HAMIEL: MHS enjoyed Golden Age with Munsen as hoops coachOn one level, it’s all about basketball. On another, it’s about kids doing their best and how they get to that point.
By: Noel Hamiel , The Daily Republic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was originally published March 22, 2005, and is being re-published as Gary Munsen prepares to retire following this week’s state Class AA boys’ basketball tournament.
Some day, many years from now, a small boy will look up at the state championship banners in the Corn Palace.
After a moment’s study, his eyes will open wide, his voice will be full of wonder and he’ll ask his dad:
“Were the Kernels really that good?”
And the dad, or mom, will reply: “Yes son. It was the golden age of basketball in Mitchell.”
All too often we’re so busy living that we lose track of life. We don’t see the significance of today until we look back through the long lens of our existence. Often, we wish we had appreciated each day more and taken time to live in the moment.
We’re in the midst of a long, long run of success on the high school basketball court. We can’t see the end, but we know when it began. A virtual unknown by the name of Gary Munsen asked for a junior high coaching job with only a few years of experience at Marion to recommend him.
That was 36 years ago. Munsen was 26. He moved up to head coach in 1973. Now he’s 62 and on Social Security.
Speculation on just when Munsen will step down has intrigued sports fans for years. He responds as if it were the next game and we’re the opposing coach: He keeps us guessing.
When Kernel faithful showed up Sunday afternoon at the Corn Palace, my thought was that smart people make movies about sports teams and rake in millions. Gene Hackman brings tears to our eyes by playing a troubled small-town basketball coach in “Hoosiers” and we love it because we identify with it.
But the big screen can’t trump life, and fiction can’t improve on fact. And the facts are these: The Kernels, under Munsen, have won nine state championships, none sweeter than the one Saturday. Defeating the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams was part of it; that they were Sioux Falls teams heightened the satisfaction; that the gold and black had not won it all since 1997 — an eternal drought by Kernel standards — figured in, as well.
On one level, it’s all about basketball. On another, it’s about kids doing their best and how they get to that point. Some never do, and some, like this year’s team, climb to that lofty level of personal commitment and achievement. Had they not, there would have been no celebration at the Palace Sunday.
Some have called them overachievers, suggesting that they exceeded their normal physical and mental talents by sheer will. Munsen himself wondered how many college players were on this year’s team, which unintentionally underscored his rare ability to mold and motivate.
Dedication isn’t the whole picture, though. Even Munsen will happily admit that his job is indispensably aided by the work of volunteers. Examples:
* Phil Collins again took over weight room responsibilities throughout the summer.
* Dale Thomas, Jack Theeler and Roger Musick 20 years ago began raising money for summer basketball camps for players.
* Jim Schmidt, who died Feb. 25 and for whom this season was dedicated, always was not just available, but took the lead in basketball and baseball programs.
* The community. Not everyone loves basketball, but we’re more like Indiana than Indiana and it’s not just the Corn Palace. Small towns and band-box gymnasiums where the out-of-bounds paint is a tennis-shoe width from the bleachers are part of our collective memory.
But for all of that, it doesn’t happen without Gary Munsen. He turns average players into good players, and good players into great ones. Work is not a four-letter word for a Munsen-coached team, and players coming up know they must worship at a shrine called “defense,” where three-point baskets are tolerated as a necessary evil.
If it hasn’t been done already, the Corn Palace staff soon will add No. 16 to the state championship banner.
It signifies victory on the basketball court, but so much more. It also reveals a value system that centers on hard work, sacrifice, teamwork and trust. These values will carry members of this team along long after the cheering has stopped.
Noel Hamiel came to The Daily Republic as its editor in 1994 and left as publisher in 2007. He now resides on his family homestead near Reliance and works as a field representative for the South Dakota Community Foundation.