SANDPOINT — It’s pretty tough to argue against Gary Elliot when it comes to naming the best boys basketball player to ever come out of Sandpoint High School.
Elliot, a 63 year-old Sandpoint native, retired on Dec. 30 after serving more than 40 years as recreation program manager for the McCall U.S. Forest Service Ranger District.
While starring at both Sandpoint and Washington State University, Elliot built an impressive hoops résumé.
As a senior at Sandpoint the 6-foot-6 post set the state tournament scoring record by dropping in 39 points in a win over Twin Falls, despite playing with a cast on his non-shooting wrist.
He received a full-ride scholarship to Washington State University, where he played his freshman season under the tutelage of the legendary Jud Heathcote, who would later coach Magic Johnson and Michigan State to an NCAA title in 1979.
He once jumped the opening tip against Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then proceeded to fall one point short of upsetting No. 1 UCLA and coaching legend John Wooden.
Not bad for a kid who earned the nickname “Lank” when he was a foot taller than everyone else as a 9th grader. The memories still linger fresh in his mind when he thinks back to a childhood in Sandpoint.
“We used to play hoops until midnight under the lights at the old Farmin School,” recalls Elliot, who remembers enjoying the outdoors with friends as a youth. “We’d do everything together. We were outdoors fishing high mountain lakes, riding mountain bikes and pole vaulting creeks.”
Gary Elliot played football, basketball and ran track in high school, alongside younger brother Larry Elliot, 62, who still lives in Sandpoint.
After graduating from WSU, Gary Elliot moved to McCall and went about raising a family of three kids, enjoying his outdoor-oriented job and taking up the hobby of ice sculpting.
He and Larry still get together a few times a year, usually on elk hunting or fishing trips, and both brothers enjoyed the rare opportunity to play on the same Bulldog teams.
“He’s probably the best basketball player that’s ever come out of Sandpoint,” says Larry, lauding his brother’s intensity. “He had unbelievable timing for blocking shots, getting rebounds and just being around the ball.”
After averaging 25 points and 17 rebounds as a senior at Sandpoint, including 40 points and 23 rebounds against Bonners Ferry, Elliot took his skills to Pullman, where he still ranks 12th on the all-time Cougars rebounding list and 19th all-time in scoring.
WSU head coach Marv Harshman and freshman coach Jud Heathcote came to Sandpoint to scout Elliot as a junior, back when the Pac 8 was arguably the premier conference in college basketball.
Elliot played his first year under Heathcote, back when freshman couldn’t play on varsity, and recalls a highly-intense coach.
“Jud was one of those people who you either played for him or quit. He was an emotional, energetic and feisty guy,” remembers Elliot, who let much of the coaching go in one ear and out the other. “If you took a lot of his stuff to heart it would drive you nuts. If you listened to most of the stuff, he’d make you a heck of a ball player.”
After starting on varsity for three years at WSU, Elliot was drafted in the 10th round by the Los Angeles Lakers and tried out for a team that featured Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Jerry West. When that fell through he tried out for the Sonics, playing in pre-season games with Garfield Heard, Lenny Wilkens and Spencer Haywood, ultimately becoming one of the final two players cut.
While college and pro memories abound, the Sandpoint memories are also cherished in Elliot’s mind. He called it a “neat deal” to get to play alongside his younger brother, and fondly remembers teammates and close friends Larry Jacobson, Joe Stilwell, Norm Thompson, Stan Strecker, Lyle Burnett and Dave Dillon, the last of whom he said is like another brother.
Elliot was asked what he remembered most about playing at SHS.
“Being able to take Sandpoint to state, which hadn’t been done in a few years,” answers Elliot. “Po-dunk Sandpoint playing against Borah, who had two kids that were 6-10.”
Asked what retirement had in store and he said a lot more baby sitting of his grandchildren.