I’m not sure if Randy Breuer was a freshman (winter of 1975-76) or a sophomore (1976-77) at Lake City when I first heard the tale of a lad who was close to 7 feet and playing high school basketball.
It was the offseason from my duties on the Twins beat for the St. Paul newspapers, so I went to Lake City to take a look and write a story.
Breuer was as tall as advertised and, as anticipated, very lean. He was hesitant in his reactions and in his brief conversation with a visiting reporter.
Even with that great height, I wondered if Breuer would ever find the strength and the footwork to be more than a novelty on the court.
I mentioned these qualms to Jerry Snyder, the Lake City coach, and he shook his head and offered a message similar to this: “If you knew how far Randy had come in the past couple of years, you wouldn’t have those doubts. He’s going to be a terrific player – here, and in college.’’
Snyder also told the story about the first time that he had noticed Breuer as a grade schooler. Jerry was a house painter in the summer (as was every coach in small-town Minnesota). He was on a ladder, painting the highest level of a two- or three-story house, when he heard chatter on the nearby sidewalk.
He took a glance and saw what he assumed to be a gaggle of fifth graders (or so) walking along. Except, one of these kids with the young faces happened to be two feet taller than the others.
Snyder climbed down the ladder, tracked down the youngsters, asked the tall lad his name and followed with the key question: “Do you play basketball, young man?’’
Randy’s answer was a shrug, and Snyder assured him that, oh, yeah, he would expect to see him playing basketball when the grade schoolers assembled for organized play that winter.
“Best thing I ever did as a coach … getting down off that ladder,’’ Snyder said.
The next time I watched Randy Breuer, he was a junior and on the way to leading Lake City to the 1978 Class A title. This was in the era of only two classes, so a team had to beat some brutes (and that generally included Winona Cotter in Section 1) to win a Class A state championship.
Breuer scored 68 points in three games of that tournament, including 36 in the semifinals against Butterfield-Odin. His improvement in all areas from my first look a year (or two) earlier was tremendous.
One winter later, that improvement was a phenomenal. As a senior, Breuer led Lake City to another Class A title, and this time Breuer scored 42, 30 and 41 points in the three state tournament games.
Breuer went to Minnesota for the 1979-80 season, where he joined senior Kevin McHale and sophomores Trent Tucker, Darryl Mitchell, Mark Hall and Cookie Holmes.
One member of Jim Dutcher’s top-rated recruiting class for 1978 – Leo Rautins – had transferred to Syracuse because he didn’t get to shoot 25 times a game as a freshman.
Ben Coleman of Minneapolis North (he would later transfer to Maryland) also came in with Breuer. There was a lot of talent, but it didn’t quite mesh and the Gophers wound up in the NIT.
The most-memorable part of that season, to me, was Breuer competing on mostly even terms with Virginia sophomore Ralph Sampson Jr. They were both approaching 7-foot-3. Sampson would become a two-time national player of the year.
The idea that the kid I saw in Lake City on that first trip ever would be going sneaker-to-sneaker with a player of Sampson’s talent was astounding.
Breuer was a great Gopher over his four seasons. He also had a lengthy career in the NBA.
On Saturday, Breuer had his number retired. There’s no need to say, “It’s about time.’’ We can just say it’s a fine time, and I’ll add this:
When noticing No. 45 in the Barn’s rafters in the future, there will be a vision of Jerry Snyder climbing down that ladder in his splattered painting clothes to ask a 6-foot-tall 5th grader, “Do you play basketball, young man?’’