Joseph Pack/Staff Photographer

Assistant coach Paul Fortier played 17 pro seasons in Europe before joining Cal Poly’s coaching staff this year.

Jefferson P. Nolan
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In speaking with Paul Fortier, you would never guess he is fluent in French.

The newly appointed associate head basketball coach dabbles in Spanish, too, he said, but the French rolls off his tongue.

That’s what happens when you spend 17 years playing professional basketball in Europe.

The 6-foot-9 Bay Area native is currently in his first year at Cal Poly, serving as head coach Joe Callero’s right-hand man.

Stand the two next to each other, and 5-foot-9 Callero is shrouded by the the ex-post player’s size.

“I was looking for an older, more experienced coach,” Callero said. “Someone who would embrace the quality of character and work ethic at Cal Poly. It was a grand slam that he was interested in coming here.”

The duo may not necessarily look like the typical superhero and sidekick, but according to Callero, Fortier has just what his basketball team needs: experience.

Out of the University of Washington, Fortier was drafted by the Washington Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) in 1986 and decided to play one year of basketball abroad to gain experience as a post player.

A year later, he got an offer from the Golden State Warriors to compete in the team’s Veteran’s Camp. However, Fortier already had a guaranteed contract with the European league — which started much earlier.

“I just thought, ‘I’ll try just one more year in Europe,’” Fortier said. “Well, you know how it is … One year turned into 17.”

After playing in Greece, Italy, Spain and France, in his last year abroad, a new head coach was appointed to Fortier’s French team. Fortier was a year older than his new coach, and he realized he was pushing the envelope with his professional career.

The young coach delegated responsibility to Fortier — from watching tapes with him to helping with recruitment — and he got a taste of what it would be like to be a coach.

“We started watching video, and I started helping in recruiting and seeing who I wanted to play with,” Fortier said. “That’s how it started. I was a veteran, and there were these guys just out of college. I spoke the language, and I would help them with everything. That’s when I decided that I wanted to stay in basketball and that I wanted to coach.”

Following his retirement from professional basketball, Fortier returned to Seattle, where he finished his degree and served as a student assistant for the Huskies.

After two years at Cornell University, Fortier returned to Washington and was offered an assistant coaching position that specialized in mentoring post players.

Those who went on to play professionally after Fortier’s guidance include Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes and Memphis Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter.

During his eight seasons at Washington, Fortier assisted the Huskies to four NCAA Tournament appearances, in addition to making the Sweet 16 in 2006 and 2010.

Cal Poly sophomore forward Zach Gordon grew up watching Huskies basketball, and he remembers meeting Fortier when he was in high school attending a “Big Man” camp run by the then-assistant coach at Washington. Designed to develop the skills and abilities of post players, Gordon got a preview of the mentoring he would later receive at Cal Poly.

“I was actually really excited when I found out Coach Fortier was coming to Cal Poly,” Gordon said. “I’ve been a giant Washington fan since I was born, and I was always going to games. He and I have a certain connection that allows us to speak freely. He helps whatever I need to do to get better.”

But Fortier’s journey to San Luis Obispo didn’t come without a little conflict.

In the fall of 2012, Fortier’s youngest daughter, Marissa, was touring colleges. And after visiting San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly was first on her list.

She was accepted.

“We talked about it, and she didn’t know if she should push the button,” Fortier said. “She wanted to wait to see if she got into the University of Washington … Which she eventually did.”

Marissa decided she wanted to be near her family — her sister Kassia is a senior on the Huskies’ women’s basketball squad — and she committed to Washington.

About a month later, Cal Poly assistant coach Omar Lowery left for San Jose State, and Callero immediately called Fortier.

“I told Marissa, ‘I’m going to Cal Poly to go check it out.’ She said, ‘You can’t do that. That was my No. 1 choice. That’s where I was going to go.’”

Fortier is aware of the motto that there will always be millions of reasons not to do something. He sold his house, and he and his wife moved to San Luis Obispo. Fortier was all in.

After less than a year with the team, the veteran coach has been accepted by his second family.

“We embraced him as soon as he came in,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “He’s moving from Washington, and he’s bringing his family here. In order for us to be successful on the court … off the court, we need to be a family.”

Height aside, with his playing experience and prolific know-how on the court, Fortier brings a calm, professional demeanor to Mott Athletics Center.

He serves as an example to student-athletes that they can make a career of playing professional basketball, and having returned to school to complete his degree, he imparts the importance of school to his young protégés. In addition to his coaching duties, Fortier helps oversee public relations, recruitment and media relations for the basketball program. After almost a year, Fortier can just about finish Callero’s sentences.

“When I’m with the family, it’s tough to cut the phone off sometimes,” Fortier said. “My wife thinks I’m crazy sometimes, but I do love it.”

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