Bankhead: The Ultimate Team Player

A new, improved Kyle Bankhead led his Walla Walla High School team to the State 4A Championship, received no love from other colleges, was asked to play as a walkon by only GU, went dancing last year, and is ready to dance again.

We caught Kyle playing a round of golf with some Gonzaga buddies, it was getting dark, so we agreed to do the interview the next day. It was worth the wait. If there is a more team-oriented student-athlete, I'm not sure who it would be. Look up "unselfish" in the dictionary and Kyle Bankhead's photo should be next to it.

Born and raised in Walla Walla (only a couple escaped convict alerts, no big deal, he says), Kyle remembers playing basketball while in elementary school. He'd go down to the YMCA and hoop it up with other local kids. As he grew up he began to follow Gonzaga as the Zags started their rise towards the top. But even before that, he and his Wa-High team mates would attend GU's basketball camp, so he became familiar with the school, the program and the players and coaches.

He didn't really start focusing on his patented 3-point shooting until his junior year at Walla Walla High School. He worked hard at it and it paid dividends. Kyle was in the top-10 nationally for 3-point shooting percentage last year as a walk-on freshman. Not bad considering the long-range gunners in this country.

Asked what his most memorable game in high school was and Kyle was quick to say the State 4A Championship game that saw Wa-High defeat Ferris. It was awesome, he said. His most memorable game as a Zag was the Indiana State win that propelled Gonzaga into the Sweet Sixteen. He came off the bench and immediately drilled his first 3-pointer. This was after a big game against Virginia, a game that left Kyle feeling bad because he felt he didn't help the team like he needed to.

It should be noted that every time a scholarship was mentioned, Kyle made it clear that he's really here to win and to help the team in every way he possibly can. The scholarship didn't seem to be a big deal to him. He's a winner who puts that above everything. If the scholarship happens, great…if not, he's not worried about it. That left quite an impression on this writer.

Kyle tried baseball in high school but admitted he wasn't very good. One of his team mates, Thomas Kelati, was recently recruited to WSU and Kyle thinks the Cougs have a good one, that with some time in the weight room, Kelati's potential can be impressive. Bankhead said he didn't have any other basketball offers and Gonzaga was the only school to approach him and ask him to walk on. He said yes and the rest is history-in-the-making. No guarantees, no promises, just a chance to be a part of a winning tradition. It's obvious Gonzaga got very lucky. And part of the team, he is. An important part.

Besides his strength as a prolific long-range shooter, Kyle says he has a good knowledge of the game, that he understands what needs to be done and when, and he's a smart player. He is working hardest on his ball-handling skills, driving to the hoop and his overall quickness. Trainer Steve DeLong has helped him go from 190 pounds to a buff 200. Stronger, quicker, faster…it all adds up to the all-around game that Kyle seeks.

Kyle can't thank former walkons Mike Nilson and Ryan Floyd enough for the advice about the walkon experience. The first couple of months were tough and Mike's help, especially, made a difference.

Asked how he can just come into a game cold and start drilling threes, he just laughed and said sometimes they don't go in. But it's one of those abilities that's hard to explain. You either have it, or you don't. Kyle has it. His best game last year, according to him, came in Missoula against the Montana Grizzlies. At a critical time when star point guard Dan Dickau was out with a broken finger, Kyle stepped in and had what he considers his best game. He broke a bone in his hand that sidelined him for eight games but was leading the WCC in 3-point accuracy at that stage. The injury hardly broke his stride, though, as he returned and started hot, right where he left off, despite a soft cast on his left hand. He credits Steve DeLong's conditioning while he couldn't play.

In the first game in Memphis against Virginia in the NCAA Tournament First-Round, Kyle was a little nervous and didn't contribute the way he wanted to.. Huge arena, national TV, the Big Dance, a vaunted ACC team that knocked off Duke, UNC, Maryland and others… Don't look for him to be nervous again. He sounded ready for anyone, including Illinois, the Zags' opening game foe.

Kyle said nearly the entire team has stayed in Spokane this summer to get stronger and improve. While admitting that Casey Calvary and Mark Spink left big shoes to fill, he thinks those two set great examples of leadership that will help others step up and lead this coming year. He thinks Zach Gourde will be a premier player and had high praise for Cory Violette and Jay Sherrell, two other big men for Gonzaga. He hopes the GU staff recruits the best prospects possible to keep the winning ways secure.

A few hours after our interview I ran into Kyle in The Kennel. He was the only guy Zag there (a summer team camp had just ended the day before where Kyle and fellow Zags served as referees; yes, Kyle got some grief for some calls) and after briefly exchanging howdys, I watched him shoot around for a while. Either I hadn't seen good shooting in awhile, or he was flat-out hitting treys like nobody's business. I counted seven swishes in a row from beyond the arc, followed by a near-miss and about seven more that touched nothing but net. What was really cool to see, too, was the Gonzaga comeraderie as Lady Bulldog point guard Celeste Quitiquit had just finished in the weight room and volunteered to shag balls for Kyle. Kyle volunteered to help her but the weights had taken their toll on Celeste's arms. Another day he will, I'm sure.

Unselfish and wanting the team to win, not concerned about a scholarship, giving credit to others… That's just a glimpse of what Kyle Bankhead is all about. He'll be playing golf (not very good but it's fun to do) and enjoying the lakes (likes to fish in the Clearwater and Snake Rivers with his Dad, and likes summer fun on Lake Coeur d'Alene) when he's not playing ball.

I still can't believe another school didn't offer him. Gonzaga University is fortunate, indeed. Very. A great shooter and an even better representative of GU.

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