The heir to the Gonzaga’s men’s basketball kingdom actually turned down his first coaching gig—an offer from the Bulldogs, no less, way back in 1999. Instead, Tommy Lloyd decided to backpack around the world, reasoning, reasonably, that life should be about more than basketball, that Spokane wasn’t the only place where he could coach and that he’d never get the chance to travel like that again.
Lloyd wrapped up the second season of his brief and unremarkable international basketball career—in Düsseldorf, Germany—that same year. He had spent the summer before back home in small-town eastern Washington, working construction for his father, saving money to buy around-the-world airplane tickets for him and his wife, Chanelle. Our last hurrah, he called it, meaning before kids and responsibilities would overwhelm them. And before, of course, he would grab the title he most desired: coach.
For six months, the Lloyds flew, anywhere, everywhere, their possessions limited to whatever they could fit inside two overstuffed backpacks. They hit most countries in Europe, then shot over to Egypt, then to Zimbabwe. They stayed with friends, in hostels, under blankets of stars.
Eventually, they landed in Brisbane, Australia, where Lloyd had starred in ’98 for a club team so small-scale that in order to play there, he needed to coach a high school team on the side. During that season, he met a psychologist who happened to own a motel in town. Lloyd will never forget the name: the Hamilton Motor Inn.
Since the Lloyds were running out of cash, the doc did them a solid, making them managers of the hotel for something like three unexpectedly eventful weeks. Lloyd cleaned rooms, checked in guests, made poached eggs for breakfast—after asking how to, well, poach an egg—and played bartender at night. The extra cash yielded from the hotel management stint allowed the Lloyds to head to New Zealand and Hawaii before they returned home.
Chanelle noticed something else on that trip, something that would apply to the futures of both her husband and the most unlikely force in college hoops. No matter where in the world they stopped—like a Carmen Sandiego show, only real life—Tommy always seemed so comfortable. Didn’t matter whether he spoke the language. Didn’t matter whether he could poach an egg. Didn’t matter whether his wallet contained no bills. He made friends by connecting with strangers from other cultures, by listening to them and trying to understand them and putting them at ease.
Lloyd, it turns out, would be gloriously wrong on all of his assumptions from before the backpacking trip. He would come to find out that there really wasn’t a whole lot more to life than basketball, as long as he counted family under the same umbrella. He would decide not to leave Spokane, nor coach anywhere else. He would also continue to travel, all over the world, to find the kinds of players that shaped Gonzaga’s rise.
Now, the Zags would not stand two victories from both their first NCAA title and the first undefeated men’s college basketball season in 45 years, had their longtime assistant not risked his career to embark on a grand international adventure. How both ended up here, on the precipice of remembered-forever greatness, tells two stories at once: the ascension of Tommy Lloyd and the evolution of the program. In many respects, it’s the same story, for Coach Mark Few’s chief lieutenant and the team that almost got dropped in ’89, made the Elite Eight in ’99 and advanced to the men’s NCAA tournament in every year since.
In terms of influence, “He’s up there,” says Travis Knight, the school’s performance coach. “We always preach ownership, and Tommy owns this program, just as much as Mark does.”
Long before the odd duck in a family of laborers built an international recruiting pipeline from Spokane to various points all over the world, he grew up in a household that took in exchange students most years. That practice started when Tommy’s older brother, Jerry, went to Sweden during high school and officials who ran the program called their parents and asked whether they wanted to reciprocate.
Of course. The Lloyds first took in a student from Japan, and while he acclimated to a life surrounded by wheat fields rather than skyscrapers, young Tommy peppered his new friend with questions. This began Lloyd’s fascination with other cultures. He wrote letters for years to the Japanese student, eagerly waiting for the envelopes sent his way in return. His parents also hosted other students, teenagers from Sweden, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, 13 total throughout his childhood. Many became some of his best friends, and those formative interactions would become pivotal in ways Lloyd could never have expected.
He was supposed to be a carpenter, like his work-seven-days-a-week father, or go into construction, just like Jerry did. Their mom taught, too, all but hanging a blue-collar ethos flag on the front porch. Hard work gave them everything they needed at their home in Kelso, the one that sat 10 minutes from the football stadium of a football school. Tommy was supposed to play quarterback for Kelso High, along with catcher on the baseball team. But he ultimately gave up the other sports in eighth grade once he started to play for basketball coach Jeff Reinland.
