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Family, U Win Highlight Sioux Falls Trip

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December 5, 2016

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Road trip.

Family and basketball brought my wife and me to Sioux Falls last weekend. Jeanne’s brother, Steve Gilbertson, has Down Syndrome and is a life-long South Dakota resident. With the Gophers playing Vanderbilt at the Sanford Pentagon arena Saturday night, the past weekend was an opportune time to visit Steve and see Minnesota against an SEC opponent.

Steve’s mental and physical skills have slowed the last couple of years. He has always been a sports fan and I used to tease him about his loyalties, but I don’t any more. The Vikings have long been No. 1 on his list of sports favorites. For years I kidded him about how “I love the Packers.”

“Oh, come on, Dave,” Steve answered back. “Why would you want to say that?”

Steve Gilbertson

Steve Gilbertson

Sometimes he would be so disgusted he could hardly spit the words “Packers” out of his mouth. It was at moments like that I realized it was time to back off.

Whenever we met up with Steve over the years—whether it was in Sioux Falls or Minneapolis—bowling was always on the agenda. During the car ride to the bowling alley Steve was likely to talk about his prowess in knocking down the pins. He might recall a recent outing and remember his score this way: “I bowled a 300.”

I am not going to doubt my brother-in-law, but my recollection is that no one in our little group broke 150. And by the way, God bless Steve for introducing me to alleys with guard rails. Those things will help pump up your score and ego!

For years Steve bagged groceries at a Sioux Falls Hy-Vee. He made a lot of friends at the grocery store and also wherever else he went. There were weekly Kiwanis luncheons and Sundays ushering at a large Lutheran church. None of Steve’s sibs were surprised years ago when he earned his Eagle Scout badge. A few years ago the Argus Leader even published a feature story about Steve and his life at age 60. It has been a remarkable journey for this good-natured man who used to do public speaking about people with disabilities.

Steve is something of a celebrity in his hometown. I realized this years ago after the three of us had a dinner in downtown Sioux Falls. As we walked the streets and browsed in shops, lots of people greeted us and said, “Hi, Steve, how are you?” Often Steve knew the person’s name and replied back. Almost always he knew the face. Perhaps it was someone he had helped at Hy-Vee, assisted at church, or inspired with a talk about his life.

We didn’t get Steve to the basketball game on Saturday night. He has mobility and attention issues now, but I told him about the game on Sunday morning. He’s not a big Gophers guy and said, “Oh, they’re all right.”

Well, I was more impressed than Steve and the rest of today’s column is my basketball report from Sioux Falls:

Minnesota finished up an important week by defeating Vanderbilt, 56-52. The Gophers’ 7-1 nonconference record is a surprise to most everyone—probably even players and coaches. Although the Gophers have a reshuffled starting lineup and roster from last season (2-16 Big Ten record), I didn’t expect this much improvement.

After Saturday night’s game, point guard Nate Mason said he’s excited about the team but is trying to keep emotions under control, and comments brief. “Hopefully have a big year,” he said.

This Minnesota team is without a star right now and has different standouts from game to game, but there’s a bond with these guys after eight games. They play together and for one another. “We really enjoy each other’s company,” said power forward Jordan Murphy. “We’re really good people.”

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Murphy had 14 rebounds and 16 points in the win Saturday night. Both totals led the Gophers. He and teammates made up for a struggling night on Monday at Florida State when the Gophers got pushed around and lost to one of the most physically imposing teams in America. Minnesota is a young group but at the end of the Florida State game the Gophers didn’t play like they were intimated as they rallied late and lost 75-67.

Poise was evident Saturday night, too. The Gophers didn’t want to let a one-game losing streak become two. They didn’t and earned their seventh victory with a schedule that already includes three wins over major college teams—Arkansas, St. John’s and Vandy. And guess what? The sum of their work over eight games has landed the Gophers at No. 10 in one of the national RPI rankings, ahead of the Big Ten’s other 13 teams. (See RPI at Teamrankings.com).

The conference schedule starts December 27 and coach Richard Pitino said the way his team closed the game against Vandy will be needed in the Big Ten. The Gophers trailed 45-44 with about seven minutes remaining and continued to stay close, tying the score at 50-50 before going on to win.

Minnesota did miss eight free throws in the game and the coach also didn’t like the team’s turnovers, but said his club made winning plays. “That’s something we talk about a lot. We did that.”

The Gophers impressed with their defense, holding Vandy to only seven points in the last seven minutes. Pitino described Vanderbilt as “very gifted offensively” and liked seeing his team limit the Commodores to 30.2 percent on field goal attempts and 32 percent on three point shots.

Pitino wouldn’t bite on whether he would have been surprised before the season at a predicted 7-1 start. But there was no doubt he was pleased after the win on Saturday night.

“It’s a lesson to our guys,” he said. “You defend and you rebound, you’ll be in any game.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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