BROOKINGS, S.D. -- Mike Daum grew up in a place called Kimball, Neb., -- a small town of fewer than 3,000 people that barely covers two square miles in the southwestern panhandle of the state. So he wasn't off the map, technically. But for the purposes of basketball, yeah, he kinda was.
He played AAU for a team called the Rocky Mountain Fever.
It's a nice program but not quite the Mac Irvin Fire.
In other words, Daum never played in most of the prestigious events on the summer circuit. So he was mostly unseen by Division I staffs -- until late July before his senior year of high school. That's when Daum found himself competing in the Las Vegas Classic. Coincidentally, his team was paired against a team from Florida featuring, among others, Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-6 center who is now at UCF. So there were a handful of Division I coaches in the gym. And what they saw was Mike Daum get hot from beyond the arc.
"I had 12 3-pointers in that game," Daum said. "And it really did change my life."
This is a story about how opportunities randomly present themselves, about the great things that can happen when you take advantage of them, about how hard work sometimes leads people to places they never themselves even imagined going. It's a story about South Dakota State's Mike Daum -- the Jackrabbits' leading returning scorer who was recently named the Summit League's Preseason Player of the Year just two seasons removed from being redshirted as a freshman because nobody thought he was good enough to play.
But let's back up.
All great stories have a beginning, and this one starts with Daum in a gym with his mother, night after night after night, shooting and running drills while starring, albeit mostly anonymously, at Kimball High.
"My mom was a stud," Daum said.
(This is true, by the way. His mom is the former Michele Hoppes. She's in the Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame thanks to a college career in which she led the Cowgirls in both scoring and rebounding for four straight years.)
"Me and my mom were in the gym every night back in Nebraska and, at times, I was like, 'Why am I doing this?'" Daum told me earlier this month. "I didn't even know back then if I wanted to play college basketball."
Regardless, he kept working.
Night after night after night.
Which is what prepared him for, and led him to, that day in Las Vegas, where Daum banged home 12 3-pointers in an otherwise forgettable game. Two coaches from South Dakota State happened to be there. They weren't there to see him. But they were there. So they saw him -- a 6-9 forward straight killing from 21 feet.
"That's where we fell in love with him," said SDSU assistant Rob Klinkefus.
Shortly thereafter, South Dakota State offered a scholarship.
And then a funny thing happened: South Dakota State enrolled him, got him to campus and realized that he ... wasn't very good. So the staff redshirted Daum. And even during that redshirt year there was little reason to believe their evaluation sparked by one crazy 3-point performance was anything but misguided.
"I was told there were a lot of questions about whether he'd ever be able to play here," said first-year South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger, who inherited Daum when he replaced Scott Nagy last April. "They weren't wondering when he'd ever play here. They were wondering if he'd ever play here. They didn't know if he was ever going to be good enough to play at this level."
Meantime, Daum was wondering the same thing.
"It was a reality check when I first got here," he said. "I wasn't strong. I wasn't physical. I didn't understand the college game. So during that redshirt year, honestly, I didn't know if I'd ever be able to play here. I just thought I'd have to accept my role."
But Daum didn't accept his role. Or, at least, he didn't settle for it. He kept working and reshaped his body by dropping about 25 pounds and then adding roughly 15 pounds of muscle back. And he took daily beatings from Cody Larsen, a physical forward who had transferred to South Dakota State from Florida.
"Cody's senior year was Mike's redshirt year, and the best thing that happened to him that year is Cody kicked his tail every day," said Klinkefus, who is a holdover from the previous staff. "And I mean every day. It was hard for Mike. But it made Mike better."
Nobody can quite pinpoint when, but something clicked at some point between the end of Daum's redshirt year and the start of last season. He was flourishing in workouts, consistently making big shots and big plays. So South Dakota State brought him off the bench in the season opener. He posted 15 points and seven rebounds in just 17 minutes. Three games later, Daum got 17 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes against TCU. He eventually cracked the 20-point barrier seven times even though he never played 30 minutes in any game and only started twice. He tallied 16 points and six rebounds against Maryland's talented frontline in the NCAA Tournament, threw down a nice dunk on Damonte Dodd, and ended up averaging 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 44.6 percent from 3-point range in just 20.8 minutes per game in his first season of college basketball.
His average of 29.3 points per 40 minutes led the entire nation.
Daum was named the Summit League's Sixth Man of the Year and voted First Team All-Summit League. He's now the Summit League's Preseason Player of the Year. And he's suddenly on NBA radars, too.
"People connected to the NBA tell me they believe he can play in that league," Otzelberger said. "He has to continue to work on his body, get stronger, play with a lower base, and speed up the release on his 3-point shot. But he's highly skilled and intelligent. He's a great inside-outside threat. And he's a great character guy.
"In the NBA today, everybody plays with stretch-fours," Otzelberger added. "Mike fits that bill. He could play for anybody in the country. He's a real talent. He would fit in on any team, and with any coach, in the country."
The idea that what Otzelberger said -- that Daum could play on any team in any league -- is true is amazing given how he wasn't even being seriously recruited by Division I programs until he made those 12 3-pointers in that one game in Las Vegas, and it's even more remarkable considering he spent most of his redshirt year, which was just two seasons ago, underwhelming his coaches in practices.
But, again, it's true.
And it should serve as a lesson for everybody, in any walk of life, and that lesson is this: never stop working and always do your best because you never know who's watching and noticing. Success isn't guaranteed, of course. But it is possible. And what you just might find is that you're capable of things even you didn't envision.
"That's what I think the lesson is," Daum said. "Going into last season, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the team. I just wanted to play as hard as I could whenever I got the opportunity. And then it all just kind of fell into place. Things have just kind of fallen into place. And it really is crazy."