough 2-22 season.
There was the unexpected phone call from Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. and Bolton discovering the right fit for his senior season. Bolton has been rock-solid at both ends of the court and in his spare time helps people in need in the Spokane community.
Bolton reflected on his career path as Senior Night approaches Saturday against Santa Clara. There’s a chance it might not be his final home game. He hasn’t decided if he’ll use an additional COVID year of eligibility, saying, “Honestly, we’ll see how that plays out and just focus on the games right now.”
A few days after Chambers told Bolton in a January 2019, meeting, “I need to get some of this pressure off you. I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck,” Bolton was alone in his room, pondering his future when he put pen to paper.
“It was definitely shocking when I heard it, kind of tough,” he recalled. “But going through it, I made this little quote for myself: ‘Remain humble, may stumble, never tumble.’ It’s something I live by, no matter what happens. You have to roll with the punches and keep pushing forward.”
Chambers later apologized to Bolton and Bolton’s family for his comment. Ray Bolton, Rasir’s father, said the key to getting through the incident and tough times later at Iowa State was finding a way to grow and staying focused on goals.
“I had to learn what being a father was like in those circumstances and obviously that comes with emotions and reactions,” Ray said. “But at the end of the day, it’s defined by how you lead your kids and making sure we are taking the steps toward your goals.
“I’ve grown tremendously. If we had this conversation 3-4 years ago, I probably would have been a little different. I appreciate everything because through it all, his game reflects that we were able to support him.”
And vice versa.
“It’s one of those things as a parent, one of those moments you get to learn from your child, absolutely,” Ray said. “His motto is something he came up with and used on his social media accounts for a long time, that if people, no matter what age, understand and stick to it, anything is possible.”
Ray, who played basketball at Bethune-Cookman, coached Rasir (pronounced RAH-zheer) on AAU teams. Ray would pick Rasir up about a half hour before elementary school ended and drive two hours from the family home in the Tri-Cities area of Virginia to Maryland for practices twice a week.
Rasir’s teammates over the years included Saddiq Bey, who plays for the Detroit Pistons after starring at Villanova, current Wildcats’ Justin Moore, Brandon Slater and Angelo Brizzi and Butler’s Aaron Thompson.
“It doesn’t really stop,” Ray said. “I always watch every game and I do (send) him clips. Still a coach.”
Bolton put up big numbers in two seasons at Iowa State. As a sophomore, he joined Tyrese Halliburton in the backcourt and they combined for roughly 30 points, 9.3 rebounds and nearly nine assists per game, despite troublesome pain in Bolton’s right (shooting) wrist.
Halliburton declared for the draft and was a 2020 lottery pick. He recently was part of a six-player trade that sent him from Sacramento to Indiana and former Zags standout Domantas Sabonis in the other direction.
Bolton had offseason wrist surgery to repair two tendons. His wrist pain flared up at times while carrying a heavier load as a junior. He still averaged 15.5 points, 4.8 boards and 3.9 assists, but the Cyclones struggled to a 2-22 record, 0-18 in the Big 12. Gonzaga, incidentally, is 22-2.
“I would say I did a lot, but it was fun,” he said. “The losing wasn’t fun, but going through that season with those teammates, I still talk to them to this day.”
Shortly after the season, Otzelberger was hired to replace head coach Steve Prohm. The new coach set up individual meetings with the players and Bolton’s pragmatism was tested again.
“He called me in, said we appreciate everything you did, your numbers and everything, but we’re probably going to go a different way,” Bolton said. “I appreciated him being honest with me. It definitely hurt a little bit, but you have to take what comes with it. That’s the business.”
Bolton’s business became finding a new home as a graduate transfer.
Bolton heard from Arkansas, LSU, Georgetown and a few others before Gonzaga reached out.
“I was joking around when I went into the transfer portal, ‘What if Gonzaga called?’ ” Bolton said. “And they called.”
Bolton did his research on GU’s program, coach Mark Few, the roster and the team’s style of play. Julian Strawther hosted Bolton on his visit and Andrew Nembhard relayed details of how the program operates.
“The culture and the family environment here is just so easy to fit in seamlessly,” said Nembhard, a Florida transfer in his second season with the Zags. “It was just so easy for me to blend in and Rasir is the same way. Everybody likes him. He just fits in so easily.”
Bolton, who played in 83 games at Penn State and Iowa State, and Nembhard form an experienced starting backcourt. Bolton has emerged as one of the team’s best 3-point shooters (45.5%). He averages 10.5 points, 2.7 assists, 2.6 rebounds and a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s a bucket and he plays hard,” junior forward Anton Watson said. “He’s quick, one of the quickest dudes I’ve seen. He adds a lot of weapons to this team.”
Bolton often defends the opposing team’s best perimeter player. “He’s kind of an unsung hero there,” Few said.
Bolton credits his improvement behind the 3-point arc – he shot 33.6% and 31.4% as a Cyclone – to a healthy wrist.
“My wrist started feeling better a year off of surgery and it’s been all good so far,” he said. “My form is the same. I’m maybe getting my legs into it a little more. It’s a matter of being healthy and getting reps up in workouts.”
Bolton’s story is one of perseverance, self belief and unwavering family support. Whether he finishes his Gonzaga career this season or next, he’s already made a lasting impact in Spokane.
Rick Clark, founder of Spokane Quaranteam, which raises money to support restaurants and non-profit organizations during the COVID pandemic, addressed a name, image and likeness (NIL) class for Gonzaga athletes. Bolton met Clark afterward and volunteered to help.
Bolton, joined at times by teammates Nolan Hickman, Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis and Ben Gregg, has distributed food, blankets, clothing and other items to those in need.
“It makes me feel better as a person,” Bolton said. “It doesn’t hurt to give back or take time out of the day to help people out.”
Ray Bolton said his son is in the final stages of establishing a foundation to help others.
“He’s always given and never really wanted any credit for himself. He’s always moved in silence,” Ray said. “He has a charitable heart
“If you survey or interview 100 people that know Rasir and ask what the difference is now, it’s his smile. He didn’t smile before. You can see the joy he has. It transcends basketball. He’s just in a happy place. He’s a happy man. If you look at pictures of him in a Gonzaga uniform, you see all of his teeth.”
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