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Prep boys basketball: McDonald family legacy continues at state tournament

Hibbing coach Joel McDonald and Duluth East's Rhett McDonald bring their teams to tourney for first time.

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Hibbing coach Joel McDonald will join his nephew, Duluth East coach Rhett McDonald, in coaching their first state tournaments this week. (File / News Tribune)

Joel McDonald and his nephew, Rhett, have no doubt the family patriarch was smiling down on them at their boys basketball section finals last week.

Bob McDonald, the legendary coach who won more than 1,000 games in 59 seasons — 53 at Chisholm High School — died from COVID-19 in October.

The fact that his youngest son’s Hibbing team qualified for its first state tournament in 32 years and his grandson’s Duluth East team is back for the first time since he was hired in 2012 — all during a season defined by COVID-19 — may mean other forces are at work.

“I’m not the type of guy who goes to church every single Sunday, but you could say I’m pretty spiritual and it seems ironic that Joel and I are in the same tournament the same year that Grandpa passes away,” Rhett McDonald said. “He’s watching over us obviously and we’ve been really lucky. I don’t know what he’s telling the big guy up there but you have to wonder, that’s for sure.”

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Duluth East coach Rhett McDonald holds the net aloft after his team defeated Coon Rapids in the Section 7AAAA championship game March 25, 2021. McDonald will join his Uncle Joel, Hibbing's coach, in their first state tournament as coaches. (Derek Montgomery / For the News Tribune)

East (16-3), seeded third in the North bracket, faces No. 2 Wayzata (16-2) in a Class AAAA quarterfinal at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Osseo High School. North No. 3 Hibbing (16-3), led by Joel’s son Ayden, meets No. 2 DeLaSalle (14-5) in a Class AAA quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The Bluejackets last played in a state tournament in 1989 when Joel McDonald was a sophomore at Chisholm. The Bluestreaks won a Class A state title two years later, but he hadn’t returned in 22 years as Hibbing’s coach.

So when time wound down on Hibbing’s 80-59 win over Princeton in the Section 7AAA title game, Joel found himself thinking about his father.

“I thought about him a lot prior to the game because of all the times he was able to coach in a situation like that,” he recalled. “Even before the buzzer sounded, Ayden walked over and we both shed some tears and gave each other a hug and it was instantly reminiscent of a hug that my dad gave me after the state championship my senior year. That was something that was going through both of our heads.

“It’s a culmination of all those days we spent time in the gym together. There were good days and bad days. There were plenty of days that were a struggle. At that point in time, when you achieve something as a team and it’s been a goal for so long, all of that comes pouring out of you.”

The year 2020 was tough worldwide with a pandemic raging, but especially so for the McDonald family. Joel had his cancerous bladder removed and a neobladder made from his small intestine installed.

While surgery for the same type of cancer that had killed his mother 23 years earlier went well, fears of a recurrence loomed. Shortly before the playoffs started, Joel returned to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to have another dreaded biopsy.

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“Going into that, all of us here and both of my surgeons were expecting the cancer to be back,” Joel said. “I don’t think any of us felt that this was going to go well. It was a huge burden lifted off of all of us that they couldn’t find a single thing, which was shocking. I reminded these guys prior to the game the other night … how looking forward to the season was one of the things that got me through last summer and my recovery.

“Kids throughout the entire program give you things to take your mind off the reality of what’s happening. For that, I was grateful to all of them because they were my inspiration.”

The younger McDonald, a junior point guard who leads the team in scoring (17.5 points per game) and the Northland in assists (11.7), has raised his game to another level in recent outings, all in an effort to help his father achieve an unattained goal. That’s why the father-son hug was so meaningful to him.

“With what my dad has been through this year, and with what everyone has been through this year, there were a lot of emotions about just getting the job done,” Ayden said.

Ayden, who has plans on joining the McDonald coaching tree in the future, fondly recalls Bob McDonald coming to watch him and older sister, Abbey, play in youth leagues and in high school. When Bob moved to an assisted-living facility, the grandchildren would visit and get pointers.

“He would come and watch whenever he could. Even until last year, he was still coming to games,” Ayden said. “Abbey and I were really close to him. (When we'd visit him) he would always make Abbey and I shoot a jump shot so he could critique it. It made the relationship really special with him.”

A memorable hug highlighted the Greyhounds’ season as well.

When Rhett’s East squad lost 68-65 to Hibbing at midseason, he was visibly upset. It took assistant coach Damien Paulson, who while coaching at AlBrook was a good friend of Bob McDonald, to calm down his boss.

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“There was a point during the year when we lost a close game at Hibbing and I was upset with our guys,” Rhett said. “Damien came over and gave me a hug and said, ‘Rhett, your grandpa is so proud of you.’ That’s all he said, and it meant the world to me.”

Paulson, who has coached his son Noah all four years as an East assistant, remembers the poignant moment.

“After watching Rhett and Joel go at it, it got pretty heated,” Paulson said. “I took Rhett aside because he was upset that we lost, and let him know how proud his grandpa would be of him of how he’s creating a program and the way he is going about it, the classiness of it.”

Rhett McDonald didn’t play in a state tournament on his dad Mike’s Cambridge-Isanti teams. Mike McDonald did bring his Bluejackets to two state tournaments, in 1991 and 2008, when Bob was there with Chisholm.

Rhett says he has tried, albeit with a different on-court strategy, to emulate his grandfather’s teams.

“We’ve tried to be consistent the whole year on a day-to-day basis,” Rhett said. “When you think of those Chisholm teams over the years, my grandpa’s teams never really changed. You knew what you were getting from them. Our X’s and O’s aren’t identical with those Chisholm teams, but the one characteristic that is the same is that on a nightly basis you know what you’re going to get from Duluth East.”

Now two members of Bob’s bloodline get to experience for the first time what the venerable coaching legend did 11 times before he died at age 87.

“I don’t want to get too philosophical ... but to have these two do what they’re doing, maybe this is the tribute Rhett’s grandpa wanted,” Damien Paulson said. “Maybe he didn’t want a big (celebration of life), maybe he just wanted his son and grandson to be successful. It’s a cool story.”

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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