North Dakota's longtime Mr. Basketball dies at 76
MANDAN, N.D.—There was no Mr. Basketball award when Don Hanson was a high school athlete at Sherwood.
However, there's little doubt that Hanson, who died Monday, Spet. 17, at age 76, has become North Dakota's Mr. Basketball. As a player, coach and publisher of The Hoopster, he lovingly invested six decades in the sport.
Through 16 seasons of coaching and his 35 years of publishing The Hoopster, Hanson probably got to know as many North Dakotans as the most ambitious politician. And that doesn't even count the wide array of people he met while working as a football official and baseball bird dog for scout Bill Clark.
"He was approachable and personable. People loved to search Don out and talk sports with him," said Steve Miller, who coached Bismarck High School basketball teams for 25 seasons and sold ads for The Hoopster even longer.
"He was so well known because of that Hoopster book. He touched a lot of bases and touched a lot of people," Miller said.
Hanson was long a familiar face around gymnasiums and ballparks in the Bismarck-Mandan area and, from time to time, in many locations statewide.
"He was around the basketball tournaments all the time, and you'd see him at regular-season games, too," Miller said. "That's one of the reasons he did so well at what he did."
What Hanson did was found The Hoopster, a preseason North Dakota high school and college basketball guide, in 1983. He added the Miss Hoopster in 1992.
In each and every book, Hanson stuck his neck way out, predicting the Class A and Class B boys and girls tournament qualifiers and eventual champions.
Even though publication deadlines forced Hanson to engage in his soothsaying weeks before the first game of the season was played, he relished making the predictions. And, along with it, he enjoyed the reaction of the state's basketball fans.
"I've been doing that since I was in the first or second grade," he said in 2001. "Predicting (high school basketball) has been in my blood since I was a little tyke."
To Hanson, a new basketball season resembled a long-running drama, and he enjoyed being a part of it.
"It still excites me to make predictions," he said in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune.. "It excites me when teams not in our Top 40 make it to the state tournament. That gives every team in the state hope that it can happen."
In the early days of The Hoopster, Hanson once estimated that he put in 15,000 miles on the road promoting the book and selling ads in the 11 weeks prior to publication.
Miller said he was in the car with Hanson much of that time.
"I spent hours and hours, miles and miles with that guy. ... Thirty-plus years and he went on the road a lot. From Hettinger to Grand Forks, he was there," Miller recalled. "... His legacy will live on through The Hoopster."
Hanson's son, Perry, a teacher in the Bismarck Public Schools and an assistant basketball coach at Bismarck High School, said The Hoopster will continue.
"Yes, absolutely. I did it last year and currently we're just finishing up the two editions for this year," Perry said. "I pretty much had to do it last year, and this year it's officially under my name."
Don Hanson's interest in sports became evident early as he grew up in Sherwood.
"He told me that even as a kid growing up he was always immersed in sports," Miller said.
Perry said athletics was part of the environment in which his dad was raised.
"All the Hansons up there always loved baseball. ... Dad grew up on a farm and he loved sports. He's shoot baskets, and he'd go out on a gravel road and hit rocks with a broomstick. ... He'd talk about doing that, and his brother (Mick) was into baseball, too," Perry noted. "He really liked (baseball and basketball). He had a passion for both."
Hanson attended Minot State on a baseball scholarship. He graduated in 1964 and found work in New Salem, where he coached and taught math for three years.
Don and his wife, Joan, moved their family to Mandan in 1967. Don became head basketball coach for the Braves in 1974 and led them for 13 seasons, winning a state championship in 1981.
For four seasons he tried to juggle teaching, coaching, publishing and family responsibilities. Finally, something had to give.
"Things started to suffer at both ends," he recalled in 2001. "When I was on the road selling I felt like I was cheating the (basketball) program. When I was in the gym I felt like I was cheating the book."
Miller said he was playing football at Flasher in the early 1970s when he first encountered Hanson, who was officiating games in the area. Over the years they were in frequent contact.
They sometimes worked on the same football officiating crew and Miller was an assistant basketball coach at BHS when Hanson was the head coach at Mandan.
Miller began to work with Hanson in the early stages of The Hoopster, a relationship that continued for over 30 years.
"He had a tremendous mind for all sports—baseball, that's for sure. ... He was a great man and a great friend. ... For me this is a really difficult personal loss," Miller said.
It seems there weren't enough seasons in the year for Hanson. The Hoopster required year-around attention. There were baseball tryout camps and scouting in the summer. Before taking up scouting, he spent his summers as Mandan's youth baseball director for a decade. Autumn brought football officiating and hunting—upland game and deer.
"He was an avid hunter. ... He passed his love of hunting to his (four) children and (13) grandchildren," Miller said.
However, Miller said neither sports nor the outdoors were Hanson's main passion.
"I'd say Don's biggest attribute was that he was such a tremendous family man. Family came before anything else," Miller said.
"This is a tremendous loss for the sports community of North Dakota. ... I'd say he is one of the sports icons of North Dakota, no question," Miller said.
Perry said there's one of his father's qualities he'd really like to emulate.
"It's probably just the relationships he built over all those years," he observed. "The people who have responded to us over the last couple of days said he always had time for everybody. ... He always gave a lot of people a chance. He always had that knack of relating to all levels of kids."