When Michael Jordan began starring in the late 1980s, many young girls and boys decided to try basketball, a sport they may not have played otherwise.
As basketball continued to escalate in popularity, those same youths tried to emulate their idols by continuing to play and increasing their skills along the way.
Those same kids are now young adults. So it should be no surprise they've helped take the sport of basketball to a new level.
That has not been more evident anywhere than in Minnesota, and more specifically the Brainerd lakes area.
Once almost strictly a hockey state, Minnesota basketball has thrived in recent years. Before 1990, you can count the number of Division I recruits and NBA players from the Gopher state almost on one hand. Standouts such as Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer or Mark Olberding once graced the high school hardwood in our state, but few others reached their level.
But in the last 10 years, numerous players have gone on to big things. Sam Jacobson, Khalid El-Amin, Joel Przybilla and Kelly and Coco Miller, to name just a few, have played Division I college basketball and either have established a pro career or are destined to become pros. And, the number offered full scholarships to major colleges continues to grow.
And, in the Brainerd lakes area, the numbers are also growing.
Unofficially this season, 11 area athletes played either Division I, II or III basketball and another handful participated at the community college level.
Chris Bjorklund, a 1997 Brainerd graduate, is the first Division I player from Brainerd since Ron Falenschek at Iowa State in the 1980s and Bernie Salthe of Staples at Chicago Loyola in the early 1990s.
And, Bjorklund is no ordinary player. The 6-foot-8 Cal Poly forward finished the season 33rd in Division I scoring at 19.4 a game. Other names in the top 40: Iowa State's Marcus Fizer (22.8), A.J. Guyton (20.5) of Indiana and Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin (19.5).
While his team finished 7-18 on the year, Bjorklund scored 30, 30, 29 and 31 points during a four-game win streak earlier in the season. Bjorklund, a junior, has 1,499 career points for the San Luis Obispo, Calif., team and, barring injury, will break the school record next season.
But he is not the only area competitor doing big things in college.
Blaine Joerger, a former standout at Staples-Motley, blossomed at Minnesota State-Mankato. He finished his career this season as the Mavericks' sixth all-time leading scorer, their all-time leader in three-pointers made and their all-time leader in three-pointers attempted for a career, season and single game. He is also a three-time member of the All-North Central Conference team.
Former Brainerd and Central Lakes College student Angie Swanson continued her college career with a solid junior season at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. A junior forward this past season, she averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds and was awarded All-NSIC honorable mention for her efforts.
Other college standouts from the area included Chad Nelson, a junior at Bemidji State, and Sara Hemquist, a sophomore at Northern State. Nelson, who played for Brainerd and CLC, averaged 10 points and was third in the NSIC in free throw shooting (84.9) and eighth in steals (1.27). Hemquist, also a Brainerd graduate, was a key reserve on the Northern State team, which finished 26-6 on the season and advanced to the North Central Region playoffs.
With area high school stars Dustin Hjelmeland of Staples, Joe Bueckers of Pine River-Backus, Brianna Biebighauser and Heather Neznik of Pequot Lakes and others having impressive seasons, the amount of area talent being produced doesn't seem to be diminishing.
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