Overseas adventures - Coeur d'Alene Press: Sports

Overseas adventures

Former NIC, Idaho standout Gordie Herbert has spent the past 30 years playing, then coaching, basketball in Europe

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Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 9:51 am, Fri Nov 16, 2012.

He has had potatoes thrown at him, been dunked on by Michael Jordan, and watched as opposing fans started a fire in the basketball arena where he was coaching.

After college, he went overseas to play professional basketball, always intending to come back after a few years and pursue his master's. But he has lived in Europe for the past 30 years, playing for a little over a decade, then coaching for nearly two decades.

He suffered a serious back injury a few years ago, not from playing or coaching, but when - of all things - a chair he was sitting on collapsed.

And when Gordie Herbert, now age 53, born in Canada and a former North Idaho College and University of Idaho basketball standout, returned to Coeur d'Alene recently for the first time in 14 years, he said the town reminded him of home.

His current home.

"I don't consider myself North American, I consider myself a European. I really like the European way of life," the soft-spoken Herbert said the other day in an interview at Peak Health and Wellness in Coeur d'Alene, where his daughter, Lindsay, the former Lake City High standout, is fitness director.

THE STORY begins — at least the part around here — in the summer of 1976, just before Herbert’s senior year of high school in Penticton, British Columbia — some 250 miles northwest of Coeur d’Alene, in south-central B.C.

Herbert was attending a camp at Gonzaga, which had shown some recruiting interest in him. At the camp, players were divided up into teams, directed by the various coaches at the camp. Herbert wound up on a team coached by Dean Lundblad, who was head coach of the Coeur d’Alene High boys basketball team at the time.

Coached by Lundblad, Herbert’s team won the championship at the camp. Lundblad thought Herbert would be a good fit for his friend Rolly Williams, the longtime coach at NIC, and couldn’t wait to tell him.

“He can’t run, and he can’t jump, but he can play,” Lundblad recalled telling Williams. “And he could play.”

Herbert said he had dreamed of playing in the U.S. since eighth grade, but no four-year schools were interested in him coming out of high school. Victoria and Simon Fraser in B.C. were interested.

As a sophomore at NIC, the 6-foot-6 Herbert helped the Cardinals qualify for the NJCAA tournament for the first time, in 1978. One of his teammates that season was Al Williams, who returned to the school many years later as athletic director. They also later played one season together at Idaho.

The old teammates reunited last week for the first time in 30 years.

“He still looks good — he still looks like he could play 5-on-5 now,” Williams said. “Gordie was unassuming, but he always had a knack of being around the ball; he always got garbage points around the basket. He couldn’t out-jump me, but he was a steady ballplayer and he was a smart ballplayer.”

Said Herbert, who now goes by Gordon, about Al: “He was a hard worker, and similar to what I was — you had to work for everything you got. He was a great kid; the coaches loved him. He was very outgoing, had a good personality.”

WITH A little urging from Williams, Idaho coach Don Monson successfully recruited Herbert, who by then was also getting interest from Eastern Washington, Portland and Portland State.

Herbert started most of his junior year at Idaho. Then, right before his senior season, he dislocated his left wrist doing a gymnastics stunt in P.E. class and wound up redshirting.

“I was going over the (pommel) horse and I caught my wrist,” he explained. “I actually dislocated my wrist, which was worse than a break. I was in a cast for three months.”

P.E. class’ loss was Idaho’s gain. The redshirt year allowed him to play as a senior on the magical 1981-82 Vandal team which started out 16-0 and reached the NCAA Sweet 16. Idaho beat Iowa in a second-round game on a buzzer-beater by Brian Kellerman, then fell to Oregon State 60-42 in the next round to finish 27-3. Idaho had beaten the Beavers 71-49 at the Far West Classic earlier in the season.

“I think we were actually disappointed, losing in the Sweet 16, because that year we had gone on the road and beat four Pac-10 teams (Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State) by an average of 20 points,” Herbert said.

Kenny Owens, Phil Hopson and Kelvin Smith rounded out the starting five, a smallish group where the tallest starter was Smith at perhaps 6-7.

Herbert said the Vandals clicked because they had great chemistry and a high basketball IQ.

“I think in today’s game, we get blinded sometimes by athleticism — kids that can jump out of the gym ... but you also need kids who know how to play,” he said. “You need kids with a basketball IQ. I think we had a good combination of athleticism and basketball IQ and knowing how to play. I think that’s why we complemented each other so well. You can’t have all of one, or all of the other, you have to make it fit.”

