Harold Thune's basketball career comes full circle with Gophers visit
Wed, 12/28/2016 - 12:59pm admin
Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic (Mitchell, SD)
Ninety-six-year-old Harold Thune's basketball story finally came full circle.
From his time in Murdo to the University of Minnesota and back to South Dakota, Thune was found in the Gophers locker room again for the first time in 75 years.
The opportunity was possible when the Gophers honored him during their game at the Sanford Pentagon last weekend when Minnesota played Vanderbilt.
Thune, one of South Dakota's all-time great prep players, played three years for the Gophers from 1939 to 1941, and was the team's most valuable player in 1940. For most of the last seven decades, Thune followed the team from afar and watched it on TV.
Recalling his career after all these years and retracing the steps that allowed a small town kid to get into the Big Ten is still incredible for Thune, father of U.S. Sen. John Thune.
"It was a great experience for a little kid from a small town," Harold said recently in an interview with The Daily Republic.
The highlights of his career include beating Wisconsin in 1941 before the Badgers went on to win the national championship and scoring the most points of any Gopher during a game at Madison Square Garden. Harold, or "Hal" as the newspapers liked to call him, was not much of a collegiate scorer, instead making his name in almost every other way. He relished rebounding and defense, was a strong passer and was a quick guard.
"I did have good jumping ability and rebounding," he said. "Just jump up there and get the ball and then fire it out and start running."
One of the first South Dakotans to play basketball in the Big Ten, he still remembers many of the players he faced in his time in one of college basketball's most venerable conferences. For example, he remembered playing a guard from Northwestern in 1940 and 1941 named Otto Graham, who went on to be one of the best professional football players in the 1950s with the Cleveland Browns and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It was quite a time," Thune said.
Murdo to Minneapolis
Born in Mitchell, Thune moved to Murdo when he was 11, during the heart of the Great Depression. Basketball, whether it was outside against the family garage or getting the key from the school superintendent, was an escape.
“During the depression, we played a lot, whether we got in the gym or not," he said.
Thune played for the Murdo Coyotes from 1935 to 1937, with the last of those seasons including a trip to the Class B state tournament in 1937, in which the Coyotes fell to Doland 32-27 in the state championship game. Thune was all-tournament team selection and the team's captain. If not for a large early deficit, the Coyotes might have won that game, Thune said.
That basketball prowess helped Murdo make a name for itself as being a basketball hotbed. But how did a kid from the middle of nowhere South Dakota end up with the Gophers?
"How much time do you have?" Thune asks before he tells the story.
The short version is this: Murdo had a doctor, Doc Murphy, who thought Thune had a chance to play at a high level and helped to direct Thune to Hibbing Junior College in Hibbing, Minnesota. Thune's team won the conference title there in 1938.
At that point, the high school basketball coach in Hibbing knew the coaches for the Gophers and invited Minnesota coach Dave MacMillan to speak in Hibbing. Thune met the coach there, and MacMillan said he thought there might be a spot for Thune on the main campus in Minneapolis.
"I said I think we can get you a job to make board," Thune said, a type of scholarship in those days.
Thune played at a different time of basketball, both in high school and college. For a time while he was in high school, the two teams still jumped at mid-court after each basket to determine possession. It was more than 45 years before a 3-point line would come into play in college.
In college, Thune stood at about 5-foot-11, and in 1941, the tallest player in the Big Ten was 6-foot-4. This season alone, the Gophers have 11 players at least 6-foot-4 or taller, including three players at 6-foot-10 or taller.
And of course, there's Thune's pet peeve, players getting away with a little bit more dribbling than they used to.
"You couldn't pick the ball up and carry it for three steps and put it in the hoop," Harold said. "If you had your hand on the side of the ball, they called you for traveling."
But, he said the team's fast break would have blown away today's game.
"Our fast break went faster than what they use today. That was the first option. Get the ball and get it down the court," he said, adding that the team had just two primary plays.
Wearing a suit and tie, the teams would ride on the trains to the games, which was quite the treatment in those days.
The flip side was when Thune tried to get home to Murdo.
"I did a lot of this," he said, holding his thumb up.
His hitchhiking efforts were helped by his college letterman's jacket, he said.
"At that time, college kids were doing that. It just wasn't as big of a deal as it is now," Thune said.
The honors have since strewn in the years since his great collegiate days. He's a member of the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame and the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. The home gymnasium for the Jones County High School team is named the Harold Thune Auditorium.
He also coached basketball and football in Murdo, he played into his 60s in faculty basketball games and even coached six-player girls basketball in the 1970s.
The Thune family still has an impressive set of scrapbooks that help piece together Thune's basketball prowess from more than 75 years ago. That includes the favorite photo, one that shows Thune in the shower from the torso up, with the headline "Meet 'Healthy Hal' Thune."
"It wasn't really until later that we learned what kind of player Dad was," said Harold's son, U.S. Sen. John Thune. "I mean, his whole career of playing from a small town and then hitchhiking home from Minneapolis. That is crazy."
Basketball was also part of the time in World War II, which is where Harold went after his time at the University of Minnesota. He was a Navy fighter pilot and remembered playing basketball on the second level of the U.S.S. Intrepid, where a basket was set up.
“There were some fierce games between the officers and the enlisted men," he recalled.
Thune said he hadn't kept in contact with the university much, noting it had been decades since he had been to Minneapolis. That was part of the intent of the trip to the Pentagon, where he was honored during the game as a Gopher great and was invited into the victorious Minnesota locker room following the game.
Even the game officials, perhaps subconsciously, found a way to honor Thune during the game: they penalized carrying the ball during the first half of the game.
That was the way Harold played the game.