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Hometown Hoops

By Sen. John Thune

January 5, 2024

For three days in January, a high school gym in small-town South Dakota feels like the center of the universe. For West River basketball players and fans, the Jones County Invitational in Murdo is the place to be this time of year. You can count on fans coming from all over to support their local team competing for the tournament title. In mid-January, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than back in the bleachers in my hometown cheering on the Jones County Coyotes.

The Jones County Invitational has a special place in my heart. The 1969 inaugural tournament was organized by my high school basketball coach, Jerry Applebee, and my dad, Harold Thune, who was our school’s athletic director, and Murdo Superintendent Maurice Haugland. They didn’t know how long the tournament would last, but each year, as the entire community came together to make it a success, the tournament became further engrained in the area’s DNA. Now in its sixth decade, it’s still going strong, and it’s a cherished part of the impact that my dad and Coach Applebee had in our community and on countless young athletes in Murdo, myself included.

I can remember sitting in the stands as a kid dreaming of one day playing in the big tournament. When I was in high school, my team played in it all four years. I’ll never forget the rush of adrenaline I got coming out of the locker room to a packed house for those games – although it could hardly compare to the thrill of actually winning it all, which we did twice.

Basketball, and sports in general, was an important influence in my life. I learned a lot from my dad and Coach Applebee about working hard, playing as a team, and the importance of staying humble – lessons that go far beyond basketball.

The Jones County Invitational also introduced me to another important influence in my life: Jim Abdnor. In the Friday night semi-final game my freshman year, I made five out of six of my free throws. The next day, at the checkout of the Main Street department store, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I noticed you missed one last night.” It was then-U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor. Jim would go on to become a great friend, mentor, and boss, but the Jones County Invitational was how I got introduced to him, and that chance meeting opened the door that would lead me to public service.

This January, once again, I will be in the Harold Thune Auditorium for the Jones County Invitational. I’m looking forward to being back in Murdo – the town where I grew up – reconnecting with old friends and, of course, seeing talented athletes play some great South Dakota basketball. I hope to see you there!