Jerry would listen to Tommy practice his shooting at night, forcing himself to drain 15 straight triples before he would head in for dinner. Tommy remained obstinate like that, singularly driven, Reinland says, describing his protégé as stubborn and hard-nosed and obedient. Except, of course, when it came to shooting. Lloyd never passed up a shot that he could hoist, and he hoisted so often that teammates bestowed an obvious nickname: Tommy Gun. On his best night, as he likes to remind his three children now, Tommy Gun scored 52 points.
Other than an MCL injury in his junior season, Lloyd averaged over 20 points in high school. He often suggested inbounds plays or creative ways to wiggle open, and he took coaching well, despite a somewhat-limited skill set. He was, in other words, learning how to coach, while leading a football school to a rare state basketball playoffs appearance.
Lloyd would play again for Reinland when both left for Walla Walla Community College in ’93, and the coach can recall one time when he stood outside the locker room, listening in, hearing Mr. Tommy Gun implore his teammates. “He sounded just like me,” Reinland says, calling that moment an “out-of-body experience.”
For a basketball lifer, so began the itinerant part of his career path. Lloyd also transferred to Southern Colorado, where he met Chanelle, courting her with a Red Lobster first date. Then, to Division III Whitman College back in his hometown, to play for Reinland once again. Lloyd wanted to continue his career so badly that he sold his car to help pay his tuition. Then Australia. Then Germany, where Lloyd basically traded a roster spot for countless hours spent coaching every youth team in the same club. “I loved it,” he says now, sounding wistful. “I mean, I actually liked it more than playing.”
Then, the backpacking trip, which meant that Lloyd had to tell Dan Monson that he actually did not want the offer that Reinland had helped him secure through Reinland’s mother’s friend. Only the Zags would make a surprise Elite Elite run that season, stamping the program as an OG Cinderella. Monson would leave for Minnesota.
Lloyd went back home, went back to school and enrolled in a program for his secondary teaching credential. Part of that program meant student-teaching at Mead High in Spokane, where Lloyd showed students how to dissect frogs in biology class and solve algebra equations while starting an open gym for local hoopers. The most promising: a young sharpshooter with Tommy Gun–like instincts named Adam Morrison. “I still remember the first time we played,” Morrison says now. “He got in a fight with the kids. Like my first interaction with [Lloyd] was him screaming face-to-face with a senior about a foul call. It was a-ma-zing.”
The screeching biology coach would soon head to Gonzaga, first as a volunteer sweating away for beer money, then as a full-time assistant in 2001. Few had made good on the job that Monson promised. Morrison, by then a college prospect, watched the local basketball team on TV and saw a familiar face, if not a less-reddened one. “What?” he thought to himself. “That guy’s the f------ basketball coach!”
Two seasons later, Morrison would sign with Lloyd and the Zags. By then, Few had already tasked Lloyd with an unexpected endeavor that would change both of their lives and, no hyperbole, the college basketball landscape. In order to find more talented and yet still-obtainable players, Few wanted his mentee to develop a presence overseas. Few told Lloyd that all coaches with staying power develop their own niche and that Lloyd needed one to separate himself from other young assistants. Then Few dropped a German youth team media guide on Lloyd’s desk, and the traveling basketballer grabbed his stamp-filled passport and boarded another plane.
Lloyd would like to remind young coaching applicants who see Gonzaga as the program it has grown into, the one that takes chartered flights and rakes in millions from its shoe deals: There’s nothing now that even faintly resembles that time, beyond him and Few coaching from the home bench. Back in the day if the Zags climbed over .500 on the season, Few would take the staff to dinner, remaining on a budget. Lloyd stayed in hostels and cheap motels and with friends. He took circuitous flights. He borrowed Few’s international calling card back when such things were necessary and racked up over $2,000 in calls. And even when a volcano erupted in Iceland, delaying a planned trip to France, he traveled to Copenhagen to stay with a buddy, gratis.
