News Column

Gonzaga's Team-first Approach Rings True

March 20, 2013

Todd Milles, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

The Gonzaga men's basketball team, after winning the West Coast Conference tournament championship in Las Vegas, filmed its version of the "Harlem Shake" on the plane ride home.

Kelly Olynyk gets it started, moving his shoulders and flopping his hair.

Soon, other players followed by shaking their torsos in the aisle, where the WCC championship trophy sat.

At last, the camera panned to where sophomore Gary Bell Jr. was sitting.

The normally understated guard out of Kentridge High School was up and moving -- showcasing the same smooth, rhythmic style he displays on the basketball court.

Others on the team, such as Olynyk, a potential NBA draft lottery pick, senior Elias Harris and 3-point marksman Kevin Pangos, get more attention than Bell, who is the team's No. 4 scoring option on most nights.

But opponents in the NCAA tournament would be wise not to underestimate Bell, who usually has the assignment of guarding the other team's most dangerous playmaker.

"He knows how valuable he is. If they relax or do anything with Kelly and Elias or anything, he bangs in 20 (points)," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "The beauty of it is he does not get hung up on credit."

That team-first reputation has long carried past his days at Kentridge High when he was The News Tribune's 2011 All-Area Player of the Year, and a two-time all-state selection.

But today, when Chargers coach Dave Jamison tries illustrating a point to his current players, the sentence usually begins, "If you want to see who does it the right way, check out Gary Bell ... ."

"They are kind of sick of hearing about him all of the time," Jamison said.

Bell learned two crucial points at an early age:

One: listen and do not talk. This was pounded into his head by his father, Gary Bell Sr., who was a standout basketball player in his own right in Louisiana before suffering a career-ending injury.

And two: play defense.

"Guys figure that out in their junior and senior years," Jamison said. "He was a ninth-grader."

The Zags' coaching staff first saw Bell at the Gonzaga team camp that Kentridge attended. Then Few got out to a number of select national AAU tournaments to see their recruit play for Rotary Style.

"We knew we had a high-character guy, which always works at our place," Few said. "But this guy, even in high school -- and you don't see this very often -- he valued playing defense. You don't see that in AAU games, but he would."

That's what makes him the ultimate X-factor for the Zags, one NCAA assistant coach said.

"He is that silent weapon," said Gig Harbor native Sam Scholl, a Santa Clara assistant. "He does not make a bunch of noise, or bring a lot of attention to himself. Even when he makes big plays, there is not a lot of chest thumping. He is a next-play guy.

"He is tremendously important. ... He is the reason they will win a Sweet 16 or an Elite Eight game."

His teammates know that, too.

"I tell him all the time, 'Look for your shot, look for your shot.' When he does that ... we are really tough to beat," Pangos said. "With our bigs (Olynyk and Harris) dominating, teams have to focus on them. And sometimes if I get going, or Gary, it gives them a second thing to have to worry about.

"When teams have to worry about the 3-point line and the paint, that is a problem for them."

As much as Bell knows his primary responsibility is as a lock-down perimeter defender, he also concedes his role varies depending on the circumstance.

Bell shared the team lead with 14 points in the Zags' 77-54 victory over West Virginia in last year's NCAA tournament opener, but being the lead man to him is not important.

"When I made my decision, people on my AAU team were like, 'Why would you go there, why would you go there?'" Bell said. "This is why I went here -- we are a family and a different kind of team.

"This is big. When they were recruiting me, I never thought this would be the No. 1 team in the nation. We made history for this school. It's the best thing I ever did."

Source: (c)2013 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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