The South Dakota prairie was packed with basketball players in the 1920s and '30s, Harold Thune recalls.
"There were a lot of baskets up on garages and barns and sheds," said Thune, a Mitchell native and the father of U.S. Sen. John Thune, who is pondering a 2012 presidential bid.
Harold Thune spent countless hours shooting baskets, dribbling, driving and learning the game that would be an important part of his life.
Thune turned 91 on Tuesday. The retired educator was a member of the inaugural class of the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year.
He said he's well aware that his son and President Barack Obama share a passion for hoops. Obama was a key reserve on a 1979 Hawaii state championship team, while John Thune has been called one of the best basketball players in Congress.
"John would be willing to play him," Harold Thune said.
Harold Thune started playing basketball as a kid in Mitchell. Back then, he recalled shooting on outside courts on hard, packed earth at Longfellow Elementary School.
There was a gym at Mitchell High School, but Thune didn't get a chance to play there or at the Corn Palace. His family moved to Murdo in 1930 as the Great Depression forced a change for the Thunes.
His dad started a hardware store in Murdo, while his uncle continued to operate the Mitchell store that still bears the family name, even after it is no longer owned by a Thune.
The Thunes had a basket at their home in Murdo where Harold and his friends shot baskets and he spent time dribbling and shooting by himself. Basketball didn't require as much equipment or as many players, Thune said, so it was an easier game to play.
"It was kind of opportunity," he said to explain his interest in the sport. "I liked all sports, but basketball was one you can play if you only had three guys or five kids to play in a pick-up game."
Thune was on the Murdo High School varsity team his junior and senior years in high school. At the end of his senior season, the Coyotes made it all the way to the State B title game, where they faced Doland.
Thune said he remembers the game in great detail.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "We were behind 30 to 11 with six minutes to go.
"Back then, they played the state tournament in two days. We played in our semifinal game in the afternoon. We got done at 4:30 and went and got a bite to eat.
"The finals were at 8. I guess we were just pretty tired. We led 7 to 6 after the first quarter ... and then we didn't do much scoring."
Murdo trailed 30-11 when it went on a 16-point run to pull to 30-27, Thune said. But Doland scored the final basket to win the title 32-27.
Thune said he liked to pass and run the offense, but a Sioux Falls Argus Leader account of the game showed he could score, too.
In a colorfully written story published on March 8, 1937, his shooting talents were detailed: "Thune opened hostilities by cracking in a pair of long ones to put Murdo out in front within the first two minutes."
Thune added another basket in that quarter, giving his team an early 6-0 lead. But the advantage didn't hold.
That game is still an occasional topic of discussion among members of the Thune family. John Thune's wife, Kimberley, is from Doland and has mentioned the fact that her hometown bested her husband's hometown a time or two, Harold Thune said with a laugh.
She has introduced Harold Thune to a member of the 1937 Doland title team. Decades after they met on the floor, they chatted about the game.
Golden Gophers star
Harold Thune's basketball career didn't end after high school. He considered enrolling at what was then Black Hills State College, but a Murdo doctor advised him to attend Hibbing Junior College in northern Minnesota.
The iron ore business was booming them, Thune recalled, and the college had first-class facilities, thanks to an assessment paid to the school.
He played one season there, and the team won the conference title.
The University of Minnesota men's basketball coach came to the Hibbing campus and was introduced to Thune.
"He told me -- there wasn't any recruiting back then -- he'd get me room and board, which was kind of significant at the time," Thune recalled.
He played on the Golden Gophers' freshman team and then spent three years on the varsity, grabbing a starting spot early in his sophomore season and holding it until he graduated.
Thune was a 5-foot-11 guard, which might sound small today but was a good size for a guard at the time, he noted. The Golden Gophers' tallest player was 6-3, and the tallest player in the Big Ten was 6-4, he said.
"A little different from today," he said with a chuckle.
Thune said he loved to play defense and run.
"We played pretty much fast break," he said. "If that didn't work, we'd freelance."
The two-hand set shot was the favored weapon in that era, when few players left their feet and jump shots were almost unheard of, Thune said.
"My strong point always was defense," he said. "I generally got the other team's high-point guy to guard, unless it was a center."
The leading scorer on most teams was usually a forward, and Thune said his job was to control that player while running the offense from his guard spot. Passing and encouraging team play was a major part of his role on the team, he said.
"We always had a couple guys who liked to shoot," Thune said.
Thune did have a few big nights offensively. Minnesota traveled to New York City to play New York University at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 28, 1940.
Thune remembers the date, since it was his 21st birthday. He led his team in scoring with 12 points.
A copy of the game's box score provided by the University of Minnesota Athletic Communications Office shows his memory is correct on all counts. Thune made six field goals and committed two fouls in the game against an unbeaten national power.
