My Dad was born in the middle of World War II—just over halfway between the attack on Pearl Harbor and V-J Day. He’s part of the ‘Silent’ generation, a moniker that has never made sense to me, given that Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Frank, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly are—or were—all members of that generation.
He was born in Mitchell, South Dakota, in a hospital about a half an hour from the farm his mother grew up on. His mother’s family were farmers and had been for generations. They came from Glarus, Switzerland, and initially settled near New Glarus, Wisconsin, in the 1840’s. His father was a first-generation American whose parents came from Norway. He was a bridge builder working on War Department projects out in the western part of the state.
For the first few years of his life, he and his parents and eventually a sister lived in a trailer that was towed from job site to job site. But when it came time for him to start school, his parents settled in Forestburg, a small town along what is officially the Dakota River, but nobody calls it that. On maps, even government issue maps, it is the James River, but nobody calls it that either. It is the Jim, and it is so flat and so shallow that if there’s a stiff breeze out of the south it flows backwards.
Now even in the 1950’s, and even by the standards of South Dakota, Forestburg was a small town. When the railroad companies built their tracks through eastern South Dakota, they laid out towns about every 10-15 miles. Early steam trains had to stop for about that often, and many railroad companies profited from the sale of lots in these town sites. So, as South Dakota was crisscrossed by rail lines, hundreds of small towns popped up, each with its own depot, Main Street, bar, and school.
A great many of these towns are little more than a wide spot in the road now, but seventy years ago, most of them were big enough for a small school. Back then, kids that grew up on farms really did go to one-room schoolhouses that were located out in the country. But around fifth or sixth grade, most of them ended up going to school in a nearby town.
Towns that were large enough had high schools with football teams—although back then, and even now, small schools played football with fewer than 11 men to a side. But every high school had a basketball team.
The game of basketball has been enriched by two wildly different sources. James Naismith invented a game that required neither a great deal of space nor expensive equipment, and unlike just about every other sport, you could practice the game with only a few people—or even by yourself.
Especially in New York City, but in inner-city environments across the country, basketball took hold because there wasn’t enough room for football or baseball, and out of this environment came an approach to the game based on not only being effective one-on-one, but playing the game with flair.
But out in the sticks, basketball became popular for different reasons. If you were growing up on a farm, all you needed, according to my dad, was “a flat spot and a hoop.” You didn’t even need a second person—and that came in handy if your closest neighbor was a mile away.
The definition of ‘flat spot’ was pretty generous, too.
Farm yards were almost never paved and seldom even graveled; in town, concrete driveways weren’t exactly common either. A missed shot might end up going anywhere. Since you had to shag your own rebounds, shooting hoops was only fun if you made more shots than you missed. A lot more.
No one is sure where the jump shot originated, but the debate ranges over an array of small town kids and farm boys, and this is why. For a lot of these kids, basketball was primarily about shooting. That’s what they learned, that’s what they knew.
In South Dakota, kids that played basketball by themselves on the farm, or in small town pickup games, could start playing organized ball in sixth grade. ‘Grade school’ basketball games were played between the same schools that competed in high school basketball, and there were conference tourneys at the end of each season.
By the time kids were seniors in high school, they had been competing together for six years.
My Dad joined the Forestburg grade school team in 1954. Small for his age, he ended up in the back court.
The Forestburg Buccaneers played in the Pony Hills conference, a group of eight schools in towns that now have a combined population of about 2,200. In 1958, my Dad was one of two freshman on a Forestburg team that won the school’s first conference championship. The coach, Q.C. Miles, was also the superintendent of schools. That’s how important basketball was back then (it’s also an indication of just how small the Forestburg school district was).
In the 1950’s, South Dakota had two classes for high school basketball. The 32 largest high schools were in Class A, and the rest of the schools were in Class B. The annual Class B tournament was the largest sporting event in the state, and in alternating years it was held in a brand new arena just up the road from Forestburg in Huron. There were over 200 schools in Class B scattered across 32 districts. The 32 districts were grouped into 8 regions, and only the 8 regional champions made it to the tournament.
