Gonzaga fans had to witness the very worst in Zach Gourde the basketball player to fully appreciate the very best in Zach Gourde the human being.
Gourde's senior season has, to err on the side of understatement, been a disappointment. His team never approached the national powerhouse status that some had predicted, and he was reduced from all-star to benchwarmer for much of the season.
And yet Gourde remained ever the loyal Bulldog. His dedication and determination helped Gonzaga win yet another West Coast Conference regular-season championship, and his late-season improvement earned him a return to the starting lineup. Now, with a 9th seeding in the NCAA tournament, Gourde and the Zags have a chance to finish strong.
"He's just a phenomenal team guy," coach Mark Few says. "He never pouted. He never started feeling sorry for himself. He tried to remain positive for his teammates and help some of the younger guys figure it out."
"He handled it all with class, the way a mature man would," teammate Richard Fox says. "He always showed up for practice, always worked hard. Guys took some of his minutes -- I took some of his minutes -- but he was really supportive of me."
One year after averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and making the all-WCC first team, Gourde averaged career lows of 5.0 points and 2.9 rebounds. In fact, the Vancouver, Wash., native has reached last year's scoring average only once this season, scoring 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting in last week's loss to San Diego in the WCC Tournament final.
"I pretty much hit bottom," admits Gourde, whose quirky personality, wry wit and high intellect has always separated him from the masses. "I was playing worse basketball than I was as a freshman.
"I struggled in all aspects, even with my jump hook, which I pretty much built my career on since high school. Defense is what saved me, because I didn't have to think about it. Not that it doesn't take intelligence to play defense, but a lot of it is just hard work."
Gourde readily agrees with Few that he has often been guilty this season of "paralysis by analysis" -- i.e., thinking too much rather than simply reacting on the court. Perhaps even more damaging, Gourde says, has been his occasional sense of isolation. Gourde is the last Bulldog left from the 1998-99 team (he was a non-playing redshirt) that vaulted Gonzaga into the national spotlight, reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. In addition, several non-athletes who were close friends or roommates graduated last spring.
"My support structure was essentially gone," says Gourde, the only child of an electrical contractor and grade school teacher who both have attended all but one of his games this season. "Everything that kept me stable and grounded with all the ups and downs in the basketball season. All those people left.
"Not that I don't have the same relationship with these guys as I had with the guys before, but those guys were just kind of angry they didn't get more respect. They were angry they didn't get recruited by major programs, though they were just as good as the players at those programs. They had a chip on their shoulder. They were willing to scratch and claw and fight to win and help make Gonzaga one of those major programs. The guys on the team now, they came to Gonzaga because it is one of those major programs. Not that you can't win with that philosophy."
Obviously, Gourde cares deeply about basketball in general and the Bulldogs in particular. A solid B student, he plans to play pro basketball overseas before completing degrees in computer science, engineering and/or applied communications.
"He's probably one of the most colorful personalities we've had," Few says with a smile.
"He's definitely a little different guy, but in a good way -- and he's probably the most intelligent person I'll ever meet," says Fox, who rooms with Gourde on road trips.
"He's so down to earth, so funny," adds Casey Cavalry, the former Gonzaga star (and Gourde road roomie). "People are drawn to him. It could come from his parents. They're both funny."
Calvary was referring to the sense of humor of Steve and Marcy Gourde. Zach, on the other hand, is funny in every sense of the word. You don't see too many 6-foot-8, 245-pound bicycle riders or backpackers like Gourde. Not a whole lot of other folks that size are seen strolling about campus on a chilly afternoon wearing long, baggy shorts, flip-flops, a bright blue bandanna, a diamond stud earring and whatever style of haircut and facial hair struck Gourde's fancy when he woke up that morning.
"He's so different, so intelligent, so well read, so well versed," says Few, who speaks with equal measures of admiration and wariness when he discusses how Gourde can hack into computers or figure out cell phone numbers. "If we (coaches) use the wrong word, he's always catching us."
One thing's certain -- Gourde won't be caught anytime soon by the Safeway Police.
"Zach is all about conspiracies -- he always thinks someone is after him," Calvary says with a laugh. "When he got his first Safeway card -- they track your purchases -- so he signed up as Ernest Hemingway."
Confronted with the evidence provided by Calvary, Gourde pleads guilty as charged.
"The Safeway corporation," he says simply, "doesn't need to track down everything I buy."
Besides, Gourde adds, smiling, "You're not paranoid if they're always out to get you."