Platte, SDSU legend Iverson lived fulfilled life beyond basketball

Kansas State's Jim Iverson (15) dribbles during a game against Illinois. Iverson, a Platte native, died at the age of 90 on Oct. 26. (Courtesy of Kansas State University athletics)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Swish. Swish. Swish.

Days before he died on Oct. 26, Jim Iverson was shooting baskets with a Nerf ball and a makeshift hoop in his Fort Wayne, Indiana, nursing home. He was 90 years old and a long battle with Parkinson’s disease stripped away the balance and coordination that allowed him to be a two-sport Division I athlete many years before.

But somehow the shooting mechanics Iverson learned growing up in Platte decades before never faded away. He drained shot after shot with perfect precision, but none who knew him were surprised.

Iverson was meticulous when it came to basketball, but confidence and faith carried him through life. He was a three-time all-state player at Platte from 1946-1948, a key cog on a Kansas State University team that reached the national championship game in 1951 and an NBA Draft pick of the Boston Celtics.

He went on to be one of the most successful basketball coaches in South Dakota State University history, leading the Jackrabbits to the 1963 NCAA College Division championship, only to leave basketball abruptly in 1965 and never returned.


Even when Iverson entered the world of banking, however, he remained meticulous and confident, while never giving up on his joy and passion for using his talents to aid people begin their lives.

“He really put his heart into investing in younger people,” said Nancy Schantz, Iverson’s daughter now residing in Fort Wayne. “He was really proud that his best teams had so many homegrown boys. He was proud to come from a place that raised young men that were hard workers and had talent. He found them, went after them and took pleasure in seeing where they went after (SDSU).”

Iverson had a knack for passing up on opportunities that seemed glorious throughout adulthood, having instead opted for a lifestyle more conducive to his wife and two children. If one wanted to hear an endless number of stories from his playing days, Iverson would oblige, but rarely offered unsolicited.

He never inserted himself into a drill with one of his SDSU squads for the purpose of showing them he could still run and jump. Iverson also kept tight-lipped around his family, hoping to avoid his children growing up in a looming shadow. Instead, he was a man that cherished his family and faith.

“There was no subject we couldn’t talk about, but he didn’t go around talking about (his career) very much,” Schantz said. “He coached my brother’s grade-school basketball teams, he did some referees and he kept up with people, so sports were big, but not a pressure to follow in his footsteps or to have to live up to something.”

Platte sports sensation

Iverson was born in Mitchell, the youngest of three children, and sports quickly became his path, playing basketball, baseball, football and track and field. But he also found time to pursue other interests without clashing with his athletic pursuits.

As a member of the Platte football team, Iverson marched onto the field with the band, playing the E-flat tuba. Once the band finished, he ran back to the locker room to change into his football uniform.

It was not uncommon for Iverson to earn a solo in musical concerts or competitions, and like his shooting form, he never forgot how to play the tuba later in life. The basketball court is where Iverson truly excelled, leading Platte to four Class B state tournaments from 1945-1948, setting tournament records for points in a championship-round game (29), points in a consolation-round game (42), points in a three-game span (82) and in all-time tournament points (251).


Platte never won a state championship during the four-year run, which included a 45-44 loss to Webster in the 1946 state tournament, ending the team’s chances for a perfect season. To compound the heartbreak, Iverson learned later that his future wife — Joan Chilson — was in the stands cheering her alma mater’s last-second win.

“He played in four state basketball tournaments when the State B tournament was the biggest thing in South Dakota, which was just unbelievable,” said Terry Slattery, a Salem native that played for Iverson from 1960-1962. “In college, he’d come back to pitch in the summer. After World War II, all these towns had teams, but not all of them had good pitchers, so they’d call a guy like Jim and $20 was a big deal back then.”

Iverson went on to play three seasons at Kansas State, reaching the national championship game in 1951 before suffering a 10-point loss to Kentucky. He also played collegiate baseball, once pitching both games of a doubleheader against Oklahoma, throwing to Kansas State catcher Earl Woods, father of legendary golfer Tiger Woods.

Kansas State's Jim Iverson is mobbed by teammates during a game against Oklahoma. (Courtesy of Kansas State athletics)

During this time, the 5-foot-10 guard also formed a lifelong bond with Wildcat assistant coach Tex Winter, who would later become the architect of the triangle offense, implemented as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson during his 11 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

He was drafted 17th overall by the Celtics in 1952, but a 21-month service in the United States Army put his professional aspirations on hiatus. An Army general recruited Iverson to be a player-coach for a service team in Japan, playing more than 150 games, which took him away from the front lines during the Korean War.

