BROOKINGS, S.D. — Come indoors from the Dakotan snow and ice and cold that make your surroundings hush and your soles slide and your snot freeze. Enter the home of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on a Friday afternoon before a Saturday game, and walk into the 6,500-seat gym they call the Rabbit Den. Here’s a sight that might top all the sights on all the courts in all the arenas in all the land in the winter of 2019.
See the 6-foot-9 guy out there taking extra practice and making swish after melodic swish. That’s Jackrabbits senior Mike Daum from Kimball, Neb., near the Wyoming and Colorado borders, the ninth-leading scorer in NCAA Division I history, who reached 3,026 points last week to surpass famous names such as No. 10 Hersey Hawkins and No. 11 Oscar Robertson (allowed only three seasons in his era of no freshmen allowed). Daum is a 23-year-old, smile-prone, well-adjusted, self-described goofball astounded at all his collegiate decorations and plausible NBA aspirations.
See the man getting some of his rebounds. That’s Mitch Daum, Mike’s father, who played tight end at Wyoming in the 1980s alongside future Dallas Cowboy Jay Novacek, then played two games in the NFL in 1987, then returned home to Kimball to take over his father’s farm and bat against Mother Nature’s fastballs and curveballs.
Then see the woman grabbing most of the rebounds and distributing to her son in the family’s eve-of-home-game ritual through these storybook college years. Her athlete’s flair lingers even after hip-replacement surgery, the result of such cherished pursuits as pro basketball on that damned concrete in Luxembourg. (She also played in Australia.) That’s Michele Hoppes Daum, Class of 1987, member of the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame, scorer of 1,842 points (second in program history), claimer of 1,104 rebounds (first) and collector of 50 double-doubles (also first).
She’s also the first architect of the blossomed and blossoming game of Mike Daum, bearer of the smashing nickname “the Dauminator,” stalwart of March Madness — he has made three NCAA tournaments in a row, with South Dakota State (24-7) favored to make it four as the top seed in the Summit League tournament that begins Saturday. Let the record show that by 2019, American sports culture had reached the generational point where a mother from a college hall of fame could have steered her son toward another college hall of fame.
In a manner once reserved for fathers, the mother coached the hell out of her son. She taught him to shoot the way her father taught her as a child in Oregon: “So the actual process, the elevation, the flip, the feel of the ball rolling backwards off your fingers, all that kind of stuff, was [when Mike was] really young. By the time he’s sixth grade, his basic fundamentals were so good because I was huge into basic fundamentals. Huge into: ‘I want you dribbling the ball. I want you handling the ball. I want you trying different things.’ ”
She knew more than enough to know what she didn’t know. “Foot-speed stuff, I wasn’t very good at teaching that, so I had to find better people to do that,” she said. “I understood when it came to the shooting, the footwork on the shot, yes. When it came to his quickness, I was not good at teaching that.”
She had him lie on his bed as a tyke and propel a full-sized basketball upward, honing the flick and the shooting motion and “just making sure it had super-good backspin on it,” he said. She saw to it that by the fourth grade, when other squirts strained to heave free throws, he could launch with aplomb from three-point wonderland. She videotaped his youth games in the middle school years and supplied unsparing critiques whenever the film turned up sketchy fundamentals.
When the son was 12-ish and took to emulating Dirk Nowitzki with a slew of fadeaway shots, the mother went full male college coach and warned that if he shot another fadeaway, she would rip off an appendage, a non-threat he laughed off (while quitting the fadeaways).
She and he went nightly to the high school gym in the quiet of western Nebraska, the quiet dashed with their occasional and accepted hollering. She and he drove and rode the 100 minutes each way during his teen years, often four times a week, to and from his AAU team in Fort Collins, Colo., where they happened upon a treasured coach, Brandon Valdez, who impressed Michele straightaway when she read his detailed practice plan.
Mother and son could communicate wordlessly, as when she sat in the stands during occasions of improper follow-through on free throws, whereupon he would look over, whereupon she would roll her eyes, whereupon he would know what she meant.
“I’m still a mom. I love him, I love Danika more than anything,” Michele said of Mike and his 21-year-old sister, who plays volleyball at Henderson State in Arkansas while studying cardiology. “And I wanted my relationship as a mom to be okay with my kids, and there were times when I would be like, ‘Am I that overbearing, pushy mother?’ And we would just stop, and I’d go: ‘Honey, you have to want this. This isn’t for me. I’ve been there, done that. Is this really what you want?’ And he would get mad at me, and he’d say: ‘Mom, hate it when you ask that. Yes, I want it.’ ”
“Feed me your best!” the teenager would say.
Such days have yielded, of course. But recently, after Daum had 38 points and 20 rebounds in a Summit League game against Purdue Fort Wayne, he was bummed about going 8 for 11 from the foul line.
“I said, ‘I can fix your free throws,’ ” she said.
“Mom, what was it?” he said.
“Man, your legs were dead. There’s nothing wrong with your shot,” she said.
