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Idaho basketball legend dies

Ozzie Kanikkeberg died Friday at the age of 83. He was best known as a small-school basketball icon, having won 660 games during his 46-year coaching career — with 42 of those seasons coming at Genesee. His career win total is probably a state record.


By MATT BANEY
OF THE LEWISTON MORNING TRIBUNE

Make no mistake, Ozzie Kanikkeberg was a hard-liner throughout his lengthy coaching tenure at Genesee High. His players followed his game plan, observed his rules of behavior and kept their hair the length he specified.

But he was also soft-spoken. He had an inexplicable penchant for red socks. And he was loved by generations of players who were governed by his old-school rules.

“Ozzie was just a complete character,” said current Genesee boys’ basketball coach Jason Boyd, who played for Kanikkeberg in the mid-1990s. “… You don’t coach for that many years and not love what you do. He brought that every day to practice. He was just a joy to be around.”

Kanikkeberg died Friday at the age of 83. He was best known as a small-school basketball icon, having won 660 games during his 46-year coaching career — with 42 of those seasons coming at Genesee. His career win total is probably a state record.

Kanikkeberg’s methods stood the test of time. He won basketball state titles in three decades — 1964, ’71 and ’83. He retired after the 1996-97 season, which saw the Bulldogs go 14-10 and finish one win shy of the state tournament.

He also coached football and baseball at Genesee, with his football team stringing together a 48-game winning streak in the mid-1960s.

But Kanikkeberg will always be remembered as a basketball coach. His teams usually played patient, half-court offense and intense man-to-man defense.

He directed it all from the sidelines with calm prodding rather than theatrical screaming. About the only thing that made him stand out were his red socks, which were apparently a lucky charm he wore only during basketball games.

“He always just seemed so measured,” said Mike Tatko, a former Tribune sports writer. “I’m sure he stood up and I’m sure he got on his players and got on the officials. But he just wasn’t flamboyant. He didn’t showboat, certainly.

“Their teams just always seemed prepared. I doubt they very often beat themselves, and I think that stems from him.”

Kanikkeberg’s best basketball team was, arguably, the 1970-71 squad that went 26-0 on its way to the state crown. During that season, Ron Hopkins, a senior on the team, rarely saw Kanikkeberg raise his voice.

“I remember one basketball game, against Orofino, we were behind at halftime,” said Hopkins, now the principal and athletic director at Kahlotus (Wash.) High. “He came into the locker room, and it’s the most animated I think I’ve ever seen him. He looked us all in the eye and he said, ‘You’d better be ahead by the end of the third quarter.’ And that’s all he said.”

In the state tournament that season, the Bulldogs were in a tight game with Homedale. Hopkins remembers the coach asking his players if they wanted to hold the ball for the last shot or attack right away — and he left the decision to them.

But discipline was still required. Hopkins and his teammates often borrowed Kanikkeberg’s key to the gym and played unsupervised basketball during the offseason.

“Until one day, two kids forgot to pick up their towels and left them on the floor in the locker room,” Hopkins said. “And he came in the next day and said, ‘That’s it. If you boys can’t clean up after yourself, no more keys.’ It stopped. That’s the discipline that Ozzie had.”

Kanikkeberg’s style influenced other coaches in the area. Among them was Brad Malm, who became friends with Kanikkeberg during his successful tenure at Troy High (1989-2001).

“Ozzie certainly set an example for me that kids should look a certain way, kids should be clean-cut,” said Malm, now the principal at Troy. “Kids don’t need to have facial hair. There should be a standard. That kind of set him apart, and I always thought that was important for our teams, too.”

But Kanikkeberg was also fun-loving. On a trip to a coaching clinic in Boise, Malm remembers his 70-something friend eagerly joining in a practical joke. Hopkins and his father often played golf and went hunting and fishing with the coach. And even near the end of his tenure, Kanikkeberg still had a sense of humor.

Boyd, who was a junior during the coach’s final season, remembers Kanikkeberg walking onto the court to complain to an official.

“The referee told him to get off the floor, and — I don’t know what he was, probably a 60- or 70-year-old man — kind of grabbed his pants and did a little jump,” Boyd said. “He came back down on the floor and said, ‘Was that good enough for you?’ ”

In April, Genesee’s ’70-71 club was recognized at the North Idaho Sports Banquet in Coeur d’Alene. Tatko, who helped organize the honor, said that 12 players, two assistant coaches and a team manager were invited — and all but one were able to attend. The guest of honor was Kanikkeberg, who was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank at the time.

“The fact so many of them made it, I think it was probably in honor of him and support of him, just to show how much he meant to them,” Tatko said. “That turnout for him that weekend in April was just phenomenal.”

A memorial service for Kanikkeberg will be conducted Friday at 11 a.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lewiston. The service will be followed by a luncheon.


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