Commentary

Noah Dahlman does it all at Wofford

Originally Published: February 1, 2011
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

By day, Wofford's Noah Dahlman prefers to be called "Mr. D."

It's not a nickname for the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year, the dominating big man on campus who last season led the Terriers to their first league title and NCAA tournament appearance.

[+] EnlargeDahlman
John Albright/Icon SMINoah Dahlman does the majority of his damage around the basket.

It's not a title bestowed upon the descendant of basketball royalty who was raised on a farm in small-town Minnesota to become a rebounding legend and eventually one of the most relentless scorers in the nation (20.6 ppg).

No, Mr. D. is simply what his students call him. While Dahlman, in his senior year, is leading Wofford at the top of the SoCon South Division standings, he is also spending his final semester in a unique classroom setting, teaching American history to 11th graders at Chesnee (S.C.) High School.

Pulling double duty about a half-hour away from the Spartanburg campus requires him to rush back for 4:15 p.m. practices, leaving him little time to make the necessary costume change.

"It looks like Superman tearing the tie off," Wofford coach Mike Young said. "In about two minutes, he'll be in shorts. He'll be playing like he's been resting all day."

In exchange for pushing back practices so Dahlman can educate the youth of America, Young got to let loose on his team captain turned student-teacher. "Did you enlighten them," Young asked aloud, "or take a day off and show a movie on World War II?"

Dahlman, who's currently a teacher's assistant, actually hasn't gotten that far yet in his lesson plan. The class just finished learning about the American Revolution and will start on the United States Constitution this week. Later in the month, Dahlman is scheduled to take on a starring role and begin leading the class himself, exploring the topic of westward expansion onto new frontiers.

In explaining why an honorable mention All-American would undertake teaching at a time when Wofford is in uncharted territory as the SoCon's defending champion and set to have its supremacy challenged, Dahlman peeled back the many layers of his personality.

"I've been in a basketball bubble my whole life," he said.


John Kundla might live in a Minneapolis nursing home and be a little hard of hearing, but the Hall of Fame coach's mind is still sharp at 94 years old. He led George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA championships in six seasons and recalled later in life offering his grandson, Noah, an heirloom recipe for how to properly position himself against the competition.

"When a man is on your back," Kundla said of boxing out, "press against him with your arms up, and he can't jump over you."

Before the 6-foot-6, 215-pounder emerged as one of the shortest yet craftiest back-to-the-basket scorers in America, Noah used that sage advice to grab rebounds and do his best to stand out in a family of basketball players.

Nathan Dahlman and Kathy Kundla were coaching basketball at the same high school when they met, and their children, with names straight out of the Old Testament -- Isaiah, Noah, Jonah, Hannah, Rebekah and Zachariah -- will all likely end up having played college basketball. About an hour north of the Twin Cities in Braham, Minn. -- population 1,660 and still without a stoplight -- the siblings grew up with the game as a way of life.

[+] EnlargeDahlmans
AP Photo/Al GoldisThe Dahlman brothers faced off last season in East Lansing. Michigan State won by a dozen.

Living on an 11-acre farm that sits on a dead-end gravel road about five miles from town, the family by choice does not own a television nor do they have the house wired for Internet access. But behind the barn that overlooks a grassy field, there is a basketball court, one in which an errant ball might bounce into the pigpen.

Isaiah painted the lines on the farm's concrete court and dominated it for years in one-on-one games against Noah, who is a year-and-a-half younger. The two would shovel off the snow come NCAA tournament time and play for, among other items, redeemable Mountain Dew bottle caps that featured the names of top teams. Against his more athletic brother, a wing player with flashy playground moves and matching trash talk, Noah put up a fight, but usually came up short.

"I lost money out there; I lost food; I lost some blood," he said "It was a good time."

At Braham Area High School, Noah played in Isaiah's shadow when the two teamed up to lead the Bombers to three state championships and 65 consecutive wins. Isaiah signed with Michigan State after being heavily recruited, was named Minnesota's Mr. Basketball and broke the state's career scoring record with 3,366 points. As for Noah? "His job was to get all my misses," Isaiah said.

Finding his niche as a sidekick who did the dirty work, Noah set a state record of his own with 1,434 career rebounds. For that, he was left to consider scholarship offers from Green Bay, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Wright State. No fan of frigid temperatures, Noah wanted to move far from home and found Wofford intriguing because it is in the South.

When Young made a recruiting trip to the house, he learned that the family raised its own food while living on Nathan's teacher salary. Taking a tour of the farm, he noticed an area where feathers were scattered all over the place.

Back inside, Young would soon be dining on freshly made turkey tacos.


Young, now in his 22nd year on the bench for Wofford and ninth as head coach, at one point during the recruiting process actually shot down the idea of seriously going after what was ultimately a program-defining player.

The staff adored the toughness Noah displayed on the AAU circuit, but when then-assistant coach Dustin Kerns encouraged Young to make a trip to Minnesota, the head coach balked.

Why would Noah ever come to Spartanburg, S.C.? Young had never even been in the state of Minnesota and had no connections there. "It's a waste of money," Young said. "It's a waste of time."

