Former Minnesota Duluth men's basketball assistant James "Butch" Kuronen went to St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth last week for surgery to clear his arteries and alleviate blood clotting and internal bleeding, but the procedure went terribly wrong.
"There's always a risk in surgery," said his best friend, Jim MacDonald. "This wasn't supposed to happen, but he had complications."
Kuronen went into cardiac arrest and died Saturday. He was 59. Kuronen is being remembered by former players and peers for his deep knowledge and love of basketball, his mentorship and friendship, and his wise-cracking sense of humor.
"Butch was such a component to the overall success UMD experienced during that time," former UMD All-American Jay Guidinger said. "There were some really special years, and now everyone is aware of what's happened. There's a collective grief and disappointment right now."
'Butch' is born
Kuronen grew up on Lake Superior, three miles up the North Shore from Two Harbors. He'd often ride his bike into town to play basketball and later drove his dad's car into town, even before he had a driver's license.
MacDonald gave "Butchie" his name when Kuronen was in seventh grade. Two Harbors had just played in the state basketball tournament in 1971, and Melrose had a star player by the name of Butch Moening who reminded MacDonald of Kuronen.
"The guy from Melrose got a bloody nose, so they put cotton in his nose, and later we were playing a summer open gym game, and Butch got a bloody nose and they put cotton in there," MacDonald said. "I said, 'Oh my gosh, that's Butchie.' They were both left-handed, built solidly and had cotton in their nose, and it just stuck. You never heard the name Jim Kuronen again. It was just Butchie."
Kuronen and MacDonald later played for the Two Harbors High School team.
"I was the star of that team along with another guy, but Butch was our leader," MacDonald said. "He'd call us out if the effort wasn't there. He was just that guy. He just had that thing that every team needs. He always went hard. He never coasted, because his ability wouldn't let him coast."
Kuronen, a 1977 Two Harbors graduate, played a year at UMD in 1977-78 and it was at that time he grew a mustache that would become his signature. He started student coaching, a role in which he actually coached his buddy and college roommate MacDonald.
"Needless to say, there were some times where we didn't know how the head coaches were finding stuff out about us," MacDonald said, laughing.
Kuronen served as a Bulldogs assistant for 26 seasons (1979-82 and 1983-2006) during a golden age of UMD basketball. An excellent golfer, he also doubled as the head coach of the now-defunct but highly successful UMD men's golf team from 1984-91.
Kuronen and Gary Holquist served as UMD basketball assistants under Dale Race, with Kuronen later serving as Holquist's right-hand man when Holquist was named head coach in 1998.
Holquist said his phone hasn't stopped over the past week of guys wanting and needing to talk about Kuronen.
"I've been involved with college basketball for over 40 years and coached 35, and I have never been around a more brilliant basketball mind," Holquist said of Kuronen. "As far as strategy and expertise on seeing the game and coaching it, I've never been around a better guy. He was amazing, and he challenged us to get better every day."
MacDonald, who is entering his 32nd season as the boys basketball coach at Fridley (Minn.) High School, recalled a national coaching clinic he went to in Chicago in the 1990s that included legendary Northern State coach Don Meyer, who made a point to cite Kuronen in regards to how to play great post defense.
"At the time I was mad because I had spent all this money when I could have just gotten it from Butch," MacDonald said. "Now, I smile whenever I think about that."
Kuronen later worked in pharmaceutical sales.
"Butch's job was pharmaceutical sales, but his profession was coaching," MacDonald said. "It was so much who he was, and he was so, so good at it. He just had such a huge IQ for it. It was the same thing that made him a great golf coach. He could just break down technique."
Kuronen focused on the big guys inside.
Guidinger, who followed his older brother, Jeff, to UMD in 1987-91 and later had a stint with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, recalled the first time he saw the 5-foot-11 Kuronen.
"I met the guys, and he was running the big men, but he didn't look like a big man," Guidinger said. "But boy did he have a knowledge of the game and an understanding of the position."
Kuronen is survived by his wife, Amy, and two teenage daughters, Anna and Maria. A visitation will be 5-7 p.m. today at Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth, with funeral services at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary at 11 a.m. Thursday, with a visitation at 10 a.m.
Guidinger, who relocated in January from Milwaukee to York, Pa., said "it kills me" that he can't make it back to Duluth this week, but he said the Bulldogs would plan something special to honor Kuronen's legacy with the program, something more alumni could attend.
"Butch had such an impact on so many of us in our formative years," Guidinger said. "I can't say enough about how much we appreciated what he did to help groom us to help us realize our potential, not only as basketball players, but as productive adults. He was an asset to the coaching staff, and he was a great mentor to the players."