Welcome to Murdo, you’re among friends!”
That’s how first-time visitors to this West River South Dakota town are met, if denizen Dave Geisler is around to greet them.
And last weekend the place saw plenty of visitors, but most of them probably not for the first time. For the last 50 years basketball fans have flocked to Murdo in mid-January – to watch an eight-team high school tournament that features four games on three successive days, culminating in a Saturday night championship.
It’s a place steeped in basketball tradition, as much as any small Indiana town, including the fictional one celebrated in the Gene Hackman film “Hoosiers.” The 1986 movie includes a plotline about a teacher who doesn’t want one of her students playing on the team, which Hackman’s character coaches. Miss Fleener wants something different for Jimmy Chitwood than to be “treated like a god for a few moments,” just for “putting a leather ball in an iron hoop.”
The coach’s response, as they say in basketball, hits nothing but net: “Why so unfriendly, Miss Fleener?”
It’s a question that probably doesn’t need to be asked of anyone in Murdo. Ever. Certainly not of Dave Geisler.
Geisler played his high school basketball a decade and a half before the Murdo Invitational Basketball Tournament was founded. Today, the tournament’s name reflects the consolidation of the Draper and Murdo schools into the Jones County district.
Consolidation meant that the 1969 tournament champions, the Draper Bulldogs, could not bookend the half century of tournament history with another championship. That honor belonged to the White River Tigers this year, as it has for 12 out of the last 13. With their 20 tournament titles, the Tigers have tallied more championships than any other team in the tournament’s history. Lyman County is a distant second with six championships.
Not far behind the Lyman Raiders are the Stanley County Buffaloes, with five titles. This year the Buffs lost to the Raiders in Saturday’s third place game. Stanley County’s most recent tournament title came in 1997, when Buffaloes David LaQua and Chev Hackett were named to the all-tournament team.
Historical stats on the tournament, like how Stanley County teams have fared, are easy to come by – because this year’s tournament program included a comprehensive compilation. Printed in the 30-page booklet is a listing of all the championship game scores, among other facts.
Research for the booklet was led by Kelcy Nash, who’s in her first year as athletic director at Stanley County. Her connection to the tournament? As Dave Geisler put it, “She’s a Murdo girl!”
The Jones County grad said she started work on this year’s 50th anniversary program during last year’s tournament. The research included digging through boxes of old game books, making trips to the South Dakota State Archives to look through microfilm, and asking various school officials, newspaper offices, parents and fans for help tracking down facts and photos.
Before Friday’s game, which pit the school where she serves as AD against her hometown Coyotes, she said she was “torn.”
The program Nash assembled also brimmed with 50 years worth of people’s names – of all the coaches, and the players named tournament MVP and to the first and second all-tournament squads. Also listed out by year were all the referees.
One referee listed in the program, for the 1978 tournament, was Dale Weber. He explained that back “in the old days” the workload was heavier, for two reasons. They worked with two-man, not three-man officiating crews. And back then, the rule was that a referee couldn’t bounce the ball to a player for an out-of-bounds play or for a free-throw. “You had to hand it to him and run back to your spot,” Weber said.
Though not working the games this year, Weber still had a direct connection to the tournament, his grandson Drew: “My grandson is coaching the Colome team; he looks like he’s about 18, but he’s my grandson!”
Another referee listed in the program was Mike Pooley, who helped officiate Friday’s first afternoon game. He recalled one year when he worked two games Thursday, two games Friday, all four games on Saturday, with a championship game that went to double-overtime – all with a two-man crew.
The tournament booklet confirms Pooley’s memory with a notation on the 2002 outcome, showing that Bennett County’s 79-78 victory over Kadoka was a double-overtime affair. Other 2002 referees included Dave Brown, Bob Kreitlow, Buck Timmons and Jim “Jocko” Johnston.
Johnston earned a whole page of description in the program – because he’s been officiating the tournament for 40 years. In 1979, his first year officiating, a Stanley County player named Dan Duffy was tournament MVP.
A photograph retrieved from the 1979 Capital Journal archives shows Stanley County’s Dan Duffy grabbing a rebound during action at the tournament.
Another player, for Jones County, who’s visible in the photo in the right of the frame, bears a certain resemblance to John Thune, South Dakota’s current senior U.S. senator. Thune was a senior in high school in 1979, and joined Duffy on the all-tournament team that year and the year before.
Shown the photo early last week, one of Thune’s advisors enthused: “I think that’s him!” But more fact checking by the advisor, with the senator himself, pointed to Coyote teammate Greg Glaze as the Jones County player Duffy had out-rebounded.
Last weekend’s 50th edition of the basketball tournament was a chance to confirm first-hand the identity of the player.
