SIOUX FALLS — Jim Iverson was flipping through television channels one night in 1965 when he happened upon a sermon by televangelist Billy Graham.

His life changed almost immediately.

Iverson always attended church growing up in Platte, through his days as a coach at South Dakota State University. But in 1965, Iverson was found to have gifted $275 to a player and was gone from basketball two years after leading the Jackrabbits to the 1963 Division II national championship.

A life that centered around sports needed a new passion and Iverson was struggling internally. While he believed it was morally correct to help a player in need, it violated NCAA regulations and cost him his job.

But that fall night in 1965, Iverson felt as if Graham was preaching to him directly through the television screen. He sprung from his chair and walked into the bedroom to inform his wife, Joan, he was giving his life to God.

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Plenty of basketball anecdotes were tossed around and several former players were in attendance to memorialize Iverson — who died at the age of 90 on Oct. 26 — Wednesday at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, but the conversation always returned to faith.

“After the big shake-up at SDSU, he admitted to doing the wrong thing and caused grief to a lot of people, I think he came face-to-face with the fact that there was more to him than what people told him about his sports life,” said Nancy Schantz, Iverson’s daughter. “Intellectually he would have said nobody’s perfect, but he lived on that wave of congratulations his whole life and that made him take a hard look at his own heart and realize he needed God more than he thought.”

Before Iverson’s encounter with Graham, he was a religious man, but viewed it as a ritual and was a fixture at First Lutheran Church while coaching in Brookings. Much like he was never quick to recall unsolicited memories from his playing days, rarely did he bring messages to players regarding his faith.

In later years, Iverson patiently sought windows to discuss faith with friends whom he was curious about, but never brought an overbearing tone to those who did not share his vision on religious matters.

“It was more the way he lived his life,” said Dave Tjaden, a walk-on for the 1963 SDSU championship team, who traveled from Minneapolis for the funeral. “It wasn’t directly talking about faith with you. The way he did things, he encouraged you to live a life of faith. That’s how he was as a person.”

Iverson’s religious awakening is not different than many inspired by Graham’s crusades, which spanned 185 different countries from 1947 to 2005. While Iverson was able to shift into a life as a banker with no known regrets of leaving his coaching career due to devotion to his wife and two children, many believe faith helped the transition.

“Oftentimes when we’re at our lowest place, that’s when we’re most sensitive to the leading of the Lord or open to that,” said Kirk Flaa, pastor at Abiding Savior. “... The idea that faith became so core and so central and added meaning to his life that maybe basketball couldn’t or didn’t.”

Platte basketball legend Jim Iverson was memorialized on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls. Iverson died on Oct. 26, 2020 at the age of 90.
Platte basketball legend Jim Iverson was memorialized on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls. Iverson died on Oct. 26, 2020 at the age of 90.

During her eulogy, Schantz recalled her father sitting in his favorite green chair, pouring through scripture, memorizing Bible verses and studying biblical literature. Jim and Joan Iverson became fixtures at Abiding Savior, not only on Sundays, but at a variety of church fundraisers. He also frequently visited pastors to discuss discoveries or quandaries while reading and was part of the Bill Graham Sioux Falls steering committee in 1987.

“Jim and Joan were firm fixtures in the church,” Flaa said. “They were here when things were going on, they participated, they spoke words of encouragement. For me, that’s part of what it means to be part of a church family and I encourage younger people to see that.”

Iverson also developed an infatuation with M.R. DeHaan, a Michigan-born physician-turned-pastor following a near-death experience after a reaction to an injection of horse serum. It was often said that Iverson knew more about DeHaan than anyone, including DeHaan.

“He made it personal to himself and he learned that through listening to Billy Graham on TV,” Schantz said. “Not that he never heard it before, but he said (faith) was more like a tradition and didn’t feel personal to him.”

Faith not only helped guide Iverson down a new path following the abrupt end to his coaching career, but it also served as an aide during his latter years. Joan died due to cancer in 2005 and Iverson began showing signs of Parkinson’s disease not long afterward before his son Paul died in 2009.

Correspondence with former players and colleagues kept Iverson lively, but Schantz believes religion was his true anchor. Iverson’s faith was also passed down to Schantz, who leaned heavily when Iverson was moved to a nursing home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, during his later years. Iverson’s motor skills gradually declined as she visited each day and was eventually forced to visit from afar as the disease began to take a tighter grip at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of the way (my parents) lived their lives, I could see it was real,” Schantz said. “It was important, it was just an opinion. It’s probably saved me a lot of grief in life. … He would talk about what the most important things were. He likes talking about his faith in that way and it made sense to me and I could see it in action. It made my personal faith grow.”