Dad’s team made it out of District 21 and into Region 6. When they beat Chamberlain 40-34 in the ‘world’s only’ Corn Palace, they punched their ticket to the state tournament. At the tournament, Forestburg lost a close contest in the first round to the Cheyenne Braves, a high school on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in western South Dakota—high school basketball has always been an important part of life on the Lakota reservations. The Braves were the state’s top B team in 1958 and they won the B title in 1959.
This was also around the time that my grandparents bought their first TV.
Broadcast television came to South Dakota in May of 1953. South Dakota was not the last state in the continental U.S. to get a television station, but it was close. By the late 1950’s, the state’s lone TV station was providing coverage to most of eastern South Dakota, and my grandparents took the plunge in a big way. They purchased a 21” black and white TV, which probably cost over $1,500 after taking inflation into account. They also installed a huge antenna on the roof that enabled them to pull in a signal from KDLO, a repeater station 70 miles away from the family home.
At that time, South Dakota’s station carried programs from all the major networks, including NBC, which had picked up a contract with the NBA in 1954. As a result, NBA games were a regular part of the Jensen home in the late 1950’s. The Celtics, by then, were winning, and thus fixtures on the NBC schedule, and my dad gravitated toward them, following along as Curt Gowdy and Lindsey Nelson called the games.
My dad also followed college ball, especially the play of guards like him, “I was a little guy, and when you’re short like that, you don’t copy the way centers play. You try to play like other little guys.” While he was in high school he tracked the college careers of Jerry West and John Havlicek, as well as the Celtics.
Dad graduated in 1961. He was the valedictorian... in a class of 15. He followed the Celtics while he was an undergraduate at Augustana in Sioux Falls, and when he was getting his master’s in mathematics at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. While he was there, the Fighting Sioux were coached by a guy named Bill Fitch and a curly haired assistant who had originally planned on being a dentist, Jimmy Rodgers. Their star player was a guy from Deer Lodge, Montana named Phil Jackson.
Master’s in hand, Dad took a teaching job at Minot State in western North Dakota. In 1969 he saw the Celtics win their final title of the Bill Russell era, including the epic Game 7 comeback victory that kept Jack Kent Cooke’s balloons in the rafters of the Forum. Not long afterward he his presence was requested in Sioux Falls for induction into the military. He ended up in the Army, stationed in Arlington, Virginia
In 1971, he went to a party on the base and sat down next to a 21 year old WAVE from Saginaw, Michigan. They were married the following year in March. The 70’s went by in a blur—that’ll happen when you have four kids in five years. He doesn’t remember watching the greatest game in ‘76, which almost certainly means he missed it—but by then he had a daughter not quite two years old, and a four month old handful named Richie.
He did catch the Celtics when they defeated the Rockets in 1981, the final year that CBS aired midweek Finals games after the late night news.
And over the next few years, he introduced his kids to basketball, in particular, Celtic basketball.
There wasn’t much competition. The closest pro team to Pierre, South Dakota, was the Kansas City Kings, and well, they weren’t anything to get excited about. The lack of nearby teams also meant that none of us kids had a realistic opportunity to see the Celtics in person. My dad’s chance to see the Celtics came when he took a business trip to Kansas City. While there he caught the Celtics at Kemper Arena the last year the Kings were in town, when less than 6,500 people, on average, went to games. He came home and said, “no wonder they’re moving. There was nobody there.”
Once we were all grown up and out on our own, our first group bonding experience as basketball fans—and as Celtics fans—came at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers. With the C’s trending downward after their 2002 Eastern Conference Finals appearance, we did the next best thing and celebrated the way the Pistons dismantled the heavily favored Lakers in 2004 while we were all down at my brother’s place in Arkansas. A few years later, Dad and I had conversations over the phone after each of the Celtics’ wins in the 2008 Finals. Usually he had to cut me off because one of my brothers was calling to chat as well.
Then in 2018, all of us finally got to a game at the Target Center in Minneapolis. The Celtics won comfortably. In fact, the highlight of the game was when Marcus Smart intentionally missed the second of two free throws late in the fourth, ensuring that all of us in the crowd got free frozen yogurt from CherryBerry.
These days, Dad is a grandfather, and there are three generations of Celtics fans on the family sports chat. It seems like a long way from watching the Celtics on a grainy black and white television, but it’s not that far at all.