As media swarmed around Gonzaga men's basketball head coach Mark Few after the Zags' win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff earlier this month, graduate assistant coach Gary Bell Jr. was quickly sneaking past the chaos to hug his young kids out on the court.
For Bell, this job at GU was never really about basketball or coaching.
“[I came back for] family honestly,” Bell said. “I was playing overseas for four years and being away from my family for eight months out of the year was tough.”
Now, Bell is back with his wife and his two kids, ages 2 and 5.
“I get to take my son to school almost every day and I get to tuck them in at night, so it’s the best,” Bell said.
Being at GU now allows Bell to not only spend more time with his family, but also still be involved in basketball at a high level.
Flashback four years to when Bell, along with fellow guard Kevin Pangos, composed the heralded backcourt duo from 2011 to 2015 and made history as they took the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999.
“Gary and Kevin started all four years together and we weren’t able to get to the Final Four and we lost to the eventual national champions but, at the same time, they reassured people that we could win big games,” said Mike Roth, director of athletics. “That’s probably one of the good memories in that regard but it’s also a memory of how Gary carried himself as a person on and off the floor.
"There was never one thing that came across my desk that was negative from anyone about Gary. He’s going to bring back a lot of memories for folks because they will remember some of those games. He was a part of winning a whole lot of games.”
Bell is also one of the most successful players to compete at GU. He’s on a short list of players to start all four years of his collegiate career; he’s ranked eighth in program history in 3-pointers attempted and he's played the fifth-most NCAA tournament games at GU with 10.
After leaving GU, Bell played professionally for four years in Poland, France and Greece.
“Basketball was good but being away from family was really tough,” Bell said. “We had a good day here and there, but I wasn’t seeing my kids grow up and that’s why I decided to come back.”
It was then that Bell decided to move back to the United States to be with his family full time. He figured he would get a job coaching high school athletes, but then the opportunity at GU arose and it was one he couldn’t pass up.
“I just wanted to come back and I didn’t know I was going to come here,” Bell said. “[Assistant coach] Tommy [Lloyd] talked to me and was like, ‘You can be a grad assistant here.’ It was basically like coming home, so I couldn’t pass it up.”
Now, Bell works directly with players on the team, while simultaneously working toward his master’s degree in organizational leadership.
“I work out with Joel [Ayayi] a little bit and rebound for him," Bell said. "[I give] input whenever I can and try to learn on the fly."
Bell said he is grateful for the opportunity to learn how to coach under Few, Lloyd, Brian Michaelson and Roger Powell Jr.
Essentially, the entire team is made up of players who were still in high school or younger when Bell was on the team.
“I haven’t played with any of these guys. I kind of know Tillie because he came in right after I was gone but none of the guys really know who I am,” Bell said. “They see me on the wall a little bit. They call me old and I’m only 27, so it’s kind of crazy coming back and being an old guy.”
Bell said he enjoys getting to work with younger players and helping them reach their full potential. Being back at GU also gives him the opportunity to work in a team environment that he hasn’t worked in since he left GU four years ago.
“[I love] being around them every day and seeing that team camaraderie,” Bell said. “Being overseas, you kind of don’t get that because you’re playing with new guys every year. [I'm] just seeing these guys, how they gel, how they work, how that is different from when I was here and how it’s a lot better.”
He sees this opportunity at GU as a launchpad into his coaching career and Roth said he has a bright future ahead.
“We have eight new players on this year’s team. We have somebody who has worn the uniform for four years and was an integral part of that four-year stretch of success,” Roth said. “He’s already having a big impact on this year’s team and we’re hoping that he’ll have a tremendous impact well into the future. And not just on the basketball team, but the type of person Gary is, we hope he has an impact beyond basketball and into Gonzaga.”
For Bell, this job got his foot in the door of coaching. It's a gig he's excited about and ready to pursue.
“I don’t know if I always wanted to [coach], but I know the game and I think because of that, I would be a good coach,” Bell said. “Starting here is a dream come true.”