The most outstanding player, arguably, in Whitworth College basketball history is also, arguably, its most unlikely success story. Bryan Depew can't jump high, can't run fast, can't lift much. He's probably a little too small, a little too slow, a little too weak for the big time.
So Depew brought the big time to Whitworth. The former Gonzaga University basketball reject and one-year varsity starter at Central Valley High School has, improbably, become Whitworth's all-time leading scorer.
Thank goodness. After all, if not for Depew's sensational basketball career, how would he ever be able justify his decision to give up a four-year, full academic scholarship at Gonzaga so that he could pay to play at Whitworth?
By the time his college career comes to a close Friday night (barring an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Championships) at the Whitworth Fieldhouse, Depew's career points total may top 2,000. To put that in perspective, former NBA player Isaac Fontaine holds the Washington State career points record at 2,003.
Now, no one is implying that NCAA Division III basketball at Whitworth is remotely similar to NCAA Division I basketball at Washington State. Still, 2,000 points is a ton, particularly for a guy who attracted virtually zero recruiting interest out of high school and was quickly cut during walk-on tryouts his freshman year at Gonzaga.
Talk about a blessing in disguise. Even before he was gassed by the basketball team ("They told me they were looking for a point guard''), Depew says he hated Gonzaga. Didn't like the classes, didn't like the profs, didn't like the atmosphere, didn't like the size of the school -- even though Gonzaga isn't all that big.
It turns out that Depew needed Whitworth as badly as Whitworth needed him. A soft-spoken, introspective sort, Depew loves the tranquility of the majestic pine trees and weathered brick buildings that dot the sprawling Whitworth campus on Spokane's North Side.
"It just fit for me," Depew says while chomping on nachos during lunch at his favorite Mexican restaurant near school. "I mean, it's wonderful. I just love it. It's an experience.
"The greatest thing is, I think I know every professor on the campus... and the president, Bill Robinson, he's been great. We go over to his house, and he comes and plays [scrimmages] with us."
One presumes the prez has been smoked a time or three by Depew and his endless array of low-post moves, mid-range jumpers and 3-point rainbows. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound forward will be the first Pirate to make the All-Northwest Conference first team four times; he might repeat as the league's Most Valuable Player; he's already earned academic all-regional honors for the second year in a row; and he seems like a lock to make a Division III All-America team.
"He's just a tough player all-around," Whitworth senior guard Scott Bierlink says. "He can do it inside, and he can do it outside. He's just so consistent. He's always around 20 points a game. He never really has a bad game."
The lanky, mop-haired Depew averaged 15 points as a freshman, 17 as a sophomore and 22 as a junior. As a senior, he ranked among the Division III national leaders at the start of the week with 24 points per game (thanks partly to a career-high 40 points last Friday at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.). Depew was Most Valuable Player of the Greater Spokane League his senior year at Central Valley, but he averaged just 13 points.
"People still give me crap: 'You were MVP and you only averaged 13 points?'" Depew says with a laugh. "I say, 'Hey, the coaches vote on it. Don't blame me!'"
Depew has improved his shooting range, strength and all-around game since high school, but his best athletic gift (besides being ambidextrous) might be his brain. A 3.9 student at Central Valley, he'll graduate from Whitworth in May with business management and accounting degrees and a grade-point average in the 3.5 range.
"It's really fun to coach a guy who's that smart and approaches the game at such a high level cerebrally," Whitworth coach Jim Hayford says.
Depew has not completely ruled out pursing a pro basketball career overseas, but he's leaning heavily toward law school at Gonzaga (where he's awaiting word on his application). Depew is well aware that lawyers can haul in a lot more cash than most of the few Division III players who play pro ball, and Depew already faces years of student loan payments.
"Basketball is great, but I'm going to find something else to do," Depew says.
Division III schools like Whitworth do not offer athletic scholarships, but Depew says his Whitworth experience was money well spent. Plenty of his college buddies will be on hand when Depew marries Tara LaShaw this summer (except for a brief breakup in college, they've dated since ninth grade). LaShaw graduated from Whitworth in three years, works for an ad agency, has bought a new house and seems well prepared to help hubby make it through law school.
"She's handling the mortgage and everything and I'm sitting there, like, 'I'll help with the groceries,'" Depew says with a smile.
Depew speaks at length of his appreciation for the support he has received over the years from teammates, LaShaw, mother Carol (who divorced when Bryan was young), Hayford and Whitworth assistant coach Rodney Wecker.
Former Whitworth head coach Warren Friedrichs and Wecker were the only college coaches who fervently recruited Depew. When Friedrichs resigned after Depew's freshman year and was replaced by Hayford, Depew was initially underwhelmed by the new hire.
"I was like, 'Who's this bald-headed midget?'" Depew recalls.
Depew soon discovered that the personable (albeit short) Hayford had much to offer, on the court and off. Hayford, in fact, will officiate at Depew's wedding.
"It's hard to thank him enough for what he's done for me," Depew says. "He'll always be one of my best friends."
"There are a few guys you get to coach," Hayford says, "who are not just wonderful players, but wonderful friends. And he's that to me."
Twelve of the leading scorers in Whitworth College men's basketball history are scheduled to honor Depew at halftime of Friday's game with George Fox University of Newberg, Ore. Included is 1967 NAIA (small college) All-American Rod McDonald, who played pro basketball in the old American Basketball Association after setting the Whitworth career scoring record of 1,807 that stood for 37 years until Depew broke the record this year. Game time Friday is 8 pm, following the women's game between the two schools at 6. Tickets, available only at the door, are $5; $3, alumni and senior citizens; $2, students. Call: 777-3235.