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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Dave Boling: As Dan Monson is welcomed home, the Inland Northwest hoop scene grows further intertwined

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

With Dan Monson’s hiring at Eastern Washington, the Inland Northwest basketball environment further closed into a flat circle, a hoop, perhaps, with common elements woven and connected like nylon netting.

This collective excellence, with men’s and women’s programs flourishing at the region’s schools, is good for the players, the programs, and the fans.

Monson’s return further enhances that providential interconnectedness. Monday, at his introductory press conference at EWU, he gave additional evidence that he is among the most sincere and relatable coaches in the country.

It’s a results-oriented business, but also one that, in the best of cases, is built on relationships. Monson is as genuine and caring as it gets, with the roots of his family tree intertwined with his coaching tree.

So, now the new EWU coach has strong Gonzaga connections, with Monson having been head coach during the Zags’ unprecedented national emergence.

Washington State’s new coach, Dave Riley, has moved to Pullman from Cheney, where he recently led EWU to a pair of conference titles. Riley also played for Whitworth.

And, with the recent conference shakeups, Gonzaga and Washington State are now West Coast Conference lodge brothers.

A fair percentage of Monson’s presentation Monday was outlining his history in the region, most of which has been examined in recent days, except the fact that, as a child, he used to play in a nearby park that his father, Don, helped supervise while he was coaching at Cheney High.

And, also, that his wife, Darci, was once a Spokane “Lilac queen.” Nowhere in his bio does he divulge that he was married to royalty.

Don, who took Idaho to its highest national prominence (the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1982), kicked in $5,000 to the EWU athletic coffers since his son’s hiring.

All that helps explain Monson’s roots. What is of more relevance to the basketball product is Monson’s connections to local hoop power-brokers.

On Sunday, he spent two hours on the phone with GU coach Mark Few, the winningest active coach in college basketball and a certain future Hall of Famer.

Close? Monson pushed to get Few hired as a grad assistant at GU, and let him live at his house when Few was getting started. They were in each other’s weddings, both officiated by Few’s father.

Their talks this weekend: “… going through candidates and players and everything else,” Monson said.

Can you imagine what an amazing resource Few can be to Monson in that regard?

Although basketball is an open marketplace now, Monson said EWU was not a place where they can just open the checkbook and lure ready-made hoop stars.

In that way, it reminds him of Gonzaga, in the early days, when he was assisting Dan Fitzgerald. They had to turn over rocks and bet on potential. In a lot of cases, they took chances on the guys because of their grit and desire. Those are still traits EWU can use.

“I talked to the (EWU) team about being thankful for what they have instead of worrying about what we don’t have,” Monson said.

As he and Few did at GU, Monson will still look at “kids from this region who are hungry and have some edge to them. … We’re going to find guys who want to get better and we’re going to make them better.”

The Eagles, he said, have been a program on the ascendency under his predecessors, and have a strong foundation. He now wants to help them take the next step.

Scheduling is such an art in college basketball, finding nonconference opponents that will build potential tournament credentials without having to risk too many early losses.

With the strong relationships, now, between Spokane County’s two Division I basketball programs, it’s easy to envision an annual meeting, perhaps to fill the 12,000-plus seat Spokane Arena.

Monson tactfully answered a question about playing the Zags. He said he doesn’t just want to play against them, he wants to beat them. “We’re not at that level, yet.”

Surely it would be impossible, given current scheduling limitations, but the success of local teams sends thoughts of reviving the long-gone Alpo Classic, a doomed Thanksgiving tournament among EWU, WSU, Gonzaga and Idaho that withered in the late 1980s.

Hard to imagine now, given how fervent hoop fans are, but the gathering of the local schools never filled the old Coliseum, with roughly 6,500 seats.

Different era. But a young assistant on the Gonzaga sideline in the last Alpo Classic was Dan Monson. His efforts were crucial in triggering the growth of college basketball in the region since.

And now he’s back. Bridging those eras.

Welcome home.