In 2011, the Gonzaga women’s basketball team made history.
The Bulldogs defeated No. 7 Louisville, 76-69, to earn the program’s first trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Being the No. 11 seed that year, Gonzaga became the lowest seeded team to reach a regional final in Tournament history.
While the 10,717-person crowd left Spokane Arena following the game, then Gonzaga head coach Kelly Graves remained on the court, waiting for his star player. At the opposite side of the floor, Courtney Vandersloot, a senior point guard at the time, was speaking with the media.
After Vandersloot concluded the interview she turned around and saw Graves. Without hesitation, she sprinted over to her coach and embraced him in a giant hug.
“When I think about it, I still get goosebumps,” Vandersloot, now a guard on the Chicago Sky in the WNBA, told the Emerald in a phone interview. “It was the end of my career, the end of our run, and that run we made changed my career path. And for him to just be there, there was so much emotion that we were both just probably feeling. And with that hug I just felt that I was finally just giving it all to him.”
The Spokesman Review captured the moment and printed it in the paper the next day. Graves carried a copy of the picture in his wallet for some time before hanging a larger one in his office.
For the duo, the hug didn’t just celebrate their Sweet 16 victory but instead marked the importance of their relationship.
“It’s a good memory,” Graves said. “Sometimes we get too focused on things that aren’t that important. But to me that’s important.”
Moments like the hug illustrate the reason Graves fell in love with coaching. This emphasis, creating a deep, family-like bond with his players, is the backbone of Graves’ 30-year coaching career. It’s a foundation that time after time has allowed him to create historic success at numerous collegiate programs, including his time with the Oregon Ducks.
“If you asked me what the most rewarding part of coaching is, I would say being able to be part of [players’] lives for, really, forever,” Graves said. “Coaching is less about the expertise of whatever sport you’re coaching; it’s more about relationships and communication with your team. That’s what it comes to, and it’s relevant to any sport and anything that you do.”
Graves first learned how impactful a family-like atmosphere on a team is when his high school basketball coach in Utah went out of his way to show Graves his importance to the school’s team.
In the spring of his junior year of high school, Graves’ parents decided they wanted to move five hours North from St. George to Logan, which would force him to play his senior year at a new school and with a new team.
At the same time, Mark Poth was hired as the boys basketball head coach at Dixie High School. On his first day of the job, Poth was informed that Graves, the best player on the team, would be leaving the school.
For Poth’s first act as head coach, he sat down with the Graves family and convinced Graves’ parents to let him stay at Dixie for his senior year. In addition, Poth opened his home to Graves and allowed the senior to live with him for the second half of the school year.
It was an act of kindness that would form into a strong friendship between the two, so much so that when Poth needed an assistant coach at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, five years later, he called Graves and opened the door to what would be a historic coaching career.
“Kelly had a love for the game,” Poth said. “He loved to compete, and I knew he’d be very successful as a coach. … Fundamentally, [he was] a very solid player and that transitioned over into his coaching. He was a very valuable asset to our program.”
The job at Big Bend was just the beginning. Graves’ passion for coaching took him from Moses Lake, to Portland, on to Moraga, California, and then back up to Spokane, Washington, to coach at Gonzaga.
When Graves made the move to Eugene in April 2014, one of his Gonzaga recruits, Eugene-native and future Oregon 3-point record holder, Lexi Bando, switched her commitment from Gonzaga to follow her future coach.
Bando, a high school senior at the time, had been recruited by Graves to play for Gonzaga; however, when news broke of Graves’ decision to leave, she decided to stay home and play for the Ducks.
“I just believed in his vision,” Bando said after Oregon earned its first Pac-12 Championship title in March 2018. “He built a dynasty at Gonzaga. They won conference championship after conference championship. Taking it to the Pac-12, he wanted a challenge and I believed in him.”
Since arriving in Eugene five years ago, Graves has used this foundation to lead the Ducks on a historic run, highlighted by the program’s first Pac-12 Championship and back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. Just like his previous teams, a key to the program’s success has been his emphasis of creating a family both on, and off, the court.
This past fall, the Ducks began their season with a road trip to Fairbanks, Alaska — the hometown of junior forward Ruthy Hebard.
The trip wasn’t for any tournament, nor against a top opponent. Graves scheduled the game to show Hebard her value to the program.
In Alaska, Oregon spent time with the Hebard’s family, sharing a meal together at their home. The team visited a local school and ran drills prior to the game with kids in the community. Throughout the game, the crowd was filled with posters cheering on Ruthy and the Ducks.
“Ruthy is really important to our program, so I thought it was important for us to get her back home,” Graves said prior to the Nov. 6 game.
Two weeks later, the team traveled to Moraga to play against UC Riverside and Saint Mary’s. Not only did the trip signify Graves’ reunion with the first Division-I program he coached (Saint Mary’s), but also as a home visit for junior point guard Sabrina Ionescu, who’s from Walnut Creek, 15 minutes North of Moraga.
“I just think it’s great for them to have a chance to go home and play in front of family and friends,” Graves told media at a press conference after the Moraga road trip. “A lot of time their immediate families come to games, but it’s not often the extended family [comes]. This last weekend, Sabrina’s extended Romanian family, which is quite large, were all there, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
Forming such strong bonds between himself and the players is something Graves believes is a crucial element in coaching successful teams. It’s something he learned from his own coach, and something he hopes his players, staff and the sports’ community will pass on.
For the past couple of years, Graves has taken his coaching experience to Oregon students aspiring to be coaches as a guest speaker in the university’s coaching classes within the PE and Rec Department.
During his lecture, he hands out a document. On one side he lists the core values behind the Oregon women’s basketball team. The other side is labeled, “Components of our championship program.”
Graves first drafted this “blueprint” in 1987. It lists four components with the last one titled, “Creating a Family Atmosphere.”
The document reads: “This family environment will be based on developing and creating: A team where all members are full scale participants. … Relationships with open and honest communication. … Empowered individuals who will seek pride in themselves, their teammates, their university and basketball program.”
At the time of its creation, Graves was finishing up his own basketball career at the University of New Mexico. He had abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer, and his coaching career was nonexistent.
While the document’s core values have been revised with every new team, Graves said his blueprint has mainly stayed the same.
“He likes a challenge,” said Graves’ oldest son, Max, who has followed his father by coaching girls high school basketball in Arizona. “I think he also just has a vision. He has a vision for what he wants that is pretty remarkable.”
Graves said that knowing he’s left programs better than when he found him is one of the reasons he is proud to call himself a coach.
“We build something really special,” Graves said. “You come to our games and you see the fans and they are really into it. I walk around town and they’re like, ‘Hey Coach, love your team,’ and that means a lot. We’ve built something at each school that the university, and the community, and the fans can be proud of, and the kids, the team themselves.”
Follow Maggie Vanoni on Twitter @maggie_vanoni