She stays clear of coaching nowadays. She and Mitch even bucked the eternal trend of parents second-guessing coaches and wrote encouraging messages to Jackrabbits Coach T.J. Otzelberger during his trying first season (2016-17). Still, there is that matter of Mike Daum’s chronic pump-faking. Here, coach and mother collaborate.
Said Otzelberger: “And so what Michele and I have talked about a lot is, how does that shot-fake, do we need to get away from that altogether, so he’s just shooting with confidence, and the arc and release and the rotation are there, so he doesn’t have the added dynamic, for him, of, ‘Should I pass up this shot?’ Just the psychology of, you know, shooters.”
A pump-fake, Michele said, is for about “every seventh shot you take, you know.”
With his trademark buoyancy, Mike Daum said: “She hates that I pump-fake. My coach hates that I pump-fake, too! I don’t know. I just like it because I feel like it gets guys up in the air!”
Of course, it’s quite some road from a childhood in a basketball non-haven to a budding adulthood with people pointing out your extravagant pump-faking.
Start in Laramie, Wyo., where Mitch and Michele first chatted in the university library, a football player from a wheat-and-corn farm in Nebraska and a basketball player from an alfalfa-and-mint farm in Oregon. In the arena next to the football stadium where a big ad proclaims, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” go past the statue of Kenny Sailors (1921-2016), widely known for popularizing the jump shot, and there’s Michele’s name along with such notables as the 1987 Sweet 16 men’s basketball team, its star Fennis Dembo, and Novacek.
Almost two hours east in Kimball, the horizon looks perfectly horizontal and the information center sits on a bluff overlooking Interstate 80. There, two deeply informative ladies tell how Kimball has 2,300 people, how it used to be called Antelopeville until train engineers kept confusing it with a town called Antelope, how the area is rich in sugar beets, winter wheat, cattle ranching, antelopes, coyotes, alpacas, cottontails and, yes, jack rabbits.
“A jack rabbit is actually a hare,” Jo Caskey said.
They recommend eating over at the Diner while warning of its gigantic portions and praise the quality of the local tap water. They tell about all the area missile silos and the frequent convoys of semis, Humvees and helicopters that tend to them, including a helicopter flying overhead that the ladies identify by the sound as a Blackhawk, not a Huey.
“He’s our hero,” she said of Mike Daum.
Downtown resembles a movie set. The corner gas station sign congratulates Daum on 3,000 points. A minute or so away, a 15-year-old basketball goal with a glass backboard sits on the right of the Daum driveway, its christening in 2004 feted with family names written in the concrete. Mike and Danika Daum and their parents invented and played innumerable games there, including a basketball-volleyball hybrid. The driveway is too narrow for three-point shots, but Mike sees that as a boon: It helped him develop his midrange game.
The word “under-recruited” adjoins Daum’s name, but he doesn’t buy it, assuring his family felt no grievance about his lack of attention and reminding that his growth spurt came late. South Dakota State even redshirted him his first year, which ended up heightening a giddy story yet further. In AAU summers, his parents forged a charming communication system wherein Michele would text play-by-play to Mitch, gym to tractor.
Mitch Daum also coached his son in Pop Warner football and sometimes in basketball with a head coach-spouse who called him “the best” assistant coach, their team neatly delineated, football his thing, basketball hers.
The father spoke of farming as “love-hate” as both rewarding and draining; he feels ready to veer somewhere else in life. But for now, the veering comes in the last of their 40-odd, nine-hour winter road trips from western Nebraska to eastern South Dakota. Time after time and hour after hour they have rolled along, Mitch driving, Michele working on the laptop (social services for a nursing home), in the car or the truck depending upon the weather, through beauty and blizzards and the occasional nitwit whooshing by on an icy passing lane.
They have gone the diagonal way, up through Scottsbluff and Alliance and Gordon, Neb., and Martin, S.D., past all the gorgeous barrenness and the staring cattle and deer. But more often they have gone straight up through Rapid City, S.D., and the Black Hills, taking on rituals such as the Rapid City pizza place and the gas stop in Chamberlain where the attendants know who they are and congratulate them on their son’s 3,000 points.
Again and again they have reached Sioux Falls and then Brookings and that rare son who can score 3,026 points, list with vigor the skills of the South Dakota State women’s team — “one of the funnest teams to watch in women’s basketball” — and hang out with his principal rebounders, his father and the first women’s player he ever knew.
“And I think what means the most now,” Mike Daum said, “is just being able to spend time with them here and have them make this trip almost every single weekend, times like this when the weather’s bad and a bunch of things going on,” such as senior day, last Saturday, which wound up with Mike surrounded by kids, sometimes kneeling to the floor to sign autographs.
Recently, while his mother rebounded during their ritual shoot-arounds, he up and said, “Mom, did you ever think I could do this?”
“Honey, I really did,” went part of the reply, from a first coach who still marvels at the narrative, at “the son who makes us laugh every time we’re with him,” at the son “still gracious to his mom and dad,” at five years on the road, five years of shooting and rebounding, five years clearly about as good and meaningful and exhilarating as anybody ever had.