You don’t want to be that guy at the bar, but you just can’t stop staring. Heck, everybody at the bar is staring.
It’s getting late one summer night at the Dixie Tavern in downtown Portland, Oregon, and there’s a group of 20-somethings hanging out by themselves, sharing stories and laughing the way old college friends do when they connect in the adult world. One of them, though, is absolutely mesmerizing — head-and-shoulders above the rest.
You’re across the room, and they’re complete strangers, but you can’t just sit there and say nothing. So you glance at your friend, take one more swig of your drink, stand up and make your move.
What you are is an assistant basketball coach at Portland State University, and on this night you stride across the bar, tap the standout on the shoulder, breathe deeply and say, as confidently as you can, “Hey, aren’t you Ryan Edwards from Gonzaga?”
And just like that a beautiful new relationship is born.
When you’re more than 7 feet tall, and just a couple months earlier you and your teammates were playing in the Final Four, this happens a lot in bars. Lisa Edwards, Ryan’s mother, lovingly said that going out in public with her son is “like taking out a circus animal,” and at 7-foot-1 and 290 pounds, the 22-year-old could probably sub for a dancing bear in a pinch.
So last June, when Edwards and a few pals he met during his four years at Gonzaga University were at Dixie Tavern, and a guy none of them had met before started chatting up the big fella, one of his friends played the practiced role of bouncer.
“My buddy was like, ‘Hey man, give him some space,’” Edwards recalled with a laugh.
Edwards was in Portland to look for a job, like the ones his friends now had, with his college basketball career firmly behind him. The 2013 Glacier High School grad had spent four years on Gonzaga’s roster but saw limited action behind a bevy of future professionals, playing just 48 total minutes last season as the Bulldogs reached the national championship game for the first time in program history. Edwards treasured his years in Spokane, but after hours upon hours toiling in practice, working in the weight room and studying film with little in-game payoff, he was frustrated. Edwards was done playing basketball. Having already graduated as a double major in broadcasting and public relations, the working world was going to be his future.
But the two coaches out that night, Jase Coburn and Chris Skinkis, were persistent. Edwards said he talked to the pair for an hour, and they parted, after exchanging numbers, with an offer on the table: If the 7-footer changed his mind and wanted to play Division I hoops again, there was a spot at Portland State waiting for him.
The next day, Edwards was on the phone.
“He had a great experience at Gonzaga, but he hadn’t had a great experience in playing consistently,” first-year PSU coach Barret Peery said. “I said, ‘I think you can play here and you can have a great experience in a senior-year situation and be a real player on our team.’”
Edwards redshirted his second year in Spokane, which meant that he’d exhausted only three of his four years of college eligibility. And since he had already graduated from the university, he was able to play at another school immediately, without sitting out a transfer year.
To Edwards, the fluke meeting at a Portland bar was more than just chance.
“It was almost like destiny,” he said. “What are the chances of running into those people there? It was crazy.”
Peery was just two months into the job, his first as a Division I head coach, and he and Edwards hit it off from that very first phone call. Edwards’ basketball career wasn’t over yet.
“He had belief in me and he wanted me to have another chance,” Edwards said. “He didn’t want me to go out playing four years of basketball on a bad note. His main goal was to make me love the game of basketball again.”
Ryan Edwards, just months after hanging up his sneakers and simmering about the way his college career had come to a close, loves basketball again. Today, he smiles through the phone when he talks about the game and has big plans for himself after this season ends at Portland State. He wants to play in Europe for a few years, as long as his body allows him, and he wants to coach after that, ideally at the college level.
“I haven’t enjoyed basketball as much in my entire life,” Edwards said. “And honestly, it’s all because of my head coach … He’s really changed my outlook on life and basketball.”
Edwards spent much of his childhood in Butte with his older brother, Jeff, and Lisa, a single mother. Lisa moved to Kalispell with Ryan when he was in junior high, while Jeff, who is 6-foot-11 and was a basketball star himself in high school, stayed behind in Butte.
“(Moving to Kalispell) was the best choice I ever made for Ryan,” Lisa said. “Instead of following in Jeff’s footsteps, this way Ryan got to be Ryan.”