“He would tell you basketball saved his life,” said Bob Schantz, Iverson’s son-in-law. “Jim told me he went from 175 pounds to 155 pounds because they played all the time. But he wasn’t an (artillery) forward observer, which meant he wasn’t a guy trying to identify North Korean weapons. They had the highest death rate during the Korean War.”


A basketball power rises and falls

Iverson’s time with the Celtics was brief after signing a three-year contract. Stuck behind future Hall-of-Fame guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, Iverson request a trade from coach Red Auerbach to Philadelphia in hopes of more playing time.

Not wanting to give his rival more ammunition, Auerbach declined. As a result, Iverson traded in the 1950s NBA lifestyle of endless train rides, cheap hotel rooms and smoky arenas and was released prior to the start of the 1954-1955 season.

A season as a graduate assistant and scout for Winter at Kansas State led him to South Dakota State in 1956. Taking over a program without an NCAA tournament berth, the Jackrabbits won five North Central Conference titles in his first seven seasons, with two trips to the Final Four, including a 44-42 win over Wittenburg in the 1963 finals following a last-second buzzer-beater by Sid Bostic.

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Jim Iverson (far right, middle row) led South Dakota State to the 1963 NCAA College Division men's basketball championship. (Courtesy of South Dakota State athletics)

“The press (in Evansville, Indiana) labeled us as hicks from South Dakota, so we took that as a charge to do well,” said Doug Peterson, a member of the SDSU Hall of Fame. “We went and bought some cowboy hats and trench coats to wear to the (championship) game. The next day, we said, ‘The hicks from South Dakota are in the finals.’”

Iverson’s meteoric coaching rise crashed just as quickly, with SDSU announcing his resignation two seasons after winning the national championship.

The Jackrabbits parted ways with Iverson after reports he gave $275 to a player, Maurice White. Stories vary on the reason Iverson gave funds to White, with some saying it was to pay an outstanding bill from a prior college, while others claim it was to visit his ailing mother. White was also the whistleblower, although the reason is also disputed.


Iverson acknowledged his payment to White was illegal by NCAA standards, but felt he was morally obligated to help a player that needed aid.

“He said, ‘There isn’t any doubt that what I did was illegal, but I did it for the right reasons,’” Bostic said. “He didn’t do it because he wanted to be illegal, he did it because he wanted to help this young man. In the conversations we had in the ensuing years, it never came up.”

Hopping off the coaching carousel

After his dismissal from SDSU, Iverson never officially coached again despite being 35 years old and winning 68.6 percent of his games and suffering one losing season.

His former players speculate a major Division I school would have eventually come calling without his termination, and Iverson revealed to his son-in-law he turned down an offer from Missouri years later.

“He was a man of very strong principles,” Bostic said. “I think he felt embarrassed going to someone and asking them for work coaching basketball. I think there was a certain amount of feeling terrible about what he had done, even though he did it for the right reasons.”

Instead, he moved to Sioux Falls to pursue a more stable path in banking, first with National Bank of South Dakota and then Valley Bank, before five years at the Heart Hospital of Sioux Falls prior to retiring in 2005.

The move allowed Iverson to keep his family in South Dakota, where Joan had grown up and had little desire to leave, let alone uprooting to a different city as frequently as many college coaches.

“Frankly, I think Joan didn’t want to leave South Dakota and move to Missouri,” Bob Schantz said. “He decided that her connections with South Dakota were such that he should give up the idea of pursuing a Division I school.”


Former South Dakota State basketball coach Jim Iverson is pictured at a 2014 game in Brookings. (Courtesy of South Dakota State athletics)

Leaving coaching not only eliminated travel and the possibility of relocating his family to a foreign city, but it also alleviated a tremendous amount of stress on the day of a game.

“When we played at home, he had them play the national anthem while we were still in the locker room because he couldn’t stand still that long waiting for the game to get started,” said Slattery, who drove Iverson to appointments later in life. “When we were on the road, he would go around the arena or around the stands because he was nervous. His wife told me later on he would get physically sick the day of the game most every time.”

Iverson never expressed regrets about his departure from coaching. Instead, he chose to enjoy the extended time with his family on trips to Mitchell to go boating, fishing and hunting.

He outlived his older brother Mervin — co-founder of Iverson Chrysler in Mitchell — along with Joan, his son Paul and even some of his players, including 6-foot-10 All-American Don Jacobsen, in life.

Perhaps it was due to shedding the stress that could come from a high-pressure coaching job, but he also parlayed values and lessons learned growing up in Platte during the Great Depression that led to a fulfilling life.

“He had tremendous respect for hard-working people,” Nancy Schantz said. “I think he thought of his heritage in South Dakota with his family as so many great examples of hard work and family values. As a kid, I remember hearing those stories as much as exciting basketball tales.”

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