Kevin McHale was a star for the Boston Celtics and involved in championship combat with the Los Angeles Lakers three times in five seasons from 1983 to 1987. This led at one point to McHale being asked if the Lakers’ Michael Cooper played the best defense he had ever seen.
“Nope; Chisholm has the best defense,” McHale said. “They all wore those heinies and would get real low. Scared the heck out of me.’’
McHale came from Hibbing. Chisholm was 6½ miles up the road. The towering McHale was a standout for the Gophers from the fall of 1976 to 1980, was a Celtics co-star and Hall of Famer with Larry Bird. And yet on the Iron Range for decades, the person most synonymous with basketball was Bob McDonald, the Chisholm coach who shared those heinie haircuts with his aptly named Bluestreaks.
McDonald, the Chisholm boys’ coach for 53 seasons from 1961 to 2014, the state record-holder with 1,012 victories at Chisholm, McGregor and Barnum, died Wednesday morning at 87. He had been residing at the Guardian Angels Health Center in Hibbing, and succumbed to COVID-19 after the outbreak at that facility.
Pat Micheletti followed McHale a couple of years later from Hibbing to the Gophers, and became an all-time great in hockey, yet McDonald’s influence was such that Micheletti also wanted to play basketball.
“Chisholm had the best team on the Range, all the way up from grade school,” Micheletti said. “And Bob McDonald coached those kids, too, and they pressed all over, just like the high school team.
“I was the [grade school] point guard for Hibbing. One of his sons, Tommy I think, was the Chisholm point guard. I was a feisty little rat, of course, but a McDonald wasn’t going to give you an inch.
“Those battles … I loved ’em. The event of the winter for every kid basketball player on the Range was Bob McDonald’s tournament for sixth-graders and below in Chisholm.’’
McDonald was fully aware of hockey’s hold on the Range. Paul McDonald, the second of six siblings, said Wednesday:
“I remember Dad asking, ‘What age do they start in kid hockey? We’ll start a year earlier than that.’ He said the Chisholm basketball program was from ‘diapers to death,’ and he was going to be with the players from the start.’’
McDonald coached four sons: Mike, class of ’75; Paul, ’76; Tom ’82; and Joel, ’91. Paul was asked if Bob’s hard-nosed approach mellowed during that 15-year gap between the two oldest sons and Joel, who was the first boys’ player in Minnesota to score over 3,000 points (3,292) when he finished at Chisholm.
Paul offered a quick laugh and said, “For certain. He was a tough cookie when Mike and I had him. By the time Joel played, some of them didn’t have crew cuts.’’
The McDonald house was a couple of blocks from the school. Quite often, one of the kids would walk home with Bob after practice.
“You might talk a little basketball during those few minutes you were walking,” Paul said. “Once you came through the door, that was the end of it. Our mom, Darlene, had a rule: Inside the house he was Dad, not the coach.”
Bob also was a dedicated history teacher, and with an eagle eye for deportment violations within the student body — even if they were spotted on the short walk home.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this one, but one late afternoon, we were walking home and he sees the neighbor kid, Joe, on the side of the garage, smoking a cigarette,’’ Paul said.
“Dad goes over and says, ‘Joe, the only way I won’t tell your Dad you were smoking was if you eat the rest of those cigarettes.’ Filters and all, Joe ate them. And he would tell you years later, ‘I’ve never smoked another cigarette.’ ”
The discipline demanded by McDonald carried over to the sideline, where despite a short fuse for mistake-prone players, he didn’t cross the line with officials. Bob claimed and no one has refuted that he never received a technical in 1,440 games and six decades as a high school coach.
The six kids — Mike, Paul, Sue, Tom, Judy and Joel — combined for 11,905 points playing at Chisholm. All six have coached high school or junior college, and nine basketball players among 17 grandkids have kept adding to the family points total at Cambridge-Isanti, Ely, Crosby-Ironton and Hibbing.
I had a two-hour sit down with Bob in December 2013, early in his final season. Joel was the boys’ coach at Hibbing (and remains so), and I mentioned that granddaughter Abbey just had been moved up to the Hibbing girls’ varsity as a seventh-grader.
Bob confirmed this and said, “She’s adept at the game.’’
Abbey’s younger brother, Ayden, made the free throw as a freshman during the 2018-19 season that put the McDonalds at 30,000 points in Minnesota high school hoops. That number is now 30,722, starting with Bob’s 606 (Chisholm, class of ’51), plus the high-scoring sons and daughters, and nine grandkids.
Lots of adeptness for the patriarch to be proud, although with restraint. None of that big-head stuff (or sneaked cigarettes) with the McDonald crew.