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Mitchell native Mike Miller shares memories of Munsen

Mike Miller (Republic file photo)1 / 4
Mitchell's Connor Morgan (10) shoots a free throw during the during a game against Sioux Falls O'Gorman in the Mike Miller Classic on Thursday at the Corn Palace. Miller's number hangs from the rafters during the two-day classic at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
Gary Munsen (Republic file photo)3 / 4
Mike Miller (Republic file photo)4 / 4

Mike Miller knows he wasn't the most talented player in the NBA, but the foundation of success he cultivated at home in Mitchell helped set him apart from the rest.

Backed in part by the guidance of his Mitchell High School coach, Gary Munsen, Miller went on to be one of the longest tenured players in NBA history. And after 17 seasons in which he collected individual awards and helped two dominant Miami Heat teams win consecutive NBA Finals, Miller still looks back fondly at a time when he learned to become a better player and person.

Coach Munsen, a sports legend in Mitchell, was critical in conveying those lessons to Miller.

"For me, you build everything on a foundation," Miller said in an interview with The Daily Republic this week. "Some kids aren't as fortunate enough to play for a coach like him, and that foundation is built on sand. We were built on solid concrete, and those are the things that add on top of talent."

Nearly two years after Munsen's death at age 72, Miller has had time to think about the impact his high school coach had on his life. And as he reflected on the culture of winning Munsen built in Mitchell, Miller has come to realize he wasn't the only student-athlete who was fortunate to learn valuable life lessons under the 39-year Mitchell Kernels head coach.

As another Gary Munsen Tournament approaches as part of the Mike Miller Classic at the Corn Palace, where Munsen will be honored on Dec. 29, Miller said one lesson stands out.

"For me, more than anything, was not accepting excuses, letting (us) know that he's going to hold everyone accountable and treat everyone the same, and he demanded you to be great on and off the court," said 37-year-old Miller. "At the time, where you're young, you don't understand it. But when you start going through life experiences and having children of your own, you understand exactly how important that was for all of us that had a chance to play under Muns or play for Muns."

It's that community impact — both on and off the court — that led the Mike Miller Foundation to request permission for the Kernels' home court to be named in honor of Munsen. But that request to name the Palace court after Munsen remains in limbo, having been tabled by the Mitchell City Council twice.

Instead, the foundation will hold a one-day dedication on the court in honor of Munsen. The dedication will be held on Friday, Dec. 29, just before the 7:30 p.m. tip-off of the rivalry match between the Kernels and the Yankton Bucks. And Miller plans to be in attendance.

Packing the Palace

So why dedicate the court now? Miller said it's about maintaining Munsen's legacy for the younger generations, and to show the Munsen family how thankful former Kernels boys and girls basketball players are for their former coach and mentor.

"My main thing was just, even if it's for one day, to make sure that young kids growing up in Mitchell and growing up in South Dakota understand the impact that he had on basketball in the state of South Dakota (and) basketball in the town of Mitchell," Miller said.

And Miller knows many fellow Kernels share the same feelings about Munsen, which is why the Mike Miller Foundation is hoping to pack the Palace on Dec. 29.

Ernie Kuyper, president of the Mike Miller Classic, is aiming to get Munsen's former players to show up in droves, and the foundation is raising money through a fundraiser on GoFundMe to offer scholarships to high school seniors to extend their education into college. The scholarship had collected $3,095 as of 4 p.m. Friday, and the goal is to reach $20,000.

Kuyper also played under Munsen, and like Miller, had nothing but kind words to say about his former coach.

"He was like a second father to all of us," Kuyper said. "He was just a great person, great coach and taught us all discipline for life."

And even though the dedication will only be a one-day event, Miller is glad he and other former Kernels will have an opportunity to collectively recognize the impact Munsen had on the community. The decision to permanently name the court after Munsen hasn't formally been denied either, and the Mike Miller Foundation is still holding out hope that it could be approved.

For now, Miller is content to be able to recognize his former coach at the Mike Miller Classic, an event that's brought top-tier high school basketball talent to Mitchell year after year.

As he thinks back to the five years he played under Munsen, beginning as an eighth-grader, Miller hopes all the players who play at the Palace in the future will be able to see his coach's name on the court.

"At the end of the day, it's people coming up that won't have a chance to play for Munsen or haven't heard of Munsen, five, seven, 10 years from now that will understand, 'Hey, listen, this guy's impact was greater than basketball,' and we just want to show our appreciation," Miller said.

Miller said the focus on teamwork that Munsen instilled in his players can be adapted to all aspects of life and all professions, not just for someone like him who ended up building a career in basketball. And, he said, everyone who played under Munsen learned the same lesson: "You get further by working harder."

"That's one thing that everyone that leaves there takes from him," Miller said. "Having that ability to go out there and play hard and fight through adversity."

Miller's next step

Since his tenure with the Denver Nuggets came to a close this summer, Miller hasn't lost his appreciation for basketball.

Whether it's working at ESPN or watching NBA stars LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, Miller is still as big a basketball junkie as ever. And he hasn't stopped training in case the right opportunity arises to hit the NBA hardwood again.

But being able to stay home with the family for Thanksgiving gave him different perspective on life.

"I'm still fielding some phone calls from people as the season goes on, but I feel pretty good about being at home," Miller said. "This was the first time I was at Thanksgiving with the family, and my kids are getting bigger, and it's kind of fun being around them."

But his playing future is still up in the air.

"Like anything else, opportunities are out there. If they come knocking, maybe I'll answer, maybe not," Miller said. "Either way, it's been an amazing ride. I've been blessed to play 17 seasons, which I never would've dreamed of in a million years when I was lacing them up as an eighth-grader for Muns."

Approximately two decades since he last played for Munsen, Miller isn't ruling out a transition to coaching.

Miller said he's had some opportunities, and the phone has rung a few times about the possibility of coaching.

"My eyes are always open for opportunities," Miller said. "I've been able to play for some of the best coaches in the world, and Coach Munsen being one of them. I've sponged off them and tried to learn as much as possible between Hubie (Brown) and Billy (Donovan) and Doc Rivers and Flip Saunders and those guys."

With his years of experience as a professional basketball player, Miller said it's hard not to follow in the coaching footsteps of so many of the coaching legends that he's worked with.

But on Dec. 29, he'll turn his focus solely on Gary Munsen and his fellow Mitchell Kernels.

"It's not about me, it's about everyone that had the opportunity to play for him and go through his system," Miller said.

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