Evan Fitzner knew his grandmother would soon die.
Small cell cervical cancer had attacked the neuroendocrine cells of Wilma May Davis Fitzner, and Evan planned to return home to San Diego to say goodbye to her.
But before the IU senior transfer forward boarded his plane back to California, he made a stop at Little Blue’s Tattoos in Bloomington. There, part of his grandmother’s memory was etched onto his body.
On the 6-foot-10-inch, 225-pound body of Fitzner, the word “boogie” takes up a minuscule amount of space on the inside of his left arm. Regardless, Wilma was able to see Evan’s tribute to her when he arrived home and showed her the tattoo before her death Sept. 11 at age 89.
“'Boogie' is something she used to say to me, whenever she said bye to me,” Fitzner said. “It’s just kind of a thing we had together.”
Fitzner said his grandmother went to every one of his basketball games at Francis Parker High School in San Diego. The ink on Fitzner’s body now permanently connects him to Wilma and his home, as he prepares for the biggest stage of his basketball career.
Fitzner graduated from Francis Parker, an independent college prep school, in 2014 with a high school career that featured a league championship and league MVP honors.
Next came four years at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga, California, a nearly 500-mile drive north from San Diego up the California coast. After redshirting the 2014-15 season, he became a regular starter for the Gaels.
He started all 35 games in the 2015-16 season, receiving all-freshman team accolades from the West Coast Conference. His durability continued as a sophomore, starting in all 34 games while being a consistent 3-point shooter.
It may seem a curious shot choice for a tall, elongated player like Fitzner, but he makes it work with a quick-release motion. He shot 3-pointers at a 41-percent rate during his freshman season and a 42.9-percent rate in his sophomore season.
This happened while Fitzner was part of a slow-tempo Saint Mary’s offense that finished 139th in the country in 2015-16 and 201st in the country in 2016-17 in average points per game.
Fitzner remained a 40-percent three-point shooter last season, despite starting just seven games and having a streak of 75 consecutive starts snapped.
“I think that’s definitely one of the main things, spacing the floor and being able to knock down some threes,” Fitzner said.
Things are different at IU with Coach Archie Miller running his offense at a faster pace. But, Miller believes Fitzner is already a proven commodity in an area the Hoosiers must improve in — outside shooting.
“I would say of all of our additions, he may be the most important,” Miller said. “I definitely think he’s a bona fide game three-point shooter. He’s very serious about his game. He just brings another mature winning approach.”
The fact Fitzner is a Division I college athlete is not surprising.
His father Mark Fitzner played basketball at Stanford University and professionally in Australia. His mother Cheri Fitzner was a three-time All-American volleyball player at the University of Hawaii and also played professional beach volleyball.
All three of their children have had athletic success. Evan’s brother, Bryce Fitzner, played college football at Kansas State, and his younger sister, Emily Fitzner, is a top high school volleyball recruit being courted by IU, among other schools.
There may not be many degrees of athletic separation between Fitzner and his family, but the physical distance between San Diego and Bloomington is sizeable.
Fitzner didn’t go home over the summer, opting to stay in Bloomington and work out with Clif Marshall, IU’s director of athletic performance, and Ed Schilling, an IU assistant coach.
In his limited down time, Bryce and Emily visited him. Bryce even gave Evan one of his winter coats to prepare for the colder months, though Evan said he still may need another one.
Summer in Bloomington allowed Fitzner to check out the dining options around town. Among his favorites are The Tap, Nick’s English Hut and Janko’s Little Zagreb.
It was Janko’s Little Zagreb where the IU coaching staff took Fitzner when he visited IU before transferring. Just a few days after the meal, he chose IU from a shortlist of schools including the University of California–Santa Barbara and Rutgers.
In a short period, Fitzner has acclimated himself to the IU locker room. He singled out guards Devonte Green and Johnny Jager, and forwards Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis, as players who have “shown him the ropes” so far.
The Jagers even invited him to their Bloomington home for a barbecue.
“It’s nice having people like that when you’re so far from home,” Fitzner said.
The Hoosiers struggled with distance shooting last season. IU made less than 200 three-pointers and boasted a meager three-point field goal percentage of 32.2 percent.
While newfound depth at point guard should help IU’s shooting numbers this season, Fitzner could be a difference maker.
“I think Evan being 6’10” and being able to shoot will open up a lot of opportunity for other players,” Morgan said.
Davis and Miller have both praised the soft touch of Fitzner’s shot, despite his size. If Fitzner's shooting ability becomes an effective in-game tool, then it will draw defenders to him and open scoring chances for his teammates.
“I know that Evan, he’s real smooth on and off the court,” Davis said with a wide grin at IU’s media day in September. “He has a real smooth and like majestic post game.”
Miller described the addition of Fitzner as a “home run” for the IU program, and said he is more skilled around the basket than most people think.
“I think my touch on the perimeter can translate into the post at times, shooting jump hooks and that kind of stuff,” Fitzner said. “Maybe this sounds cocky or something but I think I can do it all, so that’s what I’m ready to bring to the team.”
Senior guard Zach McRoberts and Fitzner are two of the older players on IU’s roster. But while McRoberts has had two seasons with the Hoosiers to build cohesion with teammates, Fitzner has quickly gained their trust.
“I think he’s found his role,” McRoberts said. “He’s definitely fit in well in practice, definitely fit in well in the locker room. Just having that older guy with college experience is definitely important for us.”
Trust is the reason Fitzner said he came to IU. He said his conversations with the coaching staff about winning made Bloomington his preferred destination.
“Obviously the basketball tradition here speaks for itself,” Fitzner said. “I watched the movie ‘Hoosiers’ growing up. I know how all that goes.”
His athletic goals following his lone year at IU are simple: to play professionally in the NBA or overseas. But, his long-term outlook is evolving. Recently, he’s talked with his IU professors about using his undergraduate business degree from Saint Mary’s and the public health master’s program he’s a part of at IU to create a nonprofit basketball business for kids with disabilities.
For now though, Fitzner is focused on the season ahead, his only one as a Hoosier.
“I think that’s why I’m here,” Fitzner said. “To kind of test myself against the best players in the country in the best conference in the country and just give it all I got.”
Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.
More in Sports
Langford is the fifth Hoosier in the last 10 years to get the invite.
Fineman is the second player to officially sign a deal.
Here are four sports to pay attention to during the 2019-20 season.