Nov. 15, 2012
By Craig Chval Sr.
When Bill Hanzlik played on the star-studded University of Notre Dame basketball teams of the late 1970s, he earned a reputation for his dedication to the often thankless task of playing defense. It's not that Hanzlik, a highly-recruited prep star who played his senior year of high school basketball in Beloit, Wis., lacked the ability to make a name for himself as a scorer.
But when Irish coach Digger Phelps needed somebody to shut down an opponent's explosive scorer, he always turned to the 6-7 Hanzlik. It was a role Hanzlik enthusiastically embraced.
"We had such tremendous talent," Hanzlik says of the four Notre Dame teams he played on that sent 13 players to the National Basketball Association for at least one season. "I wove my little playing time into being a big defensive guard, who could guard anybody on the floor.
"I loved that challenge, of being the underdog trying to shut down those guys."
Hanzlik burst into the spotlight as a sophomore when the Irish hosted defending national champion Marquette, ranked No. 1 with a 22-2 record. The Warriors' star was Butch Lee, a 6-0 lightning quick guard who had been named the Most Outstanding Player in the 1977 NCAA tournament, and who had nearly led Puerto Rico to a huge upset of the gold medal winning United States team in the 1976 Olympic Games.
Marquette surged to a 14-point halftime lead, but the Irish stormed back to a 65-59 victory, fueled by Hanzlik's defense on Lee. Hanzlik harassed Lee into a 6-for-19 shooting effort, and just three assists to go along with five turnovers. Meanwhile, Hanzlik chipped in with four points, two steals and a team-high six assists.
Hanzlik's defense and all-around play were key ingredients in Notre Dame's run to the 1978 NCAA Final Four, and a return trip to the Elite Eight in 1979. As a senior co-captain in 1979-80, Hanzlik helped lead the Irish to a 22-6 record and their seventh straight NCAA tournament berth.
By that time, Hanzlik's defensive prowess and other talents had gained the attention of people beyond Notre Dame. After playing on a handful of U.S. teams in international competitions during his college career, Hanzlik earned an invitation to the tryouts for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Unfortunately, U.S. President Jimmy Carter had already announced that the delegation would boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Even though the tryouts caused Hanzlik to miss graduation at Notre Dame, he figured it was too good an opportunity to pass up, not thinking he had much of a chance of making the team.
"I figured this would be a great opportunity to develop my game and maybe get a little exposure for the NBA draft," he says. "And then all of a sudden I make the team and was thinking, `Wow, this was awesome.'"
In lieu of competing in the Olympics, Hanzlik and his teammates - who included Isiah Thomas, Buck Williams and Mark Aguirre - won five of six games against a collection of NBA all-stars. All of the U.S. Olympians were invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored, and while Hanzlik was grateful for the gesture, he was particularly sympathetic toward athletes in sports other than basketball.
"As much as we missed having the opportunity to play, for basketball players, the epitome of our sport is the NBA, and we all had a chance to pursue that dream," he says. "But for some of the other sports, the Olympics are their one opportunity to be in the spotlight, and I really felt bad for some of the other athletes."
Hanzlik once again sold himself short when it came to the NBA draft, insisting that he expected to be drafted in the second or third round. But the Seattle SuperSonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder) selected Hanzlik in the first round with the 20th pick - even though he had never averaged more than 8.7 points per game during any season at Notre Dame. Hanzlik spent two years in Seattle before being traded to the Denver Nuggets during his honeymoon.
"I'm a big believer that God puts you in certain places at certain times," he says. "And Denver was an unbelievable experience for us."
For starters, Denver was the hometown of Hanzlik's new bride, Maribeth, whom he had met while both were students at Notre Dame. And on the basketball court, Hanzlik's strengths fit perfectly with Nuggets head coach Doug Moe's approach. Hanzlik helped Denver make the playoffs during each of his eight seasons with the team, and was named to the NBA's all-defensive second team in 1985-86.
Beyond that, Hanzlik joined forces with Ray Baker to establish the Gold Crown Foundation in 1986. The non-profit organization exists to educate youth and community through sports and enrichment programs. For Hanzlik, it's comes down to a simple question: What's best for the kid?
Providing the response to that question has led the Gold Crown Foundation (GCF) to serve 35,000 youth annually, offering basketball, volleyball, lacrosse and baseball programs, as well as programs for parents and coaches.
"We never envisioned it being as big as it has become," says Hanzlik of the Foundation, which now has a full-time staff of 20. "We have kept adding to it over the years, because we've just wanted to give the kids some opportunities."
After a series of three back surgeries forced Hanzlik to retire from the NBA, he spent six years as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks before serving as the Nuggets' head coach in 1997-98. Meanwhile, GCF was growing at an amazing rate, raising funds to build state-of-the-art facilities, including a fieldhouse, complete with computer and homework labs, and a youth baseball field modeled after the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field.
So when another NBA coaching opportunity came around in 2012, Hanzlik chuckles that he put some lotion on the itch and decided that serving as the Gold Crown Foundation's CEO was right where he wanted to be.
"This is my passion, and it's grown into a full-time deal," he says. "Sport has given so much to me that I want to be able to help young people have those same opportunities."
Just as he did at Notre Dame and in the NBA, Hanzlik doesn't wait to be asked to take on the tough, often thankless, challenges.
"Notre Dame indirectly impacts you with its commitment to others," Hanzlik says. "Being a young kid growing up, you might not really get it, and then you get to Notre Dame and you start to get it a little bit.
"And then you get out and you see other people helping others and you see what fulfillment there is in doing things for other people," he says.
Both Bill and Maribeth are involved in several organizations that support youth and education, in addition to the Gold Crown Foundation. This fall, Bill was honored by the Jefferson Foundation Board of Directors with its 2012 Crystal Bowl for Distinguished Service Award.
What little time remains is spent as an analyst for Nuggets telecasts - which also provides a great partnership for the Foundation - and spending time with family.
Eldest daughter Meghan and her husband Mick Mathew are both Notre Dame graduates, and are parents to Maria Therese. Second-oldest daughter Mollie and her husband Sloan Smith are also both Notre Dame graduates, while son Robby played basketball at the University of Maine and Adams State College while earning a degree in finance, and daughter Gillian is currently completing Notre Dame's ACE Master's program as an award-winning teacher in Memphis after playing volleyball at Gonzaga University.
"Life is good," says Hanzlik, who was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Not only is it good for Hanzlik and his family, but it's good for thousands of Colorado youngsters and their families because Hanzlik is still taking on the thankless jobs after all these years.