Munsen ‘a huge influence’ on Mike Miller’s successMike Miller is undeniably the most famous Mitchell boys’ basketball player in the program’s history.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
Mike Miller is undeniably the most famous Mitchell boys’ basketball player in the program’s history.
He holds five Mitchell High School basketball records. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Florida and competed in a national championship game. He was a first-round draft pick in the NBA and claimed awards such as the Rookie of the Year and the top Sixth Man of the Year as a professional player.
Even through all of the accolades and success, Miller remembers how important his high school basketball coach has been in his life. From 1994 to 1998, Gary Munsen coached Miller at Mitchell High School. Now, 14 years after Miller graduated, Munsen is calling it quits.
“He was a huge influence on me,” said Miller, a Mitchell native who now resides in Miami. “Basketball-wise, he taught me so much … He’s a huge influence on who I am and how I got to be where I’m at.”
Miller is in his 12th NBA season and second with the Miami Heat.
On Tuesday night, he returned from a sports hernia injury and was 6-of-6 from the field, hitting all 3-pointers for 18 points. On the same night, Munsen and the Mitchell boys’ basketball team picked up their 11th win of the season.
Munsen has coached 56 all-state boys players at Mitchell, but Munsen said Miller is the best player he’s ever coached.
“I’m proud of all the kids I’ve coached, but he’s a little bit special because of what he’s done,” Munsen said.
By the time Miller arrived to the varsity basketball scene, Munsen was already well aware of his potential. Mike’s two older brothers, Ryan and Jared, were on the Kernels’ roster. Both had success by earning all-state honors and helping the team to multiple state tournaments.
Miller’s last name was enough for Munsen to know there would be success for Mike, the youngest of three brothers who played for Munsen. The longtime coach still remembers the first day he saw Miller play.
Munsen was tipped by his first wife, Cheri, about a fifth-grader who was impressive on the basketball court.
“She said, ‘It’s a Miller kid and you won’t believe how good he is,’ ” Munsen said.
During an outdoor shoot-around at Eugene Field Elementary School — which is now the Abbott House — Munsen first laid eyes on Miller. Munsen said he was impressed with the young player immediately, but he had a specific drill for Miller to see exactly how far his skills were developed.
“I told him to get up to the top of the key, drive to the right, cross over and shoot a left-handed hook shot,” Munsen said. “He banked it off the glass and the ball dropped in. I thought if this kid can do this as a fifth-grader, he’s going to be a stud someday. But, I guess I didn’t believe he’d be that big of a stud.”
In Miller’s eighth-grade year, he dressed on the varsity team but didn’t see any playing time.
Before the high school season started, Miller went to a team camp with the Kernels to Denver, where he received the nickname “Skinny.”
“He was 6-foot-1, about 105 pounds,” Munsen said. “We put him in the game, and he knocked down a couple of 3-pointers, and the other team just started yelling ‘skinny’ at him.”
Brett Theeler, who’s two years older than Miller, was at the team camp, but didn’t remember that’s where Miller was anointed his nickname that still sticks today.
“I have to admit, I don’t remember the details,” said Theeler, who now lives in Houston, Texas. “It’s to the point now, all I remember is calling him ‘Skinny.’ ”
Munsen said Miller started on Mitchell’s sophomore team as an eighth-grader and also played with the junior varsity. He was a standout on both teams. When Miller was an eighth-grader, the Kernels went 19-5 and won the state championship. Miller’s brother, Ryan, was a senior and first-team all-state selection. It was Miller’s first taste of success with Mitchell basketball.
As a freshman, Miller and the Kernels went 15-9 and took seventh place at the state tournament. Munsen said Miller was 6-foot-2 at the time and was the second or third player off the bench.
The summer before Miller’s sophomore year was when his growth spurt hit.
Miller climbed to 6-foot-6 and helped Mitchell to a state championship in his sophomore year, a season that ended 21-2. Mike was the team’s first player off the bench. He started only one game that year, a district playoff game where Jared was out because of a badly sprained ankle. Miller scored 33 points and finished the season as a first-team all-state selection.
Tom Miller, Mike’s father, said he feels lucky to have had an experienced coach like Munsen teach his sons.
“Coach Munsen was very good in terms of discipline and getting the most out of (Mike),” Tom Miller said.
In his high school playing days, Miller was a high school phenom, Munsen said. Miller averaged in double figures every season, from his sophomore to his senior seasons, and played nearly every position on the court.
Munsen said Miller could have been a selfish player because of his talents, but he never was. During a state semifinal game against Pierre in his junior year, Miller had 11 blocked shots, 17 rebounds and four points. It’s a game Munsen calls one of Miller’s best ever, and the 11 blocked still holds as a Class AA state tournament game record.
Skip Young graduated a year before Miller and was a part of the 1996 state championship team. Young was a senior when Miller had the 11-block, 17-rebound game. Young finished with six points.
“I outscored him,” Young said. “Do you know how many people I’ve told that story to? The only time I ever outscored Mike Miller in basketball.”
Miller said he credits Munsen for teaching him the right way to play the game.
“He gives everything he has, and I think if you ask any player from his first year down to his last year, they’ll give you the same answer,” Miller said. “He’s committed to winning and he teaches the right way to win.”
Miller was a first-team all-state selection in his junior and senior seasons. Mitchell won another state championship in Miller’s junior year. That season, the Kernels went 19-4 and never lost a game on the road
Mitchell took fourth in state in Miller’s senior year. Brandon Valley hit a last-second shot in the state semifinals to beat the Kernels and go on to win the state title.
Division I basketball coaches from around the country were visiting the Corn Palace on a regular basis to scout Miller in his junior year.
The biggest names were Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, Florida coach Billy Donovan and Kansas’ Roy Williams, and they all wanted to see the 6-foot-8 Miller play basketball.
Miller finished his career and still holds school records for most points in a game (54), most points in a season (689), most points in a career (1,743), most rebounds in a season (317) and most rebounds in a career (826).
He ultimately chose the University of Florida, because he figured he would be the go-to scoring threat, Munsen said. He signed in the fall of his senior year.
“He attracted a lot of people and coaches,” Munsen said. “A lot of people thought that when he graduated high school, he wasn’t going to make it.”
In 2000, Miller, then a sophomore, hit a game-winning shot in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament to lift the Gators past Butler. Florida advanced through the bracket and eventually lost in the national championship to Michigan State.
Miller led Florida in scoring in his freshman and sophomore years and was selected No. 5 overall by the Orlando Magic in the 2000 NBA Draft.
Miller said he and Munsen have maintained a strong relationship after his high school playing days.
When Donovan was unable to be with Miller during draft day, Miller selected Munsen to be present with him in the green room, a special room set aside at the draft site for invited players. Munsen also attended the NCAA national championship game and was invited to the NBA Finals last year when Miller’s Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
“I think our relationship now is a little bit different than when he was yelling at me all the time,” Miller joked.
Miller said it’s bittersweet to see Munsen calling it quits this season after 47 years of coaching basketball.
“He’s earned it,” Miller said of Munsen’s retirement. “I think it’s sad for the players who don’t get the opportunity to play for him. You look at where Mitchell basketball is, and it’s because of him.
“When I was growing up, that’s all you looked forward to, is playing Mitchell basketball and playing for coach Munsen. He never let me down. I still look back and think about the days I played there. It means a lot to me.”