After earning all-state honors twice at Glacier, Edwards saw action in 17 games as a true freshman at Gonzaga. He came back following his redshirt year to a bigger role in 2015-16, in part because of an injury to star center Przemek Karnowski, and saw the floor in 31 games. The next season, however, Karnowski returned fully healthy and the Zags added future NBA Draft lottery pick Zach Collins, relegating Edwards to the end of the bench.
“He kind of lost his self-esteem,” Lisa said. “He didn’t feel as though he was good enough anymore.”
Edwards admits the end of his Gonzaga career was a challenge, but said he wouldn’t trade his years in Spokane for anything. He remains close with his former Gonzaga teammates, had the opportunity to travel overseas as part of the program and visited some of college basketball’s most storied venues. Plus, there was last year’s Final Four, where Gonzaga lost in the championship game against North Carolina in front of almost 80,000 people at a converted football stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“It was insane,” Edwards said of the Final Four. “You felt like a superstar as soon as you hopped off the plane — they had a basketball court with a red carpet; you get to your hotel room with a police escort … It just makes you feel like a celebrity.”
“The experiences and the people I’ve met made (playing at Gonzaga) more than worth it,” he added.
Still, the relationship Edwards has been able to build in just a few months with Peery is unlike anything he’s had in the sport.
“He’s an easy person to follow and he’s someone you can trust,” Edwards said of his coach. “He doesn’t just care about you as a basketball player; he cares about you as a person.”
“They have a really unique relationship,” Lisa said. “I feel good about (Ryan) having him as a coach. He’s well taken care of.”
Edwards has not just found his missing basketball passion at Portland State; he’s also found his scoring touch.
Starting and playing regular minutes for the first time since high school, Edwards is averaging nearly 10 points per game, and helped the Vikings post a 19-12 regular season record and earn the sixth seed in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which will be played March 6-10 in Reno, Nevada. Entering the tourney, Edwards has already more than doubled his scoring output from his entire Gonzaga career (292 points to 139) and is his team’s leading shot-blocker (55). He’s even made 10 3-pointers in Peery’s high-scoring, up-tempo offensive system, one that’s hardly a natural fit for the oversized Edwards.
“Ryan has a unique skillset,” Peery said. “He’s so big and strong, but he’s very, very skilled. He can score facing the basket, away from the basket … and I’m excited he’s found that new energy.”
Peery believes Edwards can make good on his desire to play in Europe, and Lisa said if he does, she’ll eagerly be getting her passport in order to continue to watch her youngest son compete.
“I live and breathe for my boys, and basketball has been year-round,” Lisa said. “It’s been such a huge part of our lives.”
With her son playing in the Big Sky this year, Lisa and other family members have been able to watch Ryan in person several times, including when the Vikings played at Montana and Montana State. Ryan’s 94-year-old grandfather, Jim Fisher, made it to Bozeman to see Ryan in action against the Bobcats.
Portland State will need to pull off a remarkable run of upsets in Reno to send Ryan and his teammates to the NCAA tournament, but they do have the benefit of having a guy in the locker room who’s been to the sport’s highest heights.
“(My teammates) all know where I’ve been and I know what it takes to get (to the NCAA tournament),” Edwards said. “I want to be that veteran on the team and be someone they can talk to. I’ve been through the ringer, I know what it’s like, and I know that we can be a special team.”
Edwards was voted a team captain before the season, and, regardless of how the Vikings fare in the postseason, his unlikely final season of college basketball has been a resounding personal success.
“He was very sincere, very simple about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to go about it,” Peery said. “He wanted to get a chance to play.”
“He’s been a really great kid to coach — he wants to get better, wants to be coached.”
And before hanging up the phone to prepare for the Vikings’ next game, the new Portland State coach, the one who heard from his assistants last June about “a big white kid” at the bar — a kid who had fallen out of love with the one thing he had always cared about — insisted on adding something else.
“As great of a player as I think Ryan is,” he said, “he’s a better kid and an even better representative of your community.”
And he is, happily, in love once again.