Bree Salenbien’s face turns red and she lets out a nervous laugh, followed by a knowing smile.
“I said it wrong, didn’t I?”
Then, “Gonzaga, Gonzaga, Gonzaga.” She repeats the word three times, making sure she gets it right.
Salenbien can be forgiven for the mispronunciation. It’s common in her hometown – Adrian, Michigan – and across the Midwest for that matter. Plus, even the talking heads on ESPN get it wrong from time to time.
Gonzaga, Gonzoga, Gonzooga. It doesn’t matter how she says it.
Salenbien may not be completely confident in her pronunciation yet, but the five-star recruit is confident that it’s the right school for her. And that’s what matters.
“The culture there is amazing,” she said. “Once they started talking to me I was like, ‘It’s for sure Gonzaga.’ ”
Head coach Lisa Fortier and the Zags are lucky to have landed Salenbien.
There’s the obvious: She’s a five-star recruit and ESPN’s No. 44 prospect in the country. That makes her the program’s top-ranked recruit in history.
Salenbien has been highly touted for years. She received her first Division I offer in eighth grade, and they never stopped until she made things official with Gonzaga. She thinks there were 36 in total, but it’s hard to keep track.
Fortier learned about Salenbien at about the same time. Typically eighth-graders and freshmen take a bit longer to get on the coach’s radar if they aren’t in Washington. But the basketball community can be small at times, and Fortier had a link to the Michigan native.
Kiara Kudron, who played for Gonzaga from 2012-17 and is now the team’s video coordinator, is also from Michigan. She and Salenbien have some of the same people in their respective circles.
They had a coach in common and he passed on Salenbien’s name.
“This kid is special,” he told Fortier.
The Gonzaga coaching staff was instantly smitten with Salenbien.
“I mean, she’s 6-3 and she can do everything,” Fortier said. “She’s a phenomenal shooter. She’s super versatile and she’s feisty. She’s not afraid of the big moment and she’s not afraid of physicality.”
Then, there’s the less obvious.
For starters, the Zags are lucky Salenbien is playing basketball at all.
These days, Salenbien has trouble remembering what interested her before basketball took over, but there was a time when she wanted nothing to do with the sport.
The Salenbien family has a motto: “God, others and self.”
Basketball could probably slide in there somewhere, too – just not before God or others – but it’s definitely rivaling self for the third spot.
Bree’s dad, Jamie Salenbien, has been a coach since before she was born, and her mom loves basketball, too.
“I started, probably, the minute I could walk, they had a ball in my hands,” she said. “But honestly, I hated it up until middle school. I wanted nothing to do with it, just because I was around it so much.
“I wasn’t very coordinated back then, so I wasn’t very good. I think that was part of it.”
Salenbien is blessed with height, but as a child, she was tall, super skinny and awkward.
The Salenbien kids always accompanied Jamie to practices when he was coaching. He remembers watching Bree try, and fail, to get the ball to the rim.
He described her as being “frail” as a child, which gets a good laugh out of the rest of the family.
Jamie has no problem admitting that he didn’t see Bree becoming a great basketball player. He’s proud to say that while he was blinded by her toothpick arms and lack of strength, his wife Deb saw past it. She saw something in Bree.
And she was right.
“Growing up, I could see her determination, and that she had some stubbornness in there,” Deb said. “Once she started being successful in junior high, something just clicked with her.”
Bree grew into her body and discovered she had natural athleticism. Plus, if she wanted to spend time with her older sister Dani, she had to play basketball.
It was all Dani wanted to do.
When they were younger, the girls loved singing along to Disney Channel songs and putting on performances for their parents. As they grew, Dani became more attached to basketball over Disney theater.
Dani is a gifted basketball player who helped Lenawee Christian of Adrian win two state titles alongside Bree and now plays point guard for Hillsdale (Michigan) College.
The height that Bree is blessed with bypassed the 5-9 Dani. That ended up being a good thing for Bree’s development, as she spent her days running through guard-oriented drills with her sister.
Now, versatility is Bree’s biggest strength.
“We tell our players all the time, ‘Your ability to be the answer to whatever problems we have is going to get you more or less playing time,’ and I think Bree can be the answer to any of the problems we have,” Fortier said. “If we need a third-string point guard, she can fit the bill. If we need rebounding, she can do that. If we need shooting, she can do that.”
