MITCHELL – There was no more fitting place to bid farewell to Gary Munsen on Monday than the basketball court at the Corn Palace, where he always knew how to draw a crowd.
Family members, former players and faithful followers of Mitchell basketball filed into the state landmark for the funeral of the high school coaching legend, who died last week of a heart attack at age 72.
Among the attendees was 15-year NBA veteran Mike Miller, who took advantage of a break in his schedule with the Denver Nuggets to honor the coach who won 672 games over a 43-year career and guided the Kernels to nine state boys titles.
Miller attended the service with his parents, Tom and Sheryl, and his brother, Jared, who also played for Munsen and helped turn Mitchell into a basketball mecca in South Dakota.
Story continues below video player.
“Coach Munsen had a big impact on our family,” said Tom Miller, whose brother, Alan, served as an assistant coach from 2003-08. “I’ll remember all the years (Munsen) worked with my kids, and they loved him. He could be hard on the court but had a softer side that a lot of people didn’t see.”
Mike Miller, who brought national attention to Mitchell and helped lead the Kernels to a pair of state titles before leaving for the University of Florida and the NBA, was content to cede the spotlight Monday to the man who turned the Corn Place into a hoop cathedral of sorts.
“It’s a building that he loved and a place that clearly loved him,” said Rev. Shane Stevens, who presided over the service.
As mourners filed past an open casket and headed to the gym, there were reminders of the passion and commitment that allowed Munsen to have such an impact on his players and this community.
His 1985 championship team, led by Bart Friedrick and Chad Anderson, served as pallbearers for the service, which took place near center court. The pulpit was surrounded by images of Kernel basketball, including a title trophy and signed Miller jersey, as well as the collection of gold-and-black banners that hung from the rafters.
“The effect he had on his teams was incredible,” said longtime friend and veteran referee Jim “Jocko” Johnson. “I’ve never been around him with one of his former players in the same room where they didn’t come up to him and start laughing and telling stories and having a good time.”
For Munsen’s children – sons Scott and Sam and daughters Stacey and Shana – the memories extend beyond basketball to include images of Munsen as caring father, doting grandparent, avid hunter and proud South Dakotan.
“We thank God for the dad that we had,” said Scott, who served as Mitchell cross country coach before moving to Sioux City recently. “He loved South Dakota and never wanted to leave.”
Scott served as a ballboy for his father’s teams in the 1970s and played for Mitchell as a backup guard in the ‘80s. He gained more perspective than most when it came to his father’s coaching style, which thrived on teamwork, discipline and a fair amount of intimidation.
“He had a bit of a temper,” Scott told the gathering Monday, drawing a few chuckles for understatement. “When I was a kid watching practice, he’d get upset with the team, line them up down there on the baseline and thump a few of them in the chest. That’s something you could do back in the day, and it wasn’t because he was mean. He wanted them to play defense and run the offense a certain way, and he made them better players. That’s why people wanted to play for him.”
Kyle Adams, an all-state guard on the 1984 team that gave Mitchell its first state title in 20 years (and the first under Munsen), recalled the coach coming to middle school games to encourage young players to work hard on their games.
“It was every kid’s dream to get out there and play for ‘Coach Muns’ on the Corn Palace floor,” said Adams. “There was never one star on the team. He made sure we worked together as a unit and had the confidence to win.”
That attention to detail and desire to be great held a special appeal for those who wore the black and gold, no matter the view of outsiders. The lasting camaraderie between player and coach, and child and father, is best appreciated by those in its sway.
Surrounded by tokens of Munsen’s coaching success at the Corn Palace on Monday, Rev. Stevens stressed the importance of honoring the lives that were touched and not just the games that were won.
“More than the banners on this wall,” said Stevens, “more than the trophies put out on display, those that he loved and those that he coached, you too are his great reward.”
Argus Leader Media city columnist Stu Whitney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @stuwhitney