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The Zags don't exactly sing it from the rafters

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I’ll have to admit, Isaiah Thomas has surprised me before. I never knew how he pulled off those intrepid drives to the basket as a 5-9 guard at Washington. I thought it was a little ballsy when he declared he was ready for the NBA after his junior year. I was floored when he became one of the NBA’s top scorers -- essentially becoming a better pro than a collegian.

Now he’s done it again. Next month, Thomas’ No. 2 jersey will be retired at Washington.

I didn’t see that coming, either.

So what’s a UW episode doing on a Gonzaga-themed blog? Well, it’s a worthy example of how there’s nothing in college sports as jagged, inscrutable and sometimes downright illogical as the process by which numbers are retired.

This is not meant as a knock on Thomas, who has carved out an astonishing career as an undersized player and has done good community work. But if you’re like me, you assess such things -- like the baseball Hall of Fame -- on two levels. You form an immediate gut reaction, yes or no, and then you’re willing to take a hard look at the accomplishments.

With Thomas, who is still in the prime of a pro career, I can’t yet get over the hump. Collegiately, he was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection and a two-time conference tournament MVP. But he was never a conference player of the year, not an All-American, and only once in his three seasons did the Huskies advance as far as the Sweet 16.

Clearly, a pro career of prolific scoring and his two-time appearance in the NBA All-Star game influenced Washington.

Gonzaga has been through this before -- well, a long time before. You wouldn’t retire John Stockton’s number on the basis of his college achievements; he was WCAC player of the year in 1984, yet the Zags were a pedestrian 27-25 in league his four years. But a prodigious NBA career put him over the top, a fact which speaks to the unevenness of how college numbers are retired.

In fact, when Stockton was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame -- to be differentiated from the Naismith Hall of Fame -- he told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, “I was surprised to be included, frankly.”

Anyway, Stockton was the last Zag to have a number retired, joining former national scoring leader Frank Burgess as the only two former Gonzaga players so honored. And with Thomas about to see his jersey in the UW rafters, I thought it worthwhile to pick the brain of Zags athletic director Mike Roth on the subject of GU retired numbers.

To sum up, it’s not exactly on the front burner.

“We haven’t even got to that yet,” Roth told me recently. “We’re not spending any energy on it, to be quite honest.”

You’d have to say Gonzaga’s history with retired numbers is like a lot of schools’ -- hit and miss. One of the chief challenges with retired numbers, of course, is that to have a cohesive, common-sense approach requires even-handedness over the generations.

Some schools treat retired numbers like a publicity grab. That’s how a lot of Zag fans look at Saint Mary’s retirement of the jerseys of Patty Mills and Matt Dellavedova. Meanwhile, Washington State football, for instance, shares similarity with GU basketball; it has retired only those jerseys of Mel Hein, a great center of almost nine decades ago; and Jack Thompson of the 1970s, who never led the Cougars to a bowl game but has been more notable in recent years as sort of a father confessor to some prolific WSU quarterbacks.

“It’s been discussed internally, and there will continue to be discussions,” Roth says. “I’m sure we’ll see some other numbers get retired someday.”

As Roth explains it, the Zags got busy with some other stuff.

They had a Gonzaga hall of fame, but he says its last class was in 1995. That’s, uh, a generation ago.

Shortly after came the turmoil that saw an NCAA investigation into GU’s athletic finances, and the demise of Dan Fitzgerald as athletic director. And then, in 1999, the Zags’ unforeseen burst onto the basketball scene with an appearance in the Elite Eight. There came two more Sweet 16 appearances, and soon, a new arena.

“Initially, it was just the circumstances,” Roth said. “And then, we were changing everything about who we were.”

First things first. As at most schools, a hall of fame takes precedence over the concept of retired numbers, which are sort of the crème de la crème. And at GU, there wasn’t really a place to celebrate a hall of fame. So for years, the school has made do with modest wall displays inside the Martin Center.

Soon, there will be an honest-to-goodness “hall of honor” inside the new Volkar Center -- the last feature of the new building housing a practice court, basketball strength-and-conditioning component and student-athlete academic support-services center. Some of those elements' christening are targeted for the return of students from the holiday break, but the hall of honor component probably won’t be ready until sometime in the spring.

(Side note: The celebration of Gonzaga’s rare basketball history in such a setting has been sorely lacking. A visitor from say, Indiana, wandering through campus encounters a McCarthey Athletic Center whose arena is locked and no evidence of what the Zags have pulled off.)

Roth says any serious discussion of retired numbers will come after the particulars of the Zags getting up to speed on their hall of fame. As he points out, “We’ve had a few players come through here since 1995. We’ve got to focus on that first.”

For the hall of fame, Roth refers to a “working group” of present and former staffers, identities of which he doesn’t reveal so as not to impose pressure on them. He said it’s in the range of five people, including an alum. Roth says he’s not a member.

But even this process is in its formative stages. Roth says some criteria for candidacy in the hall of fame must be established, such as time passed since the athlete left. The group, he says, will research best practices elsewhere, with the idea of distilling them into policy.

Retired numbers, then? Whom would you make No. 3 at Gonzaga?

Nobody had a more decorated season at GU than Adam Morrison (2006), but his NBA career doesn’t add much. Ronny Turiaf’s teams had some bad NCAA exits, but he’s probably the most popular Zag in history. Przemek Karnowski was a towering presence on two of Gonzaga’s most successful teams in 2015 (Elite Eight) and 2017 (Final Four). Blake Stepp (2003-04) is Gonzaga’s only two-time WCC player of the year.

Or maybe the Zags would give a shout-out to the student-athlete concept and recognize three who are among a select group in NCAA history of first-team All-Americans both academically and on the floor: Dan Dickau, Kelly Olynyk and Nigel Williams-Goss.

“We don’t want to rush into anything,” Roth said.

But you knew that.



#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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