Still, with no money and very little in the way of reputation, Lloyd managed to secure an audience with Ronny Turiaf, the athletic big man who grew up in the Caribbean but moved to Paris to train with the national team. The assistant convinced the prospect to visit Spokane, where Lloyd worked so fervently to impress the recruit that he bloodied his knee—diving in a table tennis match. Turiaf signed the same afternoon, and his approval and success led to more French players, which led to more European players, which led to continued Gonzaga dominance shaped, in part, by the very connections that Few told Lloyd to develop overseas. Just like in his earlier travels, just like with his brief stint as a hotel operator/bartender/clerk, he had made international prospects feel at ease. He listened to them. He asked them about their lives. And he made sure that they would fit, not just in the U.S. as college players, but as college players in a setting like Spokane, a city of more than 200,000 that can feel much smaller and confined.
Eventually the pipeline built by the son of a carpenter all but overflowed as Gonzaga signed players from 17 different countries, ranging from Lithuania and Mali to Poland and Brazil, from Serbia and Croatia to the Ivory Coast. Gonzaga does not make 22 straight men’s NCAA tournaments, obtain the program’s first No. 1 ranking (2013) or make the national title game (’17, a close loss to North Carolina) without those players—or the man who wooed them to the wheat fields. Nor do these Bulldogs make a run at an undefeated season without starters Joel Ayayi (France) and Andrew Nembhard (Canada). By the time Ayayi needed to find a college, he Googled the longtime assistant and read up on Lloyd’s international-man-of-recruiting-mystery reputation, which he already partly knew, after teammate Killian Tillie went to Gonzaga and positioned the Zags to win a title last season, before the global COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament.
Lloyd describes the chain of events involved as no more than a happy accident. But that’s him selling his efforts at a steep discount. “He’s a global recruiter,” says Jerry Krause, the Zags’ longtime director of basketball operations, not the late Bulls GM. Krause then points to this season’s most typical lineup: Ayayi, Nembhard, forward Drew Timme (Texas), forward Corey Kispert (Washington state) and guard Jalen Suggs (Minnesota), who many ranked as the top player in last year’s recruiting class. Lloyd didn’t even need to poach eggs for them.
Outsiders forget, Lloyd says, that these Zags were supposed to also feature Filip Petrusev, the Serbian center who averaged 17.5 points and 7.9 rebounds for the Zags in 2019–20, before opting out of this season to sign with a pro club back home. Lloyd believes that Petrusev would “probably” have returned to campus if not for COVID-19. Imagine these Bulldogs, as dominant as any team in recent men’s college basketball memory, with a West Coast Conference player of the year still towering in the post.
Dan Dickau transferred to Gonzaga from Washington in 2000, arriving just as Lloyd found the place he’d never leave. They worked out together every day during Dickau’s transfer year, helping him to later grow the program, continue the NCAA appearance streak and blossom into a first-round NBA draft pick. “It was like living in Tommy’s laboratory,” Dickau says now.
Turns out, the boy from the family of laborers knew how to build far more than an international recruiting reputation. Lloyd struck generations of Bulldogs as creative, innovative, always brainstorming, standing before some whiteboard, scribbling away and concocting another schematic wrinkle. “He enjoys creating,” says Knight, the performance coach. “He has a creative restlessness.”
Lloyd helped Dickau with runners, angles, how to maneuver off screens efficiently and how to manipulate defenders to create space. The guard now calls Lloyd “one of the best assistant coaches in the country,” his record as a developer now firmly established.
In his two decades at Gonzaga, Lloyd coached more than a dozen All-Americas, many of whom landed in the NBA. Like: Rui Hachimura, Zach Collins, Domantas Sabonis, Austin Daye and so many others. Like, two Lloyd originals: Morrison and Turiaf. Some future pros, like Kelly Olynyk, wanted to transfer until being talked into the growth mindset in Spokane instead. On this year’s No. 1 ranked squad, Ayayi at first struck Few as a player incapable of starring at Gonzaga; Kispert, the coaches knew, would need years to round out his versatile game. Now both embody the stability of a program that lacks the usual frenetic transfer pace of other top schools. That happens for two reasons: coaches like Lloyd and his boss find the right players to fit their particular system, and then they teach them how to thrive within an established culture.
