KAMIAH - Start peeling back the layers, and pretty quickly Fred Mercer's prep basketball anecdotes start to include some big names.
There's the time Mercer took Bob Knight fishing on the Selway, with 20 head of horses up above Moose Creek.
Mercer's brother-in-law Dick Fike - a longtime educator, administrator and coach in the region - went along for the trip.
"He and Knight were just ."
Mercer, smiling, hit his fists together.
It was a memorable trip, he said.
Mercer, known throughout the Northwest and beyond for 40 years of basketball camps, will retire as superintendent at the end of the month after 50 years with the Kamiah School District.
Fred and Judy Mercer live in her family home in Kamiah, just blocks away from the schools. Mercer, 75, was born in Kamiah and graduated from high school there. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Idaho, then worked in Kamiah schools as a social studies teacher, physical education teacher, driver's education teacher, special education director and coach for several sports.
He coached varsity boy's basketball for nearly a quarter century, served as president of the high school coaches association and managed district tournaments for a number of years. Among his favorite memories are the packed houses at Lewiston High School's Booth Hall, where those tournaments were played.
Mercer retired from Kamiah schools in 2004, though he continued to coach junior high basketball and fill in when administrators needed time off.
In 2010, he agreed to serve as superintendent.
The Mercers' three sons, Jeff, Jason and Jared, have been involved with Kamiah basketball and their father's camps for years. Jeff teaches at Kamiah, and his wife serves as a school psychologist in Kamiah and Orofino.
A basketball who's who
Many of the names that come up when Mercer reminisces about basketball are nationally known. Others are legends in the north central Idaho-southeastern Washington basketball community. All played a role in Mercer's camps.
There's former NBA player Craig Ehlo, who coached at Eastern Washington University. And Lapwai product Jaci McCormack, who went on to be a standout at Illinois State University.
Eventual Utah Jazz star John Stockton was a presenter at the camp when he was a player at Gonzaga University.
"He didn't even have a car," Mercer said. "His mother drove him down."
It wasn't unusual for coaches from the University of Idaho and Washington State University to make appearances at Mercer's camps, including WSU coach Harold Rhodes and Idaho's Tim Floyd, Larry Eustachy and Kermit Davis.
But what Mercer remembers most about the 40 years of camps isn't the celebrity coaches and players who attended, but what the camps meant to the children who participated: "The camaraderie between students from different schools, and the simple life skills those students learned."
What started with maybe 20 to 25 girls and a similar number of boys soon grew to more than 200 total campers. At their peak, the camps saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 boys and 175 girls for the weeklong sessions.
"Basketball's created so many opportunities for us," Mercer said.
In 1988, his 12- to 13-year-old all-star team toured Russia - an opportunity Mercer said came together thanks to Washington state's U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, who shortly after became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
A humble mentor
Doug LaMunyan, who played for Mercer at Kamiah High School, described Mercer as the innovator of the basketball camp concept. When LaMunyan started working the camps with Mercer in 1988, they were the only ones of their kind in the area.
He worked his last girls camp with Mercer last week. Mercer's final boys camp starts Monday.
"It was a premier camp at the time," LaMunyan said. "It was the best of the best."
Kids from elementary through high school learned shooting, ball handling and defensive skills during the day, then high school standouts competed for spots on Mercer's all-star team in the evenings. Players traveled from Lewiston, Clarkston, Lapwai, Garfield-Palouse, Coeur d'Alene, Sandpoint - even Twin Falls - to try out. By the end of a weeklong camp, an all-star Basketball Congress International team was born.
Mercer's BCI teams - the organization predated the now-common AAU leagues - competed at the state and national levels.
LaMunyan - whose father, Bill, both coached against and worked with Mercer over his long career in area schools - played basketball for Mercer his senior year of high school at Kamiah.
LaMunyan, who has served as junior-senior high principal and superintendent at Pomeroy over the past decade, credits Mercer for imbuing him with fundamental skills of organization and preparation.
"My success are his successes," said LaMunyan, who recently was hired as principal of Clarkston High School.
He described Mercer as "very, very humble."
When Mercer came out of retirement to lead Kamiah as its superintendent, he sought counsel with his protege.
"He called and said, 'Can I get some advice from you?' " LaMunyan recalled. "He didn't need advice from me - never needed advice from me."
He was fortunate to work with many outstanding administrators over his career, Mercer said, even as the Kamiah district struggled at times to maintain stability in its leadership.
Helping establish stability is one of the accomplishments of which he said he is most proud.
"All I want is that teachers have a chance to teach and students have a chance to learn," he said. "Without stability, it's hard to achieve those."
Simply being present, every day, is half the battle as an administrator, he said.
"You eliminate the little things that crop up," he said. "You take care of them - you don't shelve things."
His greatest strength, he said, has been being surrounded by the right people.
"There's no way a guy can be knowledgeable enough," he said. "I think if you're a good listener, they'll bring suggestions for you and keep you out of trouble."
Mercer's time as superintendent wasn't without controversy. Kamiah High School's first principal of American Indian descent was fired just months into her first year, in the fall of 2013. Veneice Guillory-Lacy, a former Lapwai basketball star, appealed the firing, claiming racial discrimination. Mercer was mostly mum through the incident, per the advice of the school district's legal counsel. But he emphasized the school's positive relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe, on whose reservation Kamiah is located. That relationship remains a point of pride today.
The district is able to offer full-day kindergarten five days a week as a result of a grant from the tribe, and Kamiah schools have participated in the State Tribal Education Partnership the past four years.
"They've really helped our staff in being supportive of our Native American kids," Mercer said.
Giving kids a good shot
At a time when rural Idaho school districts are struggling to find teachers, Kamiah recently has hired half a dozen young teachers in the wake of as many retirements.
Mercer has researched a four-day school week, a cost-saving measure implemented in nearby districts such as Orofino, and the district has shuffled and reshuffled teaching and administrative roles to get as much return for students as possible, he said.
"I think we're giving our kids a pretty good shot."
As a self-described "hyperactive" kid in his early years, Mercer said he empathizes with students who need every resource to succeed in school.
He was the kid in the corner until his family moved from Kamiah to Moses Lake, he said.
"I probably didn't learn to read until mid-elementary."
His new teacher told his parents he was a good student, he said, but she didn't know it was only because he was "scared to death."
She committed to teaching him to read, though, and that marked the beginning of a catching-up process Mercer said gave him great appreciation for special needs students when he served as special education director decades later.
Community support in tough times
As the school district heads into a future that includes the loss of federal forest funds and a budget that hasn't seen supplemental levy support in years, Mercer nevertheless sees strength in the schools and the community's support for them.
Asking property owners to pay more taxes to support public schools is tough when the economy is struggling and many patrons are retired, he said.
"It's a unique demographic, but I think it's there," he said of community support. "I think people realize the school's so important for the value of everything."
Mercer's successor also is a Kamiah High School graduate. Steve Higgins, who has been principal at Grangeville High School the past nine years, will take the helm for the 2017-18 school year.
Meanwhile, Fred and Judy Mercer plan to travel - including a cruise through the Panama Canal - and relax on their 30 acres up the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, east of Kamiah. And they'll have more time to spend with their nine grandchildren.
The challenge over the past seven years of running a school district in lean times has helped define Mercer's legacy as an educator, but he will be remembered by many for what he brought to them through basketball.
Looking back on the opportunities and successes basketball has brought this tiny town, Mercer asked a question to which many would say he is the answer.
"You just kind of wonder how and why it happens in Kamiah."
Stone may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2244. Follow her on Twitter @MarysSchoolNews.