Coach Dan Gensel (left) prepares to get his ear pierced to celebrate Soldotna High School’s first team-sport state championship on Friday, Febr. 12, 1993 in Soldotna, Alaska. Gensel, who led the Soldotna High School girls basketball team to victory, had promised his team earlier in the season that he would get his ear pierced if they won the state title. (Rusty Swan/Peninsula Clarion)

Coach Dan Gensel (left) prepares to get his ear pierced to celebrate Soldotna High School’s first team-sport state championship on Friday, Febr. 12, 1993 in Soldotna, Alaska. Gensel, who led the Soldotna High School girls basketball team to victory, had promised his team earlier in the season that he would get his ear pierced if they won the state title. (Rusty Swan/Peninsula Clarion)

Remembering my friend, Dan Gensel

It’s a friendship that’s both fixed in time and eternal

  • By Craig Lancaster
  • Saturday, May 20, 2023 2:30am
  • Opinion

I moved to Kenai in November 1991. I was 21 years old, and I didn’t know anybody there. I’d come from my hometown, North Richland Hills, Texas, and had taken a job as the sports editor at the Clarion. Why? Why not? I was 21 and unencumbered. Alaska was far away from anything I knew. I wanted to go and could go, and that’s a combination I wasn’t always going to be able to put together. Now, for example. Couldn’t do it. Won’t do it. Want-to doesn’t even get consideration.

During my first week in Alaska, I covered a Kenai Central High School-Soldotna High School girls basketball game. It featured two of the best players in the state—indeed, two of the best players in the history of the state: Stacia Rustad of Kenai and Molly Tuter of Soldotna. On one sideline was Coach Craig Jung of Kenai, a man I’d come to greatly admire in my brief time at the Clarion. On the other sideline was Coach Dan Gensel. Stacia and Kenai were coming off a state championship; Molly and Soldotna would win one a year later.

I didn’t know any of that. I was just a new-in-town sportswriter, trying to figure things out.

After the game, which Kenai won, Dan sat in the SoHi bleachers with me and just talked. Where are you from? How’d you come to this job? What’s your background? It was getting-to-know-you stuff. I liked him, right from the start. (Truth is, nearly all of the coaches I dealt with in the six months I was there were good to me. I carry fond memories.) Later, I met his wife, Kathy, and his daughter, Andrea, and liked them, too. In time, it became love. But it was like, from the get-go.

Those were lonely days for me, 4,000 miles from home, alone, barely scraping by, driving an on-the-verge Ford Escort and living in a one-room apartment on the bluff. Dan and Kathy took me out for my 22nd birthday, just a few months later. Like other coaches, Dan gave me seats on school buses to far-flung tournaments. He sometimes let me sleep on his hotel room floor when that was the difference between my being able to cover something and not.

He also gave me a basketball education, one I tucked away, then unveiled when I wrote a short story about a wunderkind basketball player and a coach and a town that loses all sense of proportion. Here’s an excerpt from “Somebody Has to Lose,” from my short-story collection The Art of Departure:

“Mendy, it’s like this.” He squared up to the basket, squeezing the ball between his hands and planting a pivot foot. “First option: jump shot.” Into the air he went, releasing the ball at the peak of his jump and watching it backspin softly into the net. Cash, her face red, gathered the ball and rifled it back to him.

“Second option: drive.” Paul took two dribbles into the lane and then fell back to his spot on the periphery.

“Third option: make the next pass.” He slung the ball to Victoria Ford, directly to his left on the wing. “You know better than to just throw the ball over without even looking.”

Paul turned to the players clumped on the sideline. “Shoot, drive, pass. When you get the ball in this offense, that’s the sequence. I don’t want anybody not following it, you got that?”

Yes, sir,” the girls answered glumly.

“You get the ball. If the defender has collapsed into the middle, you shoot the open shot. If they’re crowding you, drive around them. If you’re covered, make the next pass. This is not difficult. Run it again.”

That right there, in just a few paragraphs, is the Dan Gensel philosophy of basketball. It inverts the conventional wisdom of the time—pass first, shoot later—into a kinetic, high-scoring, fun way of playing.

And, man, was he ever successful. Won a lot of games. Won a state championship. Made the ASAA Hall of Fame.

But that’s not what I remember most about him.

I remember that he and Kathy and Andrea became family, particularly after I came back to Alaska in 1995 for a three-plus-year stint at the Anchorage Daily News.

I remember that I was a regular guest on their downstairs couch, so much so that it developed an imprint of me.

I remember that they tolerated movie nights when I’d make them watch “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction,” fare that was decidedly not up their alley.

I remember later visits in California and Las Vegas.

I remember Andrea’s wedding in the early aughts down in San Diego, when Dan asked me to give the speech before the father’s speech. Predictably, I went for funny and warm, extolling my love for a family and a young woman I’d watched grow up. Dan, after me, had everybody in tears with his love for his little girl. Later, in a quiet moment between us, Dan said, “I knew you’d take them one way and I’d bring them back the other.” Teamwork, baby.

I remember Dan’s closing out the wedding reception by climbing atop a table and lip-synching “Don’t Stop Believing.” I hate that song, but I love that man.

I remember, a few years later in Billings, Montana, where I now live, Dan’s serving as the best man at my first wedding. The marriage didn’t last. The friendship endured.

I remember all the times we talked about getting together over the past decade or so. I remember that we didn’t make it happen. Life intrudes, right? But we get only an indeterminate amount of it. Death intrudes more forcefully. That we were confined to phone calls these past several years will be the only thing I regret.

It’s a friendship that’s both fixed in time and eternal. I’ll carry it now, for however long I’m around. I owe him that. I owe him, big.

Short as it was, Dan packed a lot into his life. Athlete. Teacher. Coach. Award-winning radio guy. Husband. Father. Grandpa. Friend. He and Kathy became community stalwarts. Andrea and her husband, Lee, and their two boys are right there, carrying it on. I have no doubt the good life Dan shared with them and so many others will go on without him. It’s just that those who love him will have to live with a big hole in it.

It’s a testament to the community Dan helped me build 30-odd years ago that one of his former players, Jessica Fichtel, someone with whom I’ve been close since I was a 21-year-old green sportswriter riding a school bus, contacted me with the news. I spent just six months in that job at the Clarion, a seeming lifetime ago. And yet my Facebook page is full of people I knew then and still know now, and I’m lucky, indeed, for that.

Dan was 34 when I met him and 66 when he died, and that’s both a long time and not nearly enough of it.

I’ll miss him.

Craig Lancaster was the sports editor of the Clarion in 1991-92. He’s the author of nine published novels and a collection of short stories, work that has been honored regionally, nationally, and internationally and widely translated. He lives in Billings, Montana. This was adapted from a blog post at Craig-Lancaster.com.

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