by Howie Stalwick
Spokane does not go wacko without a good reason. Dan Dickau, it would appear, provides just cause for going wacko. Dickau, poster-boy handsome, Boy Scout wholesome and more than a little bit awesome on the basketball court, has captured the heart of the city.
Dickau won over Spokane long before a recent Sports Illustrated feature made him sound slightly nobler than a saint and just a tad bit less talented than Michael Jordan. I mean, we're talking about a guy who's an All-American on and off the floor -- he even organizes weekly Bible study sessions. No wonder a couple local fans wrote a song (to the tune of "Brick House") about Dickau that can be heard on Spokane radio stations approximately every other nanosecond.
Dickau (pronounced DICK-ow), the mop-top point guard of the sixth-ranked Gonzaga University basketball team, is so personable and polite when not destroying rivals with heartless precision... well, it's easy to understand why he was a huge fan favorite even before he established himself as one of the premier college players in the nation.
Now Dickau has the once-biteless Bulldogs poised for their annual rampage through the 65-team National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I tournament. It all starts this week, when the 29-3 Bulldogs -- basketball nobodies before reaching the final eight three years ago and the final 16 the following two years -- plan to shock the nation one more time.
"We want," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says simply, "to compete for a national championship."
What? At GONZAGA? The little Catholic school wedged in among wood-frame houses north of downtown? The school that half the free world still calls Gunn-ZAWG-uh? The school that, until the recent rise of its basketball program, had three claims to fame: 1) Bing Crosby attended school there; 2) John Stockton played basketball there; 3) Well, nobody can remember the third thing.
The addition of Dickau, who transferred to Gonzaga in 1999 after two unhappy and unproductive seasons at Washington, has helped produce a team that has won more games and earned higher national rankings than any other in the 95-year history of GU men's basketball.
"Things have worked out unbelievably," says Dickau, Gonzaga's leading scorer and the Player of the Year in the West Coast Conference. "It's an opportunity God gave me. Some days it's like, 'Wow -- things worked out perfect.' "
Yeah, Dan, despite yourself. Then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson briefly joined a bevy of college recruiters chasing Dickau when he starred at Prairie High School in Vancouver, Wash., but Dickau dismissed the Bulldogs so quickly, Mr. Nice Guy might have seemed like Mr. Rude Guy.
"I never gave 'em one thought," Dickau says. "I think I told Coach Monson at the time it was too cold [in Spokane]. I hate cold weather."
At Washington, Dickau learned that he also hates traffic jams, selfish teammates and losing. Not necessarily in that order.
"The U-Dub was way too big for me at the time," Dickau says. "Seattle -- I'd been up there plenty for different basketball stuff, but once you're up there for good, living up there... for me, personally, it was too big. I lived fairly close to the gym my sophomore year, but still, sometimes it was a 20-minute drive down to the gym. With the traffic, that just wears on you everyday.
"I'm more of a guy who likes a slower pace of life." He continues. "I think Spokane is good because if you want a big city, it's not far away. And if you want to get out in the country, you're a 10-minute drive away."
Dickau saw regular action as a freshman reserve on Washington's NCAA qualifiers as a freshman and started as a sophomore before suffering a fractured heel after 13 games. However, he averaged just four points per game at Washington -- 17 less than he averages at Gonzaga -- and two old buddies from back home (Richie Frahm and Zach Gourde) convinced Dickau he should join them on the Bulldogs.
"The more I talked to those guys," Dickau says, "the more I started getting the feeling that this place was special. The smaller school setting helps make it like a family atmosphere. It's easy to get down to the gym. You have a lot of contact with your teammates."
"Here, Dan has found freedom within the structure [of GU's offense]," says Gourde, GU's star junior forward and a high school teammate of Dickau.
"Dan is an incredibly intelligent player," Gourde adds. "He understands all the things the system allows him to do. He understands what that system allows other players to do and how it highlights their abilities. He's able to get the most out of the players on the floor, and also let the other players make him better."
