June 17, 2020
‘Moved to action,’ Fortier reflects on protests at Gonzaga’s end-of-season banquet
On the court, the season didn't end how the Zags wanted. Off the court, they recognize that life — and even basketball — is about much more
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It was early June when Gonzaga’s 2019-20 end-of-season banquet took place, much later than usual. It was done via Zoom, a difference that perhaps felt less jarring as the country has adopted various methods of long-distance communication in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But there was one more difference from other banquets that head coach Lisa Fortier wanted to acknowledge before recognizing her team: the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May.
“I’ve personally been moved into action in a way I’ve never been moved before,” Fortier said. “As a person who is strongly against racism, I thought it was enough not to be racist myself. But over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that being a good person and doing the right thing is not enough for me. If we want to make lasting changes, we need to do more.”
A few days before the banquet, Fortier participated in her first Black Lives Matter protest at Spokane’s Riverfront Park, a short walk from campus. Along with a short video of the thousands of people around her, she tweeted, “Too many people I love and too many people I will never meet, live a life filled with emotions they should not have to feel. I will always stand with them.”
The very next weekend, she was back for another round, ready to listen and reflect.
“[The protests] told me that what I’ve done to be supportive hasn’t been enough to move the needle to support Black athletes, their families and their dreams,” Fortier told the Spokesman-Review.
As a Jesuit university, one of Gonzaga’s core tenets is social justice. Between a diverse core curriculum and a wide range of interdisciplinary studies, the aim is for students to come away with an education that is well-rounded academically, morally and ethically.
But Fortier has acknowledged that there’s more she can do as a coach and mentor in these areas.
“I love that we have players from different cultures and races on our team, and we have conversations,” she said. “However, there’s a lot we don’t know.”
To local television station KREM, Fortier expanded on this idea: “We’ve been talking to our team a lot about [how] it’s an opportunity for us to do more, and that our Black community needs our support right now. Our players, our former players, our future players and people we’re not going to encounter — they need to be supported by everybody, and this is just one way for us to be part of the solution.”
As Fortier’s off-court activism blooms, the rest of the banquet celebrated how her and the Zags’ on-court success reached new heights in 2019-20. Gonzaga was ranked in the top 10 of a major national poll for the first time in program history, and its 28-3 record included a 21-game winning streak, the longest in the country at one point. Despite its early exit from the WCC Tournament, the future is bright for the Bulldogs.
But that Gonzaga has become known for its ability to stay consistently good year after year doesn’t diminish the fact that the program says goodbye to impactful seniors every season.
For Jessie Loera, who spent four years at Gonzaga and was named both the team’s Defensive Player of the Year and the recipient of the Hustle Award, ending up in Spokane was a natural fit. She grew up Moses Lake, Washington, a little under two hours from Spokane, and grew up attending Gonzaga basketball camps. At Gonzaga, she juggled playing basketball and student teaching as a special education major.
“I have grown as a person and a friend and a teammate and I’ve been able to accomplish so many goals that I set for myself here at GU,” Loera said at the banquet. “I couldn’t have been able to do that without those who supported me throughout my journey.”
Fortier praised Loera’s ability to adapt to whatever role she was offered — which included working her way up to starting every game in 2019-20 — and to do it without saying she couldn’t.
“Even when we had 5’6 Jessie guard 6’7 Sara Hamson [of BYU] from time to time, she just nodded her head and said okay, and went and got into her legs just like we told her to,” Fortier said.
Katie Campbell’s path to Spokane was a little different. She was interested in Gonzaga during high school, but ended up committing to Washington State when there weren’t any scholarships available in Spokane. Her plans changed again when she became pregnant and, after having her daughter, spent a year playing at Ventura College before transferring to Gonzaga as a sophomore.
“I realize that being here and playing basketball is about so much more than getting wins. It’s about the memories we make while doing it,” Campbell said at the banquet. “Big moments are what make these memories.”
Campbell suffered a season-ending injury in February, which put an even more sudden and premature end to her career than when the team learned there wouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament a month later. But as Fortier announced that she was the team’s Most Inspirational Player, she made it clear that Campbell’s impact was felt off the court, too.
“As a coach, I’m continually reminded that it’s our job to help provide an opportunity for our players to grow and help direct them,” Fortier said. “But really, every year, we learn more from our players and are more inspired from our players than we probably inspire them, and Katie’s certainly a person like that.”
With Gonzaga eyeing another big season in 2020-21, perhaps highlighted by the chance to host some NCAA Tournament games that it didn’t get this year, one thing is for certain: Whatever Fortier takes away from her anti-racist education in this extended offseason can only better the team’s performance on the court. The bridge between being a good coach and being an advocate for one’s players is enhanced by a fuller understanding of what each player needs — as a person — to succeed.
“College athletes are certainly a very diverse group of people, and there’s a lot to be learned for everyone,” Fortier said. “We just want to be sure that we are listening, and creating an environment where we can share.”