It doesn’t take more than a minute of watching Salenbien to see what those 36 Division I schools saw. She has incredible range and can hit a step-back from the NBA 3-point line and beyond. Add in her ability to get to the rim, a precise handle, excellent court vision and the strength and skill to finish through or around contact, and it adds up to one of the country’s top players.
She’s an elevated version of the type of player Gonzaga has recruited in recent years.
“They like long, lanky players,” Bree said. “That really appealed to me because that’s the type of player I am. I think I fit their system.”
Gonzaga is a perfect fit for basketball, but Salenbien is constantly fielding questions about why she would choose a school so far from home. The Lenawee Christian gym is less than 3 minutes away from her house, so basketball and home have been connected since she started attending that school in sixth grade.
Bree is about to put 2,000 miles between her and the rest of the Salenbiens.
“That’s really crazy,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, especially leaving my family.”
Bree spends her evenings enjoying the card game euchre – which she was shocked to learn isn’t as popular in other parts of the country – or Monopoly with her parents and siblings. In the summer, she works in her uncle’s food truck at the fair, and her brothers – 15-year-old Tyler and 13-year-old Jaxon – see her as almost a second mom.
“To me, she is like the glue of our family,” Deb said. “So this is going to be very hard for me when she leaves because the dynamic is going to change. It will be me, two boys and my husband. She also kind of takes charge as mom at home over the boys. She cooks them meals. If one of them is in a bad mood, she works to get them out of it. She is just very caring.”
Tacos are Bree’s current favorite to prepare for the boys since she just learned how to defrost meat in the microwave. She also makes a grilled cheese that she says is “bomb.com.”
Bree’s love for family is one of the things that led to her picking Gonzaga.
No matter where she went, Bree knew basketball at the college level would take up all her time. Even if she was close by, visits would be limited. So she searched the country to find a program with which she could connect. If she was going to leave her family, she’d have to find a team to help fill the void.
“I’m playing college basketball, which is kind of like a job,” she said. “So any school I went to would have to be like a home away from home, and I felt that at Gonzaga.”
Over the past two decades, “Gonzaga” and “basketball” have become synonymous. But while the men’s team has made the jump from a good program to a great one, with two national championship appearances, the women’s squad has yet to make the same breakthrough.
An Elite Eight appearance in 2011 is the furthest the team has made it in March.
The men reached their first Final Four in 2016, with the help of four-star recruit Zach Collins. The 2021 run was fueled by Jalen Suggs, a five-star recruit.
If the women’s team is going to reach the same heights, Salenbien is a good place to start.
“She is hopefully going to help us get better and then that attracts better players,” Fortier said. “These days, all the kids know each other. They play against each other in AAU and all-star games, and they do USA basketball together. We are recruiting the next class of really talented players, and they know who Bree is. They want to play with people like that.”
Being the first five-star recruit in program history comes with expectations, which can lead to pressure.
Make no mistake, Salenbien wants to win a national championship.
“I mean, of course that’s the goal,” she said. “It’s going to be exciting to try and make it farther than they’ve ever been before.”
But as far as expectations that come with her status, Salenbien doesn’t pay much attention. She stays off social media as much as possible and makes a point not to put much stock into her ranking.
“When you really think about it, it is just a number,” she said. “There are a lot of good players that don’t get recognized with an ESPN ranking. I’m coming in as a freshman and I have to earn my spot and find my role on the team.”
If the outside noise ever gets too loud, Salenbien always comes back to something her dad said: “The ball is going to go flat one day, so don’t rely on it.”
Basketball isn’t a constant. She may be the 44th-ranked prospect and five-star recruit, but she won’t always have those things attached to her name.
Because she’s not invincible. She used to think she was, but the 2020 season taught her otherwise.
During her last regular-season game, Salenbien went up for what could have been a winning layup, but when she came back down, she was met with one of the worst injuries an athlete can suffer: an ACL tear.
It was the first time she’d been hurt, but Salenbien knew it was bad right away. She watched her team lose in double overtime, silently fighting her pain on the bench.
Salenbien found the silver lining in being hurt.
“I think before that, I was playing to play, but now it is kind of a different mindset,” she said. “Now it is playing as hard as I can every single time. I think I lacked that before I got injured.”
Salenbien is healthy again and ready to find her place as a Zag. She will soon graduate from high school and set foot on GU’s campus for the first time.
Now, all that’s left is mastering how to pronounce the name of her new home.