Paul Fortier originally went to France to work his way back into the NBA.
One year. That’s it, and he’d be back playing pro ball in the states.
But a single season turned into two, that turned into 17 and, when the former NBA Draft pick played long enough for his head coach to consider him an elder, that’s how Fortier ended up becoming a coach himself.
Tuesday, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team announced the hiring of Fortier, a former Washington standout and eight-year assistant with the Huskies, as Mustangs associate head coach, completing head coach Joe Callero’s staff after fourth-year assistant Omar Lowery left for San Jose State in the offseason.
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During his time playing overseas, which also included stints in Spain, Italy and Greece, Fortier went toe-to-toe with a pre-Los Angeles Lakers Pau Gasol and teamed with NBA journeyman Boris Diaw. He played against San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker’s father, fondly recalling Parker as a 10-year-old tag-along.
Both of Fortier’s college-age daughters were born in France, and though he can trace his lineage back to the French Caribbean island of Martinique, he took Spanish at St. Ignatius Prep in San Francisco, learning to speak fluent French only after embarking on a 10-year career in a French basketball league.
That’s where Erik Gerard, a young coach who was slightly Fortier’s junior, guided the team to back-to-back league crowns and roped Fortier into the profession.
“I’ve always been known as a basketball IQ guy,” said Fortier, a 6-foot-9 power forward who was selected in the fifth round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Washington Bullets. “One time, I remember he said, ‘Paul, why don’t you come in earlier and watch some video tape?’ ”
At the conclusion of his playing career, Fortier returned to finish his degree at Washington and began coaching. Callero once tried to bring Fortier on when he was still the head coach at Seattle University, but after Fortier finished up a two-year stint with Cornell, he went back to his alma mater and had been there ever since, even watching his older daughter Kassia join the Huskies women’s basketball team.
Then Washington decided to take its program in a new direction, head coach Lorenzo Romar purging the program of a couple of longtime assistants this offseason, including the 47-year-old Fortier.
Facing an opening on his staff and remembering his experiences with Fortier, Callero was excited to bring in a coach of his caliber.
“That was No. 1,” Callero said, “make sure you get a good coach. I knew he was a high-character guy, a good person and great for our staff. I wouldn’t have named him associate head coach if he wasn’t a great person.”
In addition to admiring his qualities as a mentor, Callero hopes Fortier can bolster Cal Poly’s recruiting efforts and improve the play of the Mustangs’ big men.
Among Fortier’s Washington pupils are Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes, Memphis Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter and first-team All-Pac-10 pick Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
Fortier was excited to work with Cal Poly forward and first-team Big West honoree Chris Eversley, who he likened to Pondexter.
And with his Northern California upbringing, experience playing overseas and foreign language skills, Fortier should gain Cal Poly entry to new frontiers in the recruiting world.
In return, Cal Poly is a place where Fortier will have room to grow. He said he received interest from another Pac-12 school, but San Luis Obispo could be the place where he grooms himself to become a head coach.
“Knowing Joe and seeing what he’s done for the program already, I really know he has it going in the right direction,” Fortier said. “I saw the UCLA game, and I love what he’s doing with the team.
“He’ll be putting me out there in positions where I can improve as a coach, and those are areas I need.
“Recruiting. You may have to go do a radio show, go speak in front of some boosters, fundraise. If you want to be a head coach in this business, those are the things you have to do. It’s a challenge that I want.”
He’ll start at Cal Poly when the Mustangs open an elite camp for high school boys July 1. Callero said camp spots remain open, and spectators are allowed at Mott Gym during camp sessions.
So, the coaching staff is set, but not after some uncertainty this offseason. Lowery made his upward move, and assistant Mitch Freeman is thought to be not too far behind.
After taking over a program that was winless at home the year before he arrived and improving to 13-1 at Mott Gym this past season, Callero even fielded some interest.
But Callero said he has more to do at Cal Poly before contemplating a move, namely making the NCAA Tournament, winning a game or two in The Big Dance and sending a player to the NBA.
“I had a few people reach out through secondary contacts,” Callero said. “I’ve actually had a couple agents try to reach out to me, but for me in this point in my life, I’m very committed to what we’re doing here.
“If it’s an offer that’s so outstanding, it’s life-changing, everybody would consider it, but the situation we’re in right now and the dream I wanted to make for my family is here.”