This week’s Sports Web Live takes place Wednesday (Jan. 16) at noon as I get a chance to talk sports with special guest Sen. John Thune.
Thune will discuss his high school basketball days in Murdo, lessons learned from his Hall of Fame father (Harold Thune) and how athletics continue to make a positive impact on the U.S. senator and his family.
Viewers can go to ArgusLeader.com at noon to ask questions or share comments.
For background on Harold Thune, who recently had the Murdo gym named after him at the Jones County Invitational, here’s a story I wrote upon his induction into the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame:
Every decade for the past 80 years was represented, and the oldest of the group was Harold Thune of Murdo, who never sought out the spotlight but couldn’t manage to avoid it in this case.
Like it or not, the former player, coach, teacher and Navy fighter pilot symbolizes the rural romanticism and small-town appeal that give our hoop history such a storybook flair.
Thune, the 93-year-old father of Sen. John Thune, is the Hall of Fame’s representative from the 1930s - a time when the Great Depression and drought made life on the prairie a fight for survival.
That also happens to be when the Class B high school basketball tournament - soon to be known as the “Big B” - started gaining steam as a statewide attraction.
“I don’t know how some of us would have survived without basketball,” says Sen. Thune, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a prep standout in Murdo.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the Big B because of small-town communities and way they support their teams. There’s just an incredible energy and atmosphere.
“That connection between basketball and small towns is really a unique and wonderful part of the place that we call home.”
Harold Thune was born in Mitchell in 1919 but saw his world change after the stock market crash of 1929, when his father lost his share of a hardware business and had to uproot the family.
“He had to go looking for something else,” says Harold. “The closest thing he found was Murdo.”
Before the days of Interstate 90, Super 8 and the Pioneer Auto Museum, there wasn’t much to the Jones County town 60 miles southwest of Pierre.
But Harold’s father managed a hardware store, and the 10-year-old went looking for something to occupy his time.
“There weren’t a lot of activities for kids at that time,” says Harold. “We didn’t have TV and we didn’t have radio. But we did have basketball.”
There were only about three balls in the whole town, and one was locked securely in the school principal’s office.
Back then, basketballs consisted of a bladder with leather panels laced up around it. If you dribbled on the laces, there was no telling which way the ball would bounce.
But Thune developed a unique feel for the game, which he displayed for his son decades later when the Murdo faculty played against the students.
“He had this shot that was sort of a runner in the lane, and he really knew how to use english on the ball,” says John Thune, who was born when his father was 41.
“He was very good at shooting off the glass, and he could score from all different angles. But he was also a tenacious defender, and he didn’t like guys who were ‘ball hogs.’ He was a firm believer that basketball was a team sport.”
By the time the 1937 Class B state tournament arrived, small-school basketball was starting to attract a large following.
The Oglala Indians had thrilled crowds on the way to their 1936 title, and the increased skill level of players made the games more fast-paced and fun to watch.
So when Harold Thune and the Murdo Coyotes defeated Oglala in regional action and knocked off 1936 runner-up Bridgewater in the first round of the state tournament in Aberdeen, the hometown folks were fit to be tied.
Back then, both the semifinals and championship were played on Saturday, which led to tense moments back home as Murdo chased what would still be its only state title.
“Many non-praying people were making their best and most urgent supplications to whatever is on high in basketball to see the boys through,” read an article in the Murdo Coyote newspaper.
Thune had five field goals and a free throw from his guard position to help spark a 31-29 win over Redfield in the semifinals, and the buzz continued to build.
Calling Murdo “the sensation of the tournament,” the Argus Leader went on to say that the “battling hurricane from the hills country, averaging shorter than any of its opponents, put on a sensational basketball show.”
After trailing 28-11 against Doland entering the fourth quarter, Thune led a furious rally that ignited the crowd of 1,000 before running out of time in a 32-27 defeat.
“Back then, after every made basket, they took it back to the center circle for another jump,” says Harold. “So that slowed things down and made it tougher for us to come back.”
Still, the hard-charging Murdo senior received raves for his performance.
“Thune was the meet’s leading point getter from his guard job,” reported the Argus Leader. “His sparkling defensive play would have earned him the job anyway, for he consistently intercepted passes that were meant for a man in the clear and Murdo often scored from such interceptions.”
The loss to Doland still irks the elder Thune, which explains why he was taken aback when his son, the future senator, married Kimberly Weems in 1984.
Doland just happens to be her hometown.
“We kid around about it a lot,” says Harold. “It was almost like John joined the enemy.”
After one year at Hibbing (Minn.) Junior College, Thune transferred to the University of Minnesota and became a standout for the Golden Gophers.
As a junior in 1940, he was the high scorer for Minnesota in a game against New York University on Dec. 28 at the basketball cathedral known as Madison Square Garden.
That big-city game, played on the South Dakota kid’s birthday, remains one of the most enduring memories of Harold Thune’s life.
His senior year in 1941, Minnesota lost a battle for the Big Ten title with Wisconsin, which went to win the only national crown in school history.
Thune also recalls league games against Northwestern, when he guarded a feisty multi-sport athlete by the name of Otto Graham.
But new challenges awaited Harold upon graduation, as he joined the Navy and was thrust into the Pacific campaign of World War II.
His service as a fighter pilot, which included shooting down four Japanese planes, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
And, of course, he organized basketball games on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
After the war, Thune returned to Murdo with his wife, Pat, and settled into the life of raising a family, helping out at the hardware store and working as a teacher and coach.
On Saturday in Madison, his four sons and one daughter, together with their extended families, helped pay tribute to the oldest member of the inaugural South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame class.
While working hard to avoid the spotlight, Harold Thune still managed to lay the groundwork for decades of hoop dreams to come.
“We all have somebody who got us interested in the game of basketball,” says his son, John. “For me, he was the one.”