The Bulldogs, who moved up from NAIA (a small-college organization) to NCAA Division I basketball in 1958-59, never qualified for an NCAA tournament until 1994-95. They made it again in 1998-99; the very next season, Dickau joined the team but had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules. Dickau says he matured mentally and physically while practicing all that year with the Bulldogs.
"It gave me a chance, emotionally, to think about what the game of basketball means to me," Dickau says. "Every game to me is special. Even practices. A lot of Division I athletes don't realize how good we have it, to be able to go to college and practice in stadium settings and be able to travel. It's pretty incredible."
As for Dickau, he graduated in December with a 3.40 grade point average and a degree in broadcasting. Dickau has made the all-conference and all-district academic teams two straight years, and he's begun work on a master's degree in sports administration.
Of course, Dickau hopes he never has to use either of his college degrees -- at least for the next decade or two. He's dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association since childhood.
"His size will scare some NBA teams, but he is a winner who I believe can be drafted in the late first round," says ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, a former NBA coach.
"I'm like [some] NBA scouts -- I wish he was a little quicker, a little bigger, a little faster," says Jud Heathcote, a Spokane resident and Gonzaga season ticket holder who coached Michigan State (and Magic Johnson) to the 1979 NCAA championship. "But there aren't many players today who understand the game and are in control. Dan controls the offense. He has the ball most of the time. He's the guy who makes things happen. He's a lot like John Stockton when he was a senior in college, and look what he's done.
"Dickau is better than [Steve] Nash [the standout Dallas Mavericks point guard who starred at Santa Clara in the WCC] was at this point in his career," adds Heathcote. "I think he's got an excellent chance to play at the next level if he gets in the right situation. Where he might struggle is on defense; he struggles with some of the guys he's guarding at the college level."
Dickau, a longtime fan of Stockton, relishes summer workouts at GU with the Utah Jazz star. NBA scouts also questioned Stockton's size, but even Stockton wasn't a skinny 5-foot-5 eighth grader like Dickau. Despite his good grades, Dickau repeated the eighth grade to give his body more time to develop for basketball.
"I've always been the smallest player on the team," says Dickau, exaggerating slightly -- especially now, since he packs 189 well-muscled pounds on a frame that he says is slightly taller than his listed 6 feet. "It's something I've had to deal with. I think it helped me in a way. I never took anything for granted. I always had to work for everything."
When he does take time to relax, Dickau joins GU players Richard Fox (a Colorado transfer who is sitting out the season) and Kyle Bankhead at the trio's off-campus apartment.
"We just like to sit around and make fun of each other," Dickau says with a smile. "I cook a little bit. Kyle and Richard don't do much cooking."
Wow... three bachelor jocks in one apartment. This has GOT to get ugly at times.
"Definitely the messiest is Richard Fox," says Dickau, making certain he speaks loud enough for Fox to hear. "The guy who never cleans up is Richard Fox. But he's also the funniest. That makes up for it."
Dickau loves to golf and watch basketball on TV in his spare time. When, that is, he's not trying to fleece teammates at poker.
Gonzaga center Cory Violette once dared to insinuate that Mr. Clean himself might occasionally resort to a bit of trickery when dealing cards. (Dickau's girlfriend says he wants to win so bad, his eyes teared up when he lost to her at Monopoly.) Dickau says there's a simple explanation for Violette's false accusation.
"That's because he only played twice, and he's never won anything," Dickau says with a smug grin. "I don't think he has a clue what beats what in a game of poker."
Dickau soon will be gambling for much bigger stakes -- trying to make the NBA at 24, a bit old for a rookie. He'll be a married man by then, having literally knelt on one knee to ask for the hand of high school sweetheart Heather Nevenner (a dancer for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers) over Christmas break.
"Look at him," says GU coach Mark Few, sounding a bit envious. "He's playing college basketball at a place he wants to be at, he's having a blast, he's engaged to a beautiful girl with an unbelievable personality, he's got a great family, he's got great teammates.
"It's a wonderful life."