You have to be over 50 years old to put into context what the one-class state basketball tournament meant in Minnesota and to what it has become with multiple classes.
You require another decade of seniority to remember the greatest player of his time to appear in a state tournament.
Ron Johnson led New Prague through Region Four in 1955 and 1956. The Trojans lost to eventual champion Minneapolis Washburn in the 1955 semifinals and finished fourth. They lost to eventual champion Minneapolis Roosevelt in the 1956 semifinals and finished third.
Johnson scored 94 points in three games in 1955 and 109 points in three games in 1956.
On March 17, 1955, New Prague played in the regional title game at Williams Arena. The lead paragraph in Bob Harris' game story in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune read:
"Rollicking Ron Johnson, a 6-6 jumping jack scoring marvel, poured in 39 points to almost single-handedly carry New Prague by St. Paul Central 70-61 for the Region Four crown ...''
A week later, New Prague opened the state tournament by playing Region 7 champion Esko at Williams Arena. Ted Peterson wrote this opening paragraph:
"Ron Johnson, a 6-7 will-o' the wisp with the sure, delicate touch of a master surgeon, put on a skillful shooting exhibition Thursday as New Prague carved out a 56-38 triumph over Esko.''
On Wednesday, there was a tall, still-slender gentleman sitting 15 rows deep in Target Center. His daughter, her husband and a cluster of the man's grandchildren were in the vicinity.
A visitor approached, handed the man some copies of those long-ago Morning Tribune stories and said:
"You went through quite a transformation. You grew an inch in one week, and went from a jumping jack to a surgeon.''
Ron Johnson, who will turn 70 this year, smiled and said, "The sportswriters could pour it on thick back then.''
Ron and his wife, Caroline, raised their family in St. Cloud, where Ron was an attorney. They now spend the majority of their time in The Villages, Fla. They come home for the holidays to be with family, and this year there was a long stay in February to watch grandkids play basketball.
Two of those, daughter Jenni's sons, Dan and Ronnie Kornbaum, were starters for Little Falls. The Flyers were sitting on a six-game losing streak and an 8-14 record at the end of February, then went on a six-game winning streak and reached the Class 3A tournament as the Section 8 champions.
So, Ron got up at 4 a.m. Wednesday, drove to Orlando and flew to the Twin Cities to watch the underdog Flyers take on St. Thomas Academy. Dan Kornbaum is a 6-4 sophomore and greatly resembles his grandfather as a teenager. Ronnie is 6-1 and has the solid build of a football player.
The defending champion Cadets were too much for Little Falls, pulling away for a 59-44 victory. Ronnie scored eight points, and Dan was held to three.
Earlier, there was a Johnson/Kornbaum delegation at the St. Cloud Tech-Cambridge noon game at Target Center. "All of our kids went to Tech, so we're here rooting for the Tigers,'' Ron said.
Grandpa was excited for Little Falls' late-season run to the state tournament, and at the same time a bit melancholy they would be playing in Mariucci Arena and not Williams Arena.
"I think that, even today, if you ask Minnesota kids where they would want to play a basketball game, they are going to say Williams Arena,'' he said.
Ron Johnson played six state tournament games in the Barn, back in the day when the championship sessions drew more than 18,000. He received a roaring standing ovation of more than a minute when he left the floor late in the '55 third-place game. He received a longer, louder ovation after scoring a then-record 48 points in the '56 third-place game.
Time of your life, kid?
"I'd have to say so,'' Ron said. "People don't realize it now, but the two biggest things for Minnesota sports fans in those days were Gophers football on Saturdays and the state basketball tournament in late March.
"They were the two events -- the Gophers season and the state tournament -- that really mattered.''
Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org