Fred Paulsen had a rule. Whenever his oldest son, Derek, wanted to go to the gym on a Sunday—which was just about every doggone Sunday from the time the boy was four—Fred's edict was: The first 45 minutes are mine. Then you can do anything you want.
For three quarters of an hour Fred, a career basketball coach, would have Derek dribbling around chairs, attempting lay-ups with each hand, shooting off the pass, shooting off the dribble, taking passes off cuts and making behind-the-back passes until they were as smooth as whipped butter. Fred knew a million such drills. He'd learned them over 25 years as an assistant and head coach: at Michigan State, where he worked with Magic Johnson; at Penn State Behrend College in Erie, Pa.; and at Huron University in South Dakota, which he built into an NAIA powerhouse. Fred believed that ball handling was a lost art. The player who could handle the ball better than anyone else on the floor would always be an asset, even if he wasn't the fastest, biggest or most athletic kid on the team. Derek, who never seemed to get enough of those Sunday sessions, became a superb ball handler.
He was 15 in 1997, when Fred moved his family—wife Marilyn, Derek and younger sons Paige and Spencer—from Huron to Custer, S.Dak., so he could take a position as assistant to Larry Luitjens, the principal and basketball coach at Custer High. Luitjens, a local legend, ran one of the best basketball programs in the state, and Fred had a hankering to coach Derek in high school. The 6'4", 190-pound Derek was a fluid and athletic sophomore point guard with a feel for the game far beyond his years. He was quiet, humble and uncommonly mature. "A man-child," Marilyn called him.
"I remember the first time I saw him working out in the gym," says Eileen Wahlstrom, an eighth-grade teacher in Custer. "I thought he was some college kid. He brought the ball up the floor like no one I'd ever seen, and he passed like Magic Johnson. Then I found out his father had coached Magic in college, and Derek had watched tapes of him as a kid. I came home and told my husband, 'We're going to be state champions this year.' "
She was right. In 1997-98 Derek led the Custer Wildcats to their sixth Class A state title under Luitjens. They went 24-2, and Derek, who was named all-state, averaged 21.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists. He was also MVP of the state tournament. With 1.8 seconds left in the championship game, he drove down the lane and sank a pretty one-handed floater to secure the Wildcats' 54-52 win over Lennox High.
"Best sophomore player I've ever had," says Luitjens, who through Sunday had chalked up 550 victories in his 27-plus seasons at Custer. "Derek could handle the ball with either hand, had a quick first step and made everyone around him better. Even as a sophomore, playing with seniors, he was able to pat someone on the back and say, 'Let's go!' if that player wasn't playing well. As a coach, you want your point guard to be an extension of yourself on the floor. Not only did Derek see the play that should be called, he saw the next play, too. I don't think you can teach that."
Recruiters came calling. Despite all of Custer's years of success, it had never produced a Division I player. Now Marquette, Michigan State, North Carolina State, Northwestern and Princeton, among others, were making inquiries, trying to ascertain if Derek was the real deal. It's one thing to look like the next Bob Cousy while playing for a 325-student high school in South Dakota. But was Derek athletic enough to play for a major-college program?
What could Luitjens tell the recruiters to make them see what he saw? That Derek had qualified for the state finals in track in the 400 as a freshman at Huron High? That he'd won a state punt, pass and kick contest when he was eight, for cripes sake, and could dunk, though he'd never done so in a game? Were those the things the recruiters needed to hear? Had Wayne Gretzky been athletic enough? John Stockton? Joe Montana?
The kid could play. The kid had heart. The kid was a winner and a leader. (He would guide Custer's football team to a 7-4 record his junior year and be named first-team all-state at quarterback.) And he was determined to improve. After the Wildcats slipped to 22-4 in Derek's junior season, finishing third in the state tournament, Luitjens called Derek into his office. "I'm going to be totally honest," he remembers saying. "You were the best sophomore I ever had, but as a junior you only rank in my top five. Do you want to play Division I?" Derek nodded. That was the goal. Said Luitjens, "Then it's time to get to work."
Derek hit the weight room. He talked his best friend, Jeremy Berger, into going out with him for track in the spring, because Derek wanted to improve his speed and endurance. "I said to him once, 'What if we're doing all this work, and when the state tournament comes, we have one bad game and it's all for nothing?' " Berger recalls. "Derek answered, 'Don't worry. Next year at state I'll put a saddle on my back, and the team can ride me if it needs to.' "