Approached in the lobby of the auditorium, as the Friday afternoon contest between the Colome Cowboys and the Philip Scotties unfolded on the other side of the open doorway, John Thune confirmed, based on a smartphone version of the image, that the player was not him. It was Glaze.
More confirmation came from the Murdo masses who were visiting with the senator standing between the concession stands and the ticket booth. Some had grown up with him, like the school district’s superintendent, Lorrie Esmay, who was a cheerleader when Thune was a player. Even before Thune’s assessment, she didn’t think it was him in the photo – his hair was never that long, she thought.
Some had watched him grow up, like Dave Geisler, who played his basketball in the 1950s. He also figured it wasn’t Thune, but not based on resemblance. Geisler kidded the senator: “If it’s about rebounding, you’re not there, are you!” Thune later confirmed a possible implication – that his focus as a player was more on scoring, not rebounding the ball: “I think he was probably saying I liked to take most of the shots!”
The remark could be heard as a compliment, though, because a made shot – like many of Thune’s – doesn’t need a rebound.
OFF THE RIM
A shot that Thune took, but missed, was a highlight of Harold Thune’s recollections about his son’s playing days. The elder Thune was reminiscing about the senator’s high school games last weekend just before his 98th birthday party started, in the technology center adjoining the gym.
The missed shot came in the district finals against Lyman County. “We were very – ‘bitter’ is the wrong word – we were very strong rivals,” Harold Thune said. Jones County was one point behind, with five seconds left, and was taking the ball out of bounds.
“Of course the coach set up John to get him the ball because he was a great shot; and he put the shot up, and hit the rim, it bounced up, missed. That was a heartbreaker. ...I never asked him how he felt about missing that shot, because I knew.”
John Thune remembers the miss: “That was my last shot at playing in the state basketball tournament, which when you grow up out in this country, it’s every kid’s dream since you were that tall.” About the play he said, “They set a screen for me, popped up to what today would be the three-point line...I got off a shot, and – back of the rim.”
Between bites of birthday cake, Jerald Applebee, the coach who drew up the play for Thune in 1979, drew it up again on a reporter’s notepad, quipping first: “Do you want John as an X or an O?”
The play itself was a double screen: “We had both of these guys come over here and set a pick, and John broke, above the top and came over about here, and we threw him the ball; I sent everybody else to the boards. John did get a look, a pretty decent look, but he missed the shot.”
Applebee said he’d called the same play earlier in the year in a game against Kadoka, and Thune had sunk it – it’s the reason he called it again in the district championships. “John only seems to remember the one he missed,” Applebee said.
The importance of remembering was a prominent theme of the 50th anniversary weekend. Surveying the gathering for Harold Thune’s birthday party, Dave Geisler remarked, “There’s a lot of history in this room.”
Some of the tournament’s history will be remembered because it’s written on the venue itself. The wooden floor is dedicated to Coach Applebee, and his name is written in three-foot tall blue script on both sides of the basketball court.
The auditorium is named after Harold Thune, who served as athletic director back when the tournament was founded. He was a star athlete himself, leading Murdo to the 1937 state Class B tournament finals, and going on to have a standout career playing for the University of Minnesota Gophers.
It was Thune and Applebee, along with the district superintendent, Maurice Haugland, who founded the invitational tournament.
But when Geisler said there was a lot of history in the room, he wasn’t just talking about basketball history. He noted that Harold Thune was a World War II hero. Thune won the Distinguished Flying Cross, piloting 50 combat missions from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid in the Pacific Theater.
The military service of a half dozen living local area World War II veterans, including Harold Thune’s, was remembered at halftime of the first Friday evening game. The senator told the crowd: “I’ve always said that South Dakotans have punched above their weight when it comes to military service...South Dakotans have always answered the call...These are true heroes.”
The first 50 years of the tournament has been overseen by four athletic directors – Harold Thune, Jerald Applebee, Robert Slaba and Larry Ball. Shelby Horsley will be taking over the job next year. She said Ball has been mentoring her this year.
Fifty years from now, the task of compiling the full century of basketball tournament tradition will be already halfway done, based on Kelcy Nash’s work for this year’s program. While Nash’s research involved perusing paper archives, whoever takes on the challenge in the future will likely be able to dig through a mountain of digital material.
Some of that raw digital archival stuff is being created by people like Hanna Rowe, a junior at Colome High School, who works for Sports Ticket Live, streaming and storing central South Dakota high school sporting events.
Rowe was at the tournament this year cheering for her Cowboys, but also managing a camera and a live video stream. Anyone who missed the dunk by White River’s Joe Brandis during Friday’s game against Lyman can watch it on Sports Ticket Live’s YouTube Channel.
Rowe doesn’t see it as just something fun to do for now: “I know I want to do this for the rest of my life.” That might put her still behind a camera when the Jones County Invitational Tournament is a century old.
The 100th edition of the tournament will be played in 2068.