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Coaching Legend Retiring To Follow Granddaughters' Basketball Games

January 26, 2014, 10:44 PM by Kevin Woster

Coaching Legend Retiring To Follow Granddaughters' Basketball Games
Larry Luitjens

CUSTER, SD -

Each practice is something special these days for Larry Luitjens.

Each personal moment with a player is a gift to carry beyond the court.

The winningest basketball coach in South Dakota high school history faces the last few weeks of his career with a mix of feelings.

"Do I want to quit coaching? No, no," Luitjens says. "They would probably have a hard time getting me out of here, if it weren't for the girls."

The girls are his granddaughters, children of Luitjens' son, Lance, a former star for Custer in the 1990s who now lives in Colorado.

"The oldest, Brooke, is on the varsity, uh, Legend, 5A school. She plays 12, 14 minutes a game. She's playing tonight and I'm missing the game," Luitjens says. "I don't want to miss those games. I want to see her play. And the younger one is a seventh grader, Summer, same thing."

So this grandfather is giving up a storied career with more than 700 wins, seven state titles and 20 individual all-state players.

Forty years and five titles have been in Custer, a southern Black Hills community known for pine forests, a state park and Wildcat basketball played in an old armory lovingly called, "The Cat House."

"I mean I love this place. I love looking at the banners and I love thinking about the kids that played, you know, and look at where are they know and what are they doing, you know."

Some are doing what their coach does, pursuing their own careers in coaching and pushing hard work and defensive intensity that shapes good basketball teams.

"I think that's the positive thing over the years. Most years I've had kids that really want to work, and play defense, and could."

One of those kids, Paul Kelley, grew into a Custer assistant coach who marvels at the Luitjens legacy.

"Kids come back all the time. They come into practice. They come to say, 'Hello', you know, pay their respects to him," Kelley says. "So, it's unbelievable. And I've been to a number of other schools; you just don't see that tradition. And it's something that's quite special here."

And that’s not all that's special. Luitjens has many close friendships with Native American coaches and players, a connection that began in 1973. That was his first year at Custer and a period of racial unrest that the coach ignored in order to play ball.”

"The superintendent said, 'Well, you know you've got a game scheduled with Pine Ridge. You don't have to go if you don't want to.' And I said, 'Well, why not?' 'Well, you know, ah.' I didn't have any problem. I said, 'I don't have any problem.' I said, 'They're good basketball. I want to go.' And so we went. And we were the only ones that did. Nobody else would go. No non-Native team would go."

They kept going to the reservation and inviting Native teams to play them. Over 40 years, basketball opened doors to understanding and built friendships with Native people that Luitjens treasures, but doesn't overstate.

"It's all centered around basketball. People talk about what you've done for reconciliation. No, What I've done has been a basketball coach. That's all I've done."

That's a lot, says Dusty LeBeaux, a renowned coach of reservation teams who brought the Pine Ridge Thorpes to Custer on Friday. Good friends off the court, the two coaches love matching wits and wills on it. LeBeaux said he can never quite tell what Luitjens will try next.

"I don't know. I have to wait and see. I don't know what he has up his sleeve. So we'll just go when we get out there," LeBeaux says.

On this night, Luitjens and the Wildcats didn't have enough to match the speed and skill of the Thorpes, who cruised to a relatively easy win. But the season isn't over yet, for Luitjens, or the players who understand the gift they get each day.

"Life mentor, basketball coach, all of it combined," says senior guard Kenneth Myers. "He teaches us about basketball, but he's also taught us a lot about life."

There's another life waiting for Larry Luitjens, a coach who loves his granddaughters more than his career.

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