The flying potatoes, Herbert remembered, came from Montana fans while the Grizzlies were handing Idaho its first loss, 53-51 in Missoula in late January. Two days later, Idaho lost 50-48 in overtime at Notre Dame — the Vandals’ last loss until the NCAAs.

Herbert said playing for Monson was similar to playing for Williams, except Monson yelled and screamed a little bit more.

“They both scared the hell out of me,” Herbert said with a laugh. “With Rolly I would walk all the way around the gym so I wouldn’t have to go by his office, in case he saw me. Same with Monson.”

HERBERT THEN played professionally overseas, in Finland and Belgium, before getting into coaching.

In 1984, Herbert played on the Canadian Olympic team which lost to the USA in the semifinals. That’s when he had his MJ moment.

“It was late in the game, I was a sub on the Canadian team,” Herbert recalled. “We were down 20 or something. I came down and hit a long jumper on Jordan, and Bobby Knight just stood up and got into Jordan’s (butt). Jordan came down, got the ball, took one dribble and just dunked right on me. Then he runs back down the floor and he looks at Bobby Knight like (how do you like me now?).”

Herbert went on to coach in Germany, France and Greece. He coached a couple of years in the Euroleague, the second-best league in the world behind the NBA. He was on his way up.

In 2008 he took an assistant coaching job in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors, where his main duty was to work with Andrea Bargnani, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 2006 by Toronto, but had yet to pan out with the Raptors.

Under Herbert’s tutelage, Bargnani was beginning to make progress, he said.

Then, before the Raptors’ last game of the season Herbert was sitting on a chair in the coaches’ room when the chair collapsed. When he fell, he landed on part of the broken chair with his spine. He ruptured his spine, a cyst formed on it, and he lost movement on the right side of his body for a spell, leading to therapy.

“I layed on my back for six weeks,” he said.

He came back and coached in Frankfurt, then Berlin. He still walks around a bit gingerly. His job in Berlin ended in June. He said he still suffers from pain from the freak injury, and said he plans to take some time off indefinitely from coaching.

He says he does “conservative” rehab every day, trying to keep his core strong.

“My right leg has become quite a bit shorter than the other,” Herbert said. “Standing or sitting for a long time is tough. I drive with a special chair in my car.”

These days, he has a house in Finland, and an apartment in Berlin.

He says he speaks Finnish pretty well, and his French is OK. But “I don’t speak Greek, and my German is horrible,” he admits.

HERBERT LIKES to say that he coached at a way higher level than he ever played. He notes that the European game is more of a team game, and the NBA game is more geared toward individuals. As the European players got better, Herbert said the NBA players struggled against the Europeans in part because “they overestimated themselves and underestimated their opponents.” Also, if European teams wanted to play zone — or “help” man to man — NBA players had a harder time finding space to create.

“I’ve had trouble with guys coming from the D-League (NBA Developmental League) because it’s dribble, dribble, dribble,” Herbert said. “In Europe it’s more ball movement, penetrate and kick.”

He said there’s even less job security in coaching in Europe than there is in, say, the NBA. And it’s relatively safe, he said, despite a few horror stories.

Once, when he was coaching in Greece, they were playing another team that had to win to stay in that league, or face relegation. Two days before the game, he said, fans of the other team attacked a few of the top players on his team. They were able to jump in their cars, which the fans whacked with chains.

On the day of the game, Herbert said, the team had to be escorted to the gym by armed guards.

“There were armed guards at each end of the court,” he recalled. “The game had to be stopped three or four times because people were throwing adding machine paper and Cokes on the floor. We had a hard time warming up. They were doing everything they could so we would lose so they could stay in the league. Between the third and fourth quarter, somebody lit some adding machine paper on fire, so there was a fire in the gym.”

One game he coached in Berlin, they wouldn’t allow fans, because in the previous game, fans had ripped out the seats and threw them onto the floor because they didn’t agree with the officiating.

So compared to getting potatoes thrown at him by Montana fans?

“That was a walk in the park,” he said.

BEING OVERSEAS, Herbert said he wasn’t able to watch Lindsay play as much as he would have liked. He and his wife, Shannon, divorced when Lindsay was young.

“Probably my biggest regret in life is I wasn’t involved in her life enough, because she’s turned into a great person,” he said.

However, he was able to watch her play when she came over with her University of Utah team on a summer tour of Europe.

“I think she’s very similar to the way I played,” Gordie said. “She shoots the ball well, she knows how to play the game, she competes. I thought she was a really good college player.”

Did he notice any of his game in her game?

“Yeah, I still do,” Gordie said. “We played H-O-R-S-E the other day — and I beat her, by the way. She wants a rematch, but I won’t give her one.”

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