Every year, at this time, the world is encapsulated in one of the greatest cultural phenomena of all time. Millions upon millions of brackets are filled, all in pursuit of perfection. People from all over the country are glued to the nearest screens they can find. Select classes halt because games are being watched, upsets are events celebrated in the halls. The entire country, and beyond, is taken hold of by basketball. March Madness is upon us. The greatest stage many schools, players, and fan bases will perform on is set.
A question I ask myself in the midst of the madness is, “has Portland made its mark?” What surprised me is that yes, Portland has been represented in the NCAA Tournament. A few times, in fact: The University of Portland went to “The Dance” in 1959 and 1996, while Portland State made it in back-to-back years, those being 2008 and 2009. To recall Portland’s most recent representation in March Madness, I contacted Ken Bone, who was the head coach of the PSU Vikings during their all-time run during the late 2000’s.
The run was one that had been anticipated by Ken Bone. His experience of 16 years as head coach at three different programs and work as an assistant at a big-name school in Washington had prepared him well to head the Pilots in the 2005-06 season. When Bone had come to the program, he set forth the goal to be a championship team and reach the tournament. The process was one of “recruiting kids that fit the culture.” The culture he established was based off of “guys who wanted to achieve excellence…of high character, who valued their education, and strived to become the best players they could become.” The teams he put together were built “around toughness, around whether you could deal with adversity, on the court and in the classroom.” Following two seasons of building, the team was able to complete those goals.
In our talk, it was clear that Bone had seen the potential for this run of success from 2007 to 2009. The team had undergone a transformation that he had spurred, and his evaluation of the roster said it all. “We felt we had a really good team…because we had some guys transfer.” The transfer system at the time made any player who changed schools forfeit a year of eligibility in sports, so the team had to make due without some of its best weapons from other programs for a season. Regardless, the ineligible players improved the team significantly. “We were continually getting the best out of our best players, and so the next year we had a pretty good feeling.”
The team had a dominant season in 2007-08, getting the number one seed in the Big Sky postseason tournament, winning it, and gaining the automatic bid to “The Dance.” It was their first NCAA Tournament berth in program history. They got a sixteen seed, and got beat by the eventual national champion Kansas Jayhawks in the round of 64.
That offseason, the team continued to build from the inside out, doing work in the Portland community. “We tried to take advantage of the fact that we were inner city…we tried to go out and help the homeless people who lived literally down the street.” The team did help them, and their help showed to have helped. Some of the people they went and aided showed up to games. They also went on a walk to raise money for leukemia. The experiences, as Bone said, were to “show [the players] that there is more out there than basketball.” The character Ken Bone was trying to establish had become an identity.
In the 2008-09 season, a large amount of the roster returned, and they planned to repeat as Big Sky Conference Champions. “What we did, had never been done before at Portland State,” he said, before going on about the necessity to “turn the page and not be satisfied” with that they had accomplished, and to strive for more. That hunger was seen in the team’s magical win at Gonzaga. Coach Bone elaborated on how the team had been stuck in Portland until 6 pm the night before the game. They got to the arena in Spokane at 2:30 pm, two hours before tip-off. They weren’t able to have a practice, and barely had time for their strategy rundown before suiting up. That’s when the culture of the program showed through. The star of the team, a transfer named Jeremiah Dominguez who won MVP of the league that season over Damian Lillard, put up 25 points and helped the team beat the seventh-ranked team in the country. “The guys went through the adversity, and showed their toughness. We won the game with guys who showed they could put aside the other things going on [in their life] to play for each other.”
The team did, indeed, win the league’s tournament again. They were a rarity from a mid-major school, garnering a thirteen seed in the tournament, as opposed to the typical 15 or 16 seed. “That was really surprising, and I was really proud,” says Bone. The season-ending loss to four-seeded Xavier Musketeers was only inevitable. “It’s hard to prepare your guys for teams that are so much bigger and stronger,” said Bone when comparing leagues. “It’s a different game against teams like that, from the PAC-12, and ACC, and Big East.”
Regardless of the results, what Ken Bone had created in Portland was something special. So special, in fact, that it was the only time either of the schools from Portland have gone to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years. They were the third and fourth times any school from Portland went overall, a great stretch for the school, city, and community. What meant the most to Bone was making many of his players’ dreams come true. “It’s what every kid who plays basketball wishes to achieve, to play in the NCAA Tournament…and so as a coach…[having gotten to] see them experience the NCAA Tournament, is just an awesome feeling.” Bone appreciates his time coaching at PSU, noting, “The greatest thing I learned was that…in order to be successful, you need to be a family.” His work in the men’s basketball program created just that: a family.