Tony Gill was suddenly a man without an identity.
The Pacific forward had to replace his No. 33 jersey – which had blood on it – with a clean No. 25 during Saturday’s game against Pepperdine. It was the only uniform without a name on the back, prompting a fan to ask, “Who the heck is that?” Said a fan next to him: “That’s Gill, with the best nickname here.”
See, it didn’t much matter that Gill’s name wasn’t on his jersey because most Pacific fans know the 6-foot-8senior as “The Big Smooth.”
Everything Gill does appears effortless. The forward from Oakmont High School and Cosumnes River College glides more than he grinds. He’s sneaky quick down the lane or working the baseline. He posts up without grunts. He zips around screens and pulls up for top-of-the-key 3-pointers. And his teammates say he never sweats.
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The running joke along media row during Saturday’s game was Gill could add a new nickname, “The Surgeon,” because of how he efficiently slices through teams – and because that’s his career goal. Gill had 17 points, including two 3-pointers, to key UOP’s Pacific’s 76-66 victory over Pepperdine in a West Coast Conference game.
Seated a few feet away, behind the scorer’s table, Pacific fans regularly shouted, “Go get ’em, Dr. Gill!”
“He’s unbelievable, a pleasure to coach and a pleasure to watch,” said Ron Verlin, a Del Oro and Sacramento State graduate in his first season as Pacific’s coach. “The Big Smooth does what he does, and that’s a lot. I hope he keeps rolling. We need him.”
Last season, his first at Pacific, Gill was the Big West Tournament MVP after averaging 15.3 points in three games to lead the Tigers to the title in their final season in the conference. This season, Gill is averaging 10.8 points for the Tigers, who are 11-8 overall and 2-6 in the highly competitive WCC.
Gill has observed genuine heartache and sadness in hospital rooms, so he never gets down about his play on the court. At this time next year, he could either be in medical school or playing professionally overseas.
“I grew up wanting to be a surgeon,” Gill said. “I grew up around medicine because I have so many in my family who are doctors. And I want to help people. But I’ll find out if that’s what I want to do in the next year or so.”
Gill paused and continued, “I’ve seen both sides in a lot of hospital tours, shadowing family. You see some people who have only a couple of more days to live. Some have their lives taken away in a split second, and they’re dying, or they’re ill with cancer. So I appreciate life, good health, what we have, the dream I’m living. You have to live life every day. You can’t mope around. As hard as this season has been at times, there are people in hospitals who would do anything to be in our situation, or just to walk.”
Gill said he has much in common with his coach. They’re both Placer County guys who embrace their roots, and they mirror each other in their positive attitudes. While Gill is enjoying his final season, Verlin has run the full emotional gamut as a first-year head coach.
For the previous 19 seasons, Verlin was an assistant at Pacific, a position without the burden of expectations that were shouldered by head coach Bob Thomason, who in 25 years had the most wins in Big West history (414) and reached the NCAA Tournament five times.
Thomason retired after last season, and Verlin landed his dream job.
“There’s not a man anywhere who deserved this job more than Ron,” Gill said. “No one works harder. He’s consistent, with no hidden secrets, and with him, you’ll get great energy every day.”
Verlin said the rigors of the season have caused him to“gain weight and lose hair, but I’m hooked. This is what we do.”
“We got off to a great start and then hit a lull,” he said “The WCC is good. We got smacked a few times, our bells rung. We’re fighting through it.”
Basketball is a family tradition for Verlin. He speaks several times a week to twin brother Don, Idaho’s coach. The brothers grew up on a Loomis ranch with parents Bob and Bonnie. They played basketball together at Del Oro and were co-coaches for the Del Oro freshmen in 1987 while still in college. Their father died of cancer in 2005. Their mother lives in Arizona and regularly watches games on TV.
“We never had a master plan in high school to get here, but we figured a way to get it done, and it’s been great,” Verlin said, adding a moment later as Gill walked by, “and this is why we do this.”