There isn’t a ton of history between Gonzaga’s and College of Idaho’s basketball programs but there is some, and it carries profound meaning to both schools.
It’s one of main reasons behind the teams’ scheduling Saturday’s exhibition game at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Sadly, Julian Laca, who had deep roots with the Zags and Coyotes, won’t be on hand to see the game.
Gonzaga faced College of Idaho in the opener of the 1957-58 season and it drew attention from national media outlets, including Life magazine, because it marked the debut of Gonzaga’s Jean Claude Lefebvre, a 7-foot-3 Frenchman who was the tallest player in college basketball.
Pictures accompanying the Life article showed College of Idaho players shooting in practice over a life-size cut-out of Lefebvre. Another picture believed to be from a Boise-area newspaper showed Yotes 6-8 center Laca, standing next to the Lefebvre cut-out to demonstrate the size differential.
Laca played four years for College of Idaho, where he met future wife Eileen. The couple had four children, including Marcy, who would meet future husband and future Gonzaga coach Mark Few, when she attended GU.
Laca went on to a 35-year career as a coach, teacher and administrator at schools near Boise. Parma High named its arena Julian Laca Gymnasium upon his retirement.
Laca passed away in July at the age of 79 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.
“We probably had 1,000 people at the funeral at their church in Caldwell,” Marcy Few said. “I’m not really a social media person but I got on Facebook because I was told to get on there to read everything people had posted. He had a lot of impact on former athletes and teachers, but the coolest thing to me was reading the tributes from his former students.
“His passing was very hard on Mark as well,” Marcy added. “My dad called Mark ‘Boss’ because he’d go to practice and say that he saw who was the boss. Mark said he lost his buddy when he passed away.”
Laca was a regular at College of Idaho football and basketball games.
“He was a beloved figure here,” said College of Idaho assistant A.D. Marty Holly, who served as Yotes’ athletic director for 35 years and basketball coach for 19 years. “He was a very popular guy. He was a very good player and he never forgot his alma mater.”
Julian and Eileen made trips to watch the Zags at Thanksgiving holiday tournaments, WCC tournaments, NCAA tournaments, the annual road game against Portland and countless more contests at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“Jules was the greatest father-in-law you could ever wish for,” Few said. “He really got into our program and got such joy from it. That was probably one of the hardest things and the cruelest fate of that disease, that we have our greatest season (last year) and he didn’t really get to know what was going on.”
Laca’s dedication in his hometown of Parma was impressive, from coaching multiple sports to stints on the city council and planning and zoning.
The scheduling of Saturday’s exhibition game seems fitting for both schools.
“Everybody in that whole valley knew him,” Few said. “He was at track meets and football games and tennis matches. That’s why he was so well thought of and loved. The guy got the stuff down that really matters. He really cared about people.”
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