Northwestern senior basketball player Harrison Nelson remembers when he first met Mike Granlund.
Nelson was only in second grade, playing in Northwestern’s Rookie Basketball Association. The league was for third and fourth graders in the Maple area, but Nelson got in early because his father, Greg Nelson, was a coach.
“I could tell right away that Mike was a very nice guy,” Nelson recalled. “He always had something nice to say, and I felt like I could ask him questions about basketball and stuff.”
Some things never change.
Nelson will take the court at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, when Northwestern plays at Cumberland in their Wisconsin Division 3 boys basketball playoff opener, while Granlund will be calling the game on WNXR 107.3 FM.
Nelson grew up listening to Granlund on the radio and still listens to him call Northwestern girls games.
“He bleeds Northwestern basketball,” Nelson said. “He’s high up in the basketball community around here. We all know about him. He loves sports, but basketball sure seems like his baby, for sure. Mike is always there.”
Besides his radio work, Granlund is known to most of the Tigers’ boys and girls basketball players from the youth basketball program they played in as they grew up. He has now officially overseen generations.
Granlund, 70, is a native of Oulu. He graduated from South Shore High School in 1968. He was a three-year starter in football, four-year starter in basketball and baseball and qualified for state track in the hurdles. He topped 1,000 career points in basketball and went on to play two years of the sport at Wisconsin-Superior under former NFL football player Dom Moselle.
Granlund then worked 34 years for Wisconsin doing grain inspection before retiring in 2005. He has lived off Wisconsin Highway 13 in the town of Lakeside since 1975. His children attended the Maple School District, with Melissa graduating from Northwestern in 1993 and Greg in 1997.
Granlund became involved in youth athletics in the 1980s and is credited with single-handedly starting the Northwestern youth basketball program about 30 years ago, including the organization’s staple, the Poplar Wolves boys traveling team. This led to the creation of another youth league called the Rookie Basketball Association, or RBA, which partnered for years with the Salvation Army and features mostly third and fourth grade boys and girls.
Granlund mostly organizes the league and officiates.
“Oh, it’s just awesome,” Granlund said. “Some of the kids you knew would be good, and some kids, you didn’t know they’d be that good. All of the sudden, they just kept growing and growing. And really, what I found out, the kids who have the ability and the talent, that’s one thing, but it’s the ones who get it in their heart, who love basketball and really practice, like a (Northwestern sophomore guard) Tieryn Plasch, who really loves the game and works so hard at it, those are the ones who really succeed.”
Granlund laughed when asked if he knew Plasch was going to be a blue chipper.
“I’d like to say I knew, but she was such a little peanut I couldn’t really tell,” Granlund said.
And what about the Nelson brothers — Harrison and younger brothers Bennett, a junior, and Finley, a seventh grader? Their father was a key member of the Tigers’ unbeaten 1988 state championship football team.
“I knew they were athletic, but they turned out to be really athletic,” Granlund said.
It’s no wonder the boys’ mother, Sarah Nelson, called Granlund a community sports icon and institution of sorts. She joked that Granlund has been involved in the RBA and Poplar Wolves for more years than anyone can count.
“Mike ignited my sons’ passion for basketball way back in second grade, and he’s still supporting them today, just like he does with all Tigers girls and boys basketball players,” Sarah Nelson said. “His passion for basketball and love of youth have shaped Tigers basketball for generations, and he still checks in with them all the time. We are so grateful for him and all he brings and gives our rural area.”
In a normal year, before COVID-19, the league Granlund runs isn’t just Northwestern, but also includes Solon Springs, Northwood, South Shore, Drummond and Washburn. Megan Gustafson, the 2019 national player of the year for women’s college basketball, out of South Shore, started in Granlund’s league. There’s a fee to be in the league, but that’s mostly just to pay for the jerseys in what is a volunteer-driven operation.
Granlund began doing sports radio with WNXR 107.3 FM in 1997 and is now in his 24th year on the air. He worked games in a variety of sports involving Northwestern, Superior, Maranatha Academy, Solon Springs, Northwood and South Shore, and he covered 23 state tournaments.
Northwestern boys basketball coach Nolan Graff said Granlund’s influence can be seen all over. Granlund conducts the Tigers’ biggest basketball fundraiser with their 3-on-3 tournament, which had been going on annually for 25-plus years before COVID-19. Usually held in April, the tourney has attracted up to 140 teams on a weekend.
Oh, and for good measure, Granlund is also a school board member for the Maple School District. Talk about giving back.
“Mike is a pioneer,” said Graff, a 2012 Northwestern grad. “Mike is kind of the guy who got things going as far as youth basketball around here. He got me into youth basketball, and now that I’m coaching, seeing another generation of kids come through here, it’s just a really cool thing to see, just the impact he has had. The credit goes to him. He’s the one who started it all.”
At a small school encompassing a collection of small towns, Graff said it’s all about numbers. The more kids you can get to try basketball, the more who will likely learn the game, love the game and stick it out.
“I think it’s a big reason we’ve had the success at the varsity level that we’ve had,” Graff said. “Mike has his fingerprints all over that.”
In typical Granlund fashion, he is quick to deflect praise and approaches life with a simple and straightforward attitude, and that’s the same way he approaches youth basketball. Granlund said he can’t wait to get his great grandson, Legend Williamson, born New Year’s Day, signed up for the RBA — when he’s ready.
“The main thing for them is to have fun and love the game,” Granlund said. “I just do it because it’s fun. I just like to see the kids succeed and have fun. Start them young, let them have fun and put the love of basketball in their heart.”
Granlund certainly still enjoys covering games and organizing youth basketball. It’s his passion, without a doubt.
“People ask me that all the time, ‘How much longer could you see doing this?’” Granlund said. “I tell them, ‘When you see my obituary in the paper, you’ll say, well, I guess Mike isn’t doing RBA this year.’”