By RICK PETERSON
Basketball has taken Lon Kruger all over the world, but Silver Lake and the Topeka area will always be home.
On Monday the member of the 2022 National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame class returned to his roots, serving as keynote speaker to open the 88th annual Kansas State High School Activities Association Coaching School at the Hotel Topeka at City Center.
"I appreciate the opportunity to come back home,'' said Kruger, who retired in 2021 at Oklahoma after 45 seasons in coaching. "Obviously I grew up in Silver Lake and the Topeka area and spent the first 18 years of my life here, so when Fran (Martin of the KSHSAA) called last fall to invite me to come back, I quickly said yes because any excuse I have to get back in this area I always look forward to it.
"Driving in last night I saw Stormont Vail on the building next door and I was born just down the road here in Stormont Vail Hospital in 1952.''
The former star point guard at Silver Lake and Kansas State had college coaching stints at Texas Pan-American, K-State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma and Kruger was the first coach to lead five schools to NCAA Tournament wins, finishing with an overall record of 674-432.
And Kruger, who also had a stint in the NBA as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, is quick to credit his upbringing for starting him on the path to success.
"It was the best of all circumstances,'' Kruger said. "It was the best environment. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but when I look back I could not imagine a better, more idyllic situation growing up. I had a family that was all about family, parents that were all about their kids, a community that was huge in athletics at Silver Lake. Mom and dad were all about other people and doing things for others and relationships so I think that gave me the foundation, the core that I've really tried to take advantage of throughout life.''
During Monday's presentation, Kruger recalled starting a close friendship with fellow Silver Lake native C.J. Hamilton, the winningest football coach in Kansas high school history, when the two played baseball together in the Shawnee County Amateur Baseball Association when Kruger was about 13 years old.
"It's been great following his career and the success he's had,'' Kruger said. "I couldn't be more happy or proud for C.J. and Patty (Hamilton's wife) and following what they did.''
Kruger also mentioned his ties with a couple of other well-known sports fixtures.
"I played a ton of basketball with a couple of other legends in town, Kenny Darting and Dale Cushinberry, names that anyone from Topeka are familar with,'' Kruger said. "I loved playing with them. They competed like crazy and understood the game and had a great feel for the game.''
Kruger also has another tie to the Topeka area, with his wife, Barb, a Seaman graduate.
"We dated exactly 50 years ago this summer before our junior year at Kansas State University and this December we'll celebrate our 47th wedding aniversary,'' Kruger said.
Althouh he loved coaching, Kruger said he knew it was time to start the next stage of his life when he stepped down at OU after the 2020-2021 season.
Lon and Barb recently moved to Las Vegas to be closer to son Kevin, the UNLV head coach, and his two children.
"I knew 10 years ago when our first grandchild was born, that they would be the reason (for retirement),'' Kruger said. "I didn't expect it to be this early, but we just felt like we were missing too much and that, kind of combined with Kev getting that job at UNLV, we figured that would fill that (basketball) void.
"We did it for 45 years, so it was time for someone else. We didn't have a set plan for how many years we were going to do it, but things kind of aligned where we just didn't want to miss out on any more grandkids' activities, so it worked out well.''
Kruger said he's enjoyed having more time to himself and even made a point of giving coaches in attendance his personal email address.
"Don't hesitate ever to email me,'' Kruger told coaches. "I've got a lot of time on my hands now, more time than I ever had before.''
In retirement Kruger has also found himself branching out in other areas.
"Actually in these 18 months I've been to the grocery store a half-dozen times,'' Kruger said with a chuckle. "Never in 45 years had I been to the grocery store. It was amazing. I walked in one day and came home and I was excited about this new, bright, shiny grocery store. Barb gives me a list and then I compete like crazy to bring home everything she asked for. I ask a lot of questions while I'm there.
"I even find myself scraping off dishes after dinner. I'd never done that before. I don't put them in the dishwasher because I know she's going to re-arrange, so I'm not going to waste my time. Life is different when you have time and when you use your time.''