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John’s Journal: A Familiar Name Is Back On The Bench In Chisholm

Joel McDonald Is First-Year Assistant At School Where He Set Records

Posted: Saturday, January 21, 2023 - 5:28 PM


Chisholm head boys basketball coach Nick Milani (left) and assistant Joel McDonald.


When Joel McDonald resigned last summer after 23 years as the head boys basketball coach at Hibbing High School, his plans didn’t include spending so much time inside the most famous gym in Minnesota, where he set scoring records and his father set coaching records.

But here he is, a first-year assistant coach for the Chisholm Bluestreaks, who play on Bob McDonald Court inside historic Roels Gymnasium.

Joel finished his high school career in Chisholm as Minnesota’s all-time scoring leader in 1991. As the coach at Hibbing, the Bluejackets went to the state tournament in 2021 for the first time in more than 30 years. Bob McDonald, who coached for 59 years and won more games than any boys basketball coach in state history, was 87 when he died in 2020.

Joel, 50, is the youngest of six siblings. His brothers Mike (Cambridge-Isanti) and Tom (Ely) are longtime high school coaches and Paul McDonald coached at Vermillion Community College for 29 years.

When Joel stepped down at Hibbing, there were two main reasons. His health was a concern, after a diagnosis of bladder cancer in 2020 and continuing checkups at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He and his wife Carrie also wanted more time to watch their son Ayden, a 2022 Hibbing graduate, play basketball at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.

“After living the life I’ve lived and our family has lived (in basketball) for the past 15 years, and with my health, you prioritize things differently,” Joel said. “My intent was to step away and watch Ayden with Augustana and spend time on the road with Carrie. And I knew I would be running back and forth to Mayo. That was the biggest reason.”

Things changed when Ayden came home in October. As he wrote on Twitter, “I have decided to leave Augustana and step away from basketball. I am coming home to focus on my mental health treatment for anxiety and depression. I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the past 6 weeks, especially my coaches and teammates and at Augie. ‘What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.’ ”

Ayden is now a part-time student at Minnesota Duluth and a freshman boys basketball coach at Duluth East, where the head coach is his cousin Rhett McDonald.

With trips to Sioux Falls off the table, Joel McDonald thought about returning to coaching in some form. In Chisholm, 2013 Hibbing grad Nick Milani, 28, was named head boys basketball coach last year. Nick played under Joel in high school and the two remained in touch while Nick was attending the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth.

Isn’t it funny how life works? Because this winter, Joel is an assistant varsity coach – and head junior varsity coach -- back in the gym where he was a high school superstar, working on the staff of one of his former players. And to complete the circle on Bob McDonald, Joel McDonald and the history and tradition of the Chisholm Bluestreaks, the third member of the coaching staff is Larry Pervenanze, who spent 12 seasons as Bob’s assistant and took over as head coach when Bob retired in 2014.

Milani, who is also Chisholm’s head football coach, had thought about someday working as an assistant basketball coach under Joel McDonald. But when Joel stepped down in Hibbing and Nick took over as head basketball coach in Chisholm, the reverse happened.

“He said absolutely, whatever help he could offer he would do,” Milani said. “With Ayden coming home, Joel began asking questions. As a first-year head coach, I couldn’t be happier to have him as an assistant.”

Joel said, “He asked if I had any interest in helping. Originally, I thought I would help when I could, voluntarily. We got into October and he was working on me to come and do more and be an official assistant. In my mind (Nick’s) still a kid. But he commands the room, he commands the huddle, he commands the room, and the kids really respect him.”

Milani, who applied for the head basketball coaching job at Hibbing before being named the Chisholm coach, said McDonald has added a great deal to the team.

“The biggest thing for me as a first-year head coach is situationally, if I need a timeout, I can look at Joel and say we need a quick play here or we need to make a change. From day one he said, ‘I’m here for you and with you,’ and he has been. I have so much respect for him. He’s coaching with me, I’m not above him.”

Even though Hibbing and Chisholm are only a few miles apart, Joel McDonald said returning to his hometown over the years hasn’t always been a total positive. His mother, Darlene, died of bladder cancer in 1997 and memories of those times crop up.

“I really didn’t know how I was going to take it,” Joel said. “Since I’ve been back, I’ve told a few people that every time I drive to the school or practice, starting with the morning I went for the interview, I drive down 5th Street past the house where I grew up. It’s almost a new memory every day. It’s also a little bit of closure, because for a long, long time I never liked going back home. There were memories of my mom getting sick and passing away.

“The house, a couple blocks from school, is full of memories. Knowing how my mom got sick at the end of her life, that was always kind of tough, and I look at this as part of that process. I remember playing football and everything else out there with my friends and future teammates. It’s been an incredible experience. Even walking into school every day triggers visuals of all those good times from growing up. It's been really special.”

Considering that Joel McDonald became Minnesota’s state scoring leader as a senior in 1991 (he ranked ninth all-time as the 2022-23 season began), it’s no surprise that the current Chisholm players don’t know much about his playing career. Some of them attended Joel’s summer basketball camps in Hibbing, and older players attended Bob McDonald’s long tradition of Saturday morning basketball for young kids in the Chisholm gym. The lobby of the gym is a museum of Bluestreaks basketball, which helps current players know about their school’s basketball tradition.

“They’re very aware of the history of the place,” Joel said. “Maybe more than any other gym I’ve been in, it’s hard to ignore the history of Chisholm when you walk through those doors.”

Voters in Chisholm approved a bond referendum in November for school improvements, including a new gymnasium that is expected to be named after Bob McDonald; it is scheduled to open in 2025. The century-old Roels Gymnasium will remain in place.

The ties between Bob McDonald, who graduated from Chisholm in 1951, and the Bluestreaks of 2023 are everywhere. As the football coach, Milani began using a team catchphrase: Nobody has what we have. He was not aware that Bob McDonald had used the same statement when describing his family’s homeland, Croatia. Bob took great pride in his Croatian heritage and for many years led family members on summer trips there.

Joel said, “My dad always had a phrase that came from Croatia, ‘Nobody has what we have.’ It was almost verbatim of what Nick wanted to say, without him knowing this from my dad.

“That’s what has stuck. It’s on Nick’s practice plan every day. Nick is a proud employee and citizen of Chisholm. He’s very respected and very popular. He’s not oblivious to what this place has been and he’s working really hard.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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