By Stephanie Plowman
Special Collections Librarian
SPOKANE, Wash. – Kelly Olynyk (Canada) and Przemek (SHEM-eck) Karnowski (Poland) are not the first foreign 7-footers to play basketball for Gonzaga University. Jean Claude Lefebvre, a 7-foot-3-inch 280-pounder from France, started playing for the Zags in the fall of 1957. He was the tallest college basketball player in the United States at the time.
Nicknamed the “Eiffel Rifle” or “Big John,” the 20-year-old Lefebvre’s basketball skills were unknown when he arrived on campus. He started playing basketball at age 18. He trained for 18 months with the French national team and scored 45 points in a tournament game in the European championships. Upon his arrival on campus, Gonzaga hoped Lefebvre would be a great asset. In February 1958, he scored 50 points on 20 field goals against Whitworth, and averaged 14.5 points per game as a freshman.
As expected, Lefebvre was a national media celebrity and appeared in a Life magazine story on Dec. 16, 1957. The article, illustrated with numerous photos, described the Frenchman’s difficulty finding size 21 shoes. To play basketball in France, he wore size 17 shoes with the toes cut out. At Gonzaga, he first wore size 19 but found them too uncomfortable. A specialist for Hyde Athletic Shoe Company in Cambridge, Mass., was finally able to make him a pair of 21s. One of the accompanying photographs in the Life story shows players for the College of Idaho preparing to play Gonzaga by having an assistant coach hold a giant cardboard cutout of Lefebvre’s likeness.
Lefebvre also was the subject of a story in Sports Illustrated, published Dec. 9, 1957. The article describes how he was discovered in Paris and offered the chance to learn how to play basketball under the coach of the French National Basketball Team. One-time Whitworth basketball Coach James McGregor discovered him and decided he would be a good fit for Gonzaga. The story also describes Lefebvre’s life on campus for the first few months.
Naturally, Lefebvre missed his family and friends in France and by his second year at Gonzaga became frustrated that his progress as a player had slowed. He did not enjoy being in the limelight and was sensitive about his size. The adjustment to the rougher, quicker college game was difficult. Eventually, he was deployed off the bench and averaged 7.3 points in his first 15 games as a sophomore, when he played with Frank Burgess, Gonzaga’s first All-American.
On March 10, 1959 at the end of his second season at Gonzaga, Lefebvre left Spokane to begin working with the French national team. He also wanted to return to take care of his injured left knee, which most likely needed another surgery to remove cartilage. Before leaving Gonzaga, Lefebvre said he would not return to the University in 1960 following a year’s absence for the Olympics. He was chosen by the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1960 NBA draft, but stayed to prepare for the Olympics instead. Unfortunately, his hopes of playing in the Olympics ended when he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized. He died in 1999.
Although the likable big Frenchman did not live up to Gonzaga Coach Hank Anderson’s dream of being the “greatest basketball player in the world,” Lefebvre brought much international attention to Gonzaga. Wherever the Zags played, crowds flocked to see him. Lefebvre met Bing Crosby, Gonzaga’s most famous alumnus, when he came to campus to open the Crosby Library, and he met with the French ambassador who was in Spokane for a lecture tour. As a person the Sports Illustrated story noted: “This Lefebvre is the greatest thing that ever happened to Gonzaga – including Bing Crosby.”
Now, the (31-2) Gonzaga men’s basketball team is again in the international spotlight. This year’s team is Gonzaga’s first to be ranked No. 1 in the nation, the first to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (West Region) and the first to win 30 games. While this year’s team includes 7-foot international players Olynyk and Karnowski, Jean Claude Lefebvre was Gonzaga’s first 7-foot basketball player.