Sitting next to a coach is a great place to learn about the game of basketball. But chairs and words don’t put points on the board. To score, one must play.
Seeing its best player in street clothes for the first 10 games of the season, Lake City limped to a 3-7 record that included a five-game skid from Dec. 5 through Dec. 17.
In their next game, the Tigers slipped by Pine Island. A week after that win, just the fourth of the season for Lake City, Brady Kuchinka got word that he could shed the jeans and T-shirt that had marked him as inactive for the first month of his sophomore campaign. A broken fibula suffered during the football season had finally healed enough for Kuchinka to don a jersey and shorts.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Kuchinka said. “I was waiting from the day I got back from surgery to be healed and play with my friends.”
Over the 16 games that followed, Kuchinka and the Tigers went 13-3, including a 69-65 win over Ellsworth on Dec. 27. Kuchinka played more than 24 minutes in that game, scoring 21 points and totaling four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
It was a long time coming, and Kuchinka, the Republican Eagle's All-Area Player of the Year, wasn’t going to let his first game be a cameo.
“He started practicing with us the first week of December … and he got cleared to play at the end of December,” Lake City head coach Greg Berge said. “I had seen him in practice, and he wasn’t 100 percent. But he’s such a competitor and such a gamer, when he (played) that first game, we were so much better with him on the court with his competitive nature, knowledge of the game, poise, all those intangibles you can’t really coach.”
In his shortened season, Kuchinka scored in double figures every time he took to the floor. In 13 games, the young Tiger scored at least 16 points, with his lows of 11, 13 and 12 coming in blow-out victories of 18 points or more.
Lake City did not lose back-to-back games the rest of the year.
Kuchinka ended the year averaging 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.9 steals. That stat line was enough to earn a unanimous Hiawatha Valley League All-Conference selection, as well as Lake City’s Most Valuable Player award.
But it was the faces that Kuchinka saw on the court that proved the biggest payoff.
“It felt great to be back with the guys on the court. They make me play better. They’re skilled and athletic and we have great chemistry so it was easy to get back out there,” Kuchinka said.
The Tigers’ season ended with a loss to Caledonia in the Section 1AA quarterfinals, a game that still sticks with Kuchinka.
“I’m still thinking about it. But you have to shake it off, get stronger and get back at it again,” Kuchinka said, minutes after postponing his interview due to an hours-long stint shooting at the gym.
But with Kuchinka as the centerpiece, and classmates Eli Custer and Jesse Oliver among the starting five, the future looks bright for the area’s best and the Tigers.
“I don’t know if I’d set any limits for Brady,” Berge said. “He is such a determined kid, and he works as hard as anyone does … You don’t really find those kids who are such intense competitors and have the skills to go along with that. His potential? I can’t set a limit for it.
“For our team, we had three (sophomores) who got some big-time experience this year,” Berge continued. “I don’t know if we’ve had three sophomores start in Lake City, maybe ever, and not in the last 30 years we probably haven’t for sure. We had to go that route for a couple reasons, but those kids deserved it and earned it, too. We’re optimistic. We’re hopeful. We’ve got some other spots to fill, but we like where our program is.”
Kuchinka goes a little further than “hopeful.”
“It’s exciting,” Kuchinka said of the future. “But we have to keep putting in hard work, do what we do, and play basketball. Jesse and Eli are both phenomenal players. We’re all very excited. ”
About the only thing that could put that future on a different path is football. But Kuchinka isn’t sure the gridiron is in his future. And it’s not because he’s afraid of being injured again. The allure of the hard court is just too hard for some people to walk away from.
“I have not decided yet,” Kuchinka said of his fall plans. “I haven’t decided if I want to play. I love the sport and playing with my friends. But my passion is basketball.”