The Gophers fell 54-51 to NYU in the second game of a doubleheader that day. There were 17,501 fans at the games.
They also played a team at Washington, D.C., during that trip, he said.
The Gophers also made a West Coast swing, playing the University of Washington three times in his sophomore season.
The Gophers had winning records all three seasons he was on the varsity but never played in a postseason game. The NCAA Tournament took a back seat to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in New York City in those days.
Thune said the best team he played on was in his junior season, when the team lost to eventual NCAA champion Wisconsin by two points, 49-47, on March 2, 1942, in Minneapolis.
Thune scored three points in the game and committed three fouls.
"We always had very good teams," he said.
But they couldn't grab the Big Ten title, finishing 12-8 in 1939-40, including a 5-7 conference mark; 11-9 in 1940-41, including a third place finish in the Big Ten with a 7-5 record; and 15-6, with a 9-6 conference mark in his senior season, 1941-42. That was Coach Dave MacMillan's 15th and final season as the Gophers' coach.
Thune was voted the Gophers' most valuable player in his junior season and was also a top-10 finalist for conference MVP that year.
Playing at the highest level of college sports was "intriguing," Thune said.
"I got to see the bright lights," he said. "We traveled to both coasts. I was a South Dakota kid who took his first train ride at the University of Minnesota."
Thune said he hasn't thought about those experiences for a long time and rarely discussed them with his children. A modest man by nature, he said recalling those years recently has been very enjoyable.
"As I look back on it, since being put into the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame, I've been giving it some thought," he said. "I hadn't thought about it much for years."
The Gophers are experiencing a resurgence on the court this year, landing in the top-20 national rankings.
Although Thune said he doesn't pay close attention to his alma mater, he's glad to see they're off to a winning start and hopes they finish strong.
"Well, it would be wonderful to see that," he said.
Back to Murdo
After graduating from the university in 1942 with World War II raging, Thune joined the Naval Air Corps. Basketball was sidelined for a few years as he took aim on more serious targets.
Thune served as a fighter pilot. His squadron was on the USS Intrepid, where he shot down four Japanese Zeroes and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After World War II ended, he returned home to Murdo and played on town teams for several years. They usually played other area teams on Saturdays and Sundays, he said.
He ran a hardware store for several years before going to work for the school district. He was an assistant coach at Murdo High School, where he taught and also served as athletic director. His wife, Pat, worked as the school librarian.
The Thunes put a basket up in the backyard and watched as their five children learned the game. Harold also served as an assistant basketball and football coach in Murdo and said he enjoyed working with his sons as they learned the game he loved.
"It was fun being able to do that with my boys," Harold said.
Sons Bob, Rich, John and Tim and daughter Karen all played for the Murdo High School team, just like their dad. Bob, Rich and John played college ball at Biola University, an evangelical private school located near Los Angeles.
Tim played intramural ball at the University of South Dakota, his dad said.
Karen was a good player as well, Harold Thune said, despite playing at a time when girls played six-on-six, with the offensive and defensive players never crossing the center line.
John Thune was named to the second team all-state squad as a junior and, as a senior, made the first team allstate and was a South Dakota Mr. Basketball finalist. He was the first Murdo player to make the all-state first team since 1955, when Frank Brost made the first team.
Rich and Bob were both allstate players, but neither made the first team. Rich was on the second team twice.
"John was the best shooter," Harold said. "Tim was the best defensive man. The two others also played well."
He said it's hard to say who would have won a game of one-on-one if he could have played his sons when they were all in their primes, calling it a "hard comparison."
John Thune said he has examined his father's career and is convinced he would have "taken us to school" if they had played against each other.
Sen. Thune said his father could leap out of the gym, was a strong defender and a talented passer. "I'd put my money on him," he said.
John Thune said his dad always kept himself in top shape and stays that way now, playing golf on a regular basis and caring for his wife, who has battled the pain of dementia in recent years.
When the elder Thunes were raising their family, Harold shot baskets with his kids in the back yard while their mother cheered her kids on, John Thune said.
"She said she raised athletes," John Thune said of his mother, noting that she loved to swim when she was younger. "She became the biggest fan in the family."
Harold had an uncanny ability to make shots off the backboard, his son said. "He could do it from almost anywhere using a lot of English," John Thune said.
The father also showed his children how to play the game right, John Thune said, emphasizing team play, defense and passing. Ball hogs and players who shot a lot weren't Harold Thune's favorites.
"He taught us to win with grace and lose with dignity," the senator said.
Harold Thune said the love of hoops was a tie that helped connect a father, mother and their children. The game has been a lifelong love, he said.
"We played a lot of basketball in our family," Harold Thune said.