[+] EnlargeDahlman
AP Photo/Jim MoneNoah Dahlman finished his high school career as Minnesota's 12th-leading scorer and all-time leading rebounder.

But the following day, Nathan happened to contact the staff regarding his son wanting to schedule an official visit, and Young decided to make the trip to Braham after all. He related to the Dahlmans' salt-of-the-earth style, rode in the family's beat-up Dodge Ram to see Noah play football and was told by Braham Area High coach Bob Vaughan that Noah would change everything about his program.

"We thought he was the difference-maker that could get Wofford on the map in college basketball, and he did," Kerns said. "Coach Young said [to Noah], 'I believe in you. You're going to score and be a heck of a player.' It was a sincere belief in Noah. Noah obviously sincerely believed back he could do all this.

"What attracted our staff wasn't his playing ability. It was that this guy did not back down from anybody. He was going to look you in the eye and say, 'I'm coming at you. I don't care how big you are.' He was not afraid to get banged in the nose or hit in the face."

With Noah taking over the scoring load as an all-conference sophomore, the tiny school with an enrollment of about 1,500 went 16-14 and saw 13 straight years without a winning season come to an end, finishing above .500 for the first time since moving to Division I in 1995. Last season, the Terriers won a school-record 26 games, cut down the nets after winning the SoCon tournament and gave fourth-seeded Wisconsin a first-round scare in the NCAA tournament.

A mark of consistency, Noah is currently riding a 70-game streak of scoring in double figures. He ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage (.630, minimum five field goals made per game) and third in the conference in scoring.

The hard-nosed Noah has done it with a game he describes as "nonathletic," efficiently racking up points on mostly close-range shots and free throws (78 percent). He has never dunked in a college game, never hit a 3-pointer and Young swears that he's only scored on three jump shots in his entire career. He has good footwork, good hands and sneaky quickness, and he knows the angles well enough to neutralize the height differential and outfox his opponents. "Brains over brawn, sometimes," Noah mused.

"He scores so many points before the ball ever gets in his hands," Young said. "He's not the quickest, not the fastest, but he's got an incredible motor. He just wears people down. I feel as though I see guys throw their hands in the air and say, 'This isn't any fun.'

"He says, 'I'm going to get you. I'm going to whip you.'"

Nathan, who has never been to a game in Spartanburg, doesn't often get to watch Noah play since deciding years ago to do without television and Internet service. The family will inevitably receive numerous calls to their home after games from friends recapping the action. When Nathan and Kathy made the trip to see Wofford play at Michigan State last season, they had tears in their eyes because Noah scored 19 and the MSU won by 12, with Isaiah making a rare start.

Isaiah has bragging rights for being a member of two Final Four teams with Michigan State, playing sparingly during his four years and being relegated to the scout team. Despite his humble beginnings and being the less-heralded player growing up, it's Noah who possesses the power to lead his school to unprecedented heights.


With Noah's picture constantly appearing in the newspaper alongside stories of his heroics, the kids in history class quickly caught on to his alter ego. Even in the old cotton-mill community of Chesnee, anonymity can be hard to come by for Spartanburg's Superman.

"I want to be known as Mr. Dahlman in the classroom," Noah said. "I don't want to be known as a basketball player-teacher -- just as a teacher."

While trying to lead Wofford back to the NCAA tournament, Noah is working toward a South Carolina teacher's certification, having already fulfilled requirements for a bachelor's degree in history. That is certainly no ordinary pursuit given his player of the year pedigree.

We thought he was the difference-maker that could get Wofford on the map in college basketball, and he did.

-- Former Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns

His hectic schedule requires him to wake up at 6 a.m. to arrive in Chesnee in time to plan lessons with social studies teacher Tripp Fogle. After three periods of helping with the history class, he leaves school at 3:45 p.m. to return to campus for a two-hour practice. Later in the evening, he watches film and works on more lesson planning.

He still had enough energy to arrive home early Friday from a win at Appalachian State and go to class the same day. Then, on Saturday he scored 34 points against Western Carolina on 15-of-17 shooting.

"If anyone has gotten the complete college experience, it's this guy," said Young, who long ago was a student-teacher himself. "This is the way it's supposed to be. He'll work his brains out.

"There's not an ounce of me that thinks because of his responsibilities what he has before him is going to negatively take away from his basketball. That's a part of the experience. That's the balance that we're supposed to have. Noah Dahlman is supposed to be a student-teacher."

Fogle, a Wofford graduate who knew of Noah's reputation as a hard-working and humble player, has already been impressed with his ability to connect with schoolchildren. "He has a wonderful ability to listen," Fogle said. "Kids, they figure stuff like that out. If they know you genuinely care, they open up to you."

If Noah is a natural, it makes sense based on the family history. John Kundla taught history, Nathan taught science and Kathy taught physical education while they coached basketball. Now it's Noah's turn to teach, and he eventually wants to coach, too.

"It's a hand-me-down career here," Nathan said. "To teach and to serve young kids, that's kind of what it's been about. Pass it on the next generation."

Said Noah: "Why not teach high school kids in your last year in college?"

It's just one more way in which he can save the day.

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.