That evolution, though, does not stop with the players. Few and Lloyd have improved their style, particularly on offense, over the years, too. Morrison pointed that out in SI’s daily cover story on the Zags from February, saying that the coaches came to embrace an offensive tao that more resembled the NBA in terms of spacing and versatile players who can all run and shoot and rebound and play at a faster tempo. Suggs told SI that the way the Zags play factored heavily in his decision to turn down a football scholarship from Ohio State.
Morrison notes that the Zags currently rank 11th nationally in KenPom's defensive efficiency [Editor's note: Gonzaga has since moved up to fifth] and because they’re first by a significant margin on the offensive end, they’ve never before presented that type of elite balance. If he played for this team Morrison wonders the same thing as Krause, the former head of operations. Maybe he would have averaged 45 points. “It’s a shame with all this COVID stuff that the fanbase doesn’t get to watch them live,” says Morrison, now a TV analyst for the team. “Especially Suggs. We’ve had a lot of great point guards, but he does stuff nobody’s done at Gonzaga.”
In most instances the head coach of a program like Gonzaga would best symbolize the soul of this special thing that had been built. Few does, of course. But, in this case, so does his most loyal assistant. From the international recruiting pipeline to the culture of Gonzaga’s now-massive brand to the players who are not stars but become them—Lloyd played a significant role in each step of the evolution. “The style changed over the last decade, and a lot of that has to do with Tommy,” Morrison continues. “And I’m not just saying that to make him sound good in an article. They run pro-style, European-style stuff—space, movement, efficiency—and that’s Tommy Lloyd, the influence.”
Now at gyms across the world, when the kid from small-town eastern Washington walks inside, heads turn and games stop. One Lloyd mentor, Bill Bakamus, who coached against Tommy Gun in high school, visited him in Greece for an international tournament in 2019. Games were held in different venues, and no matter where Bakamus went, as long as he walked in next to Lloyd, he felt like a celebrity. “They’re all looking at Tommy,” Bakamus says.
Maybe that’s why Lloyd never left Gonzaga. Maybe that’s why he never plans to; it’s even written into his contract that he will replace Few whenever the 58-year-old retires, which doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Even then when restlessness would be understandable, Lloyd has never so much as visited another campus. Like Few, he hopes to follow a successful and tenured Zags coach and carry on the usual traditions, like making the NCAA tournament each season. Also like Few, he doesn’t want to uproot his family and move the kids into different schools in other states. Imagine that kind of stability in the most unstable of worlds. “We’ve all become owners in this,” Lloyd says.
Anyway, it’s not like he wants Few to leave even. The two coaches present a Netflix buddy comedy special already. Sometimes, they’ll play the game Heads Up! against their wives, who always laugh at how quickly one can guess the word the other can’t see based on only a handful of clues. Sometimes, it seems like Lloyd and Few share the same brain. “These guys have been around each other for so long,” Chanelle says. “They finish each other’s sentences.”
Lloyd considers himself lucky—not Gonzaga, nor Few, nor the players he brings to Spokane from all over the world, taking care of them like those long-ago hotel guests. Whatever they need to make the kinds of transitions the exchange students once traversed at his childhood home. “He’s a true basketball coach,” Morrison says, giving Lloyd his highest of compliments.
All that said, whether Lloyd deserves a Few-like-level of credit, then, just like his boss, he must also shoulder the burden for the one game that Gonzaga has never won. Lloyd tells his brother to use “if” and not “when” while discussing NCAA championships. But that hasn’t stopped Jerry, or other family members and friends, from booking travel to Indianapolis in the hopes that the Bulldogs can finish off this season undefeated. “I want it so bad for them,” says Chanelle, who left for Indy before the tournament even though she can’t visit her husband due to COVID-19 protocols. “They’ve waited this whole time. And these teams have been so good.”
Maybe not this good. And that’s thanks, in large part, to the traveling basketball assistant who went all over the world before he really entered coaching, only to find one program, at one university, and decide to never leave except for work. That’s full circle, more or less, a closed loop with one exception. Lloyd, like Few, must get back to the national title game and, this time, win it. Then and only then can everyone who knows him celebrate, from Spokane to Mead High to the folks in Brisbane, eating poached eggs at the Hamilton Motor Inn.
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