Mike Sorensen: Uncle Harold Christensen was a good athlete, and man

Published: Sunday, April 1 2012 10:40 p.m. MDT

In case you can't remember this 1951 BYU basketball squad which captured the NIT, here they are after clocking 25 years off life's clock. Back Row, from left: Mel Hutchins, Russ Hillman, Loren Dunn, Richard Jones, Boyd Jarman, Leon Heaps, Jerry Romney, Joe Richey, and Jim Thorn. Front row, from left: Robert Craig, Coach Stan Watts, Roland Minson, Harold Christensen, Ralph Olsen and Wayne Cottle. Only one member of the Cougar NIT title team is deceased, Kent Durrant. January 27, 1976.

, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Uncle Harold would be embarrassed if he knew I was writing a column about him today.

My uncle, Harold Christensen, passed away last week after a tough battle with cancer. He was a terrific athlete, who excelled in basketball, football and tennis. He is best-known for his exploits on the basketball floor, as a high school all-American at B.Y. High and an all-conference player at BYU, good enough to be drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers.

He was a legend in BYU sports, not on the level of Danny Ainge or Ty Detmer, but well-known by anyone familiar with Cougar sports history. He was one of the stars for one of BYU's most famous teams, the 1951 NIT champions, back when the NIT was the premier college postseason tournament.

Uncle Harold was as blue as they come. He grew up on 3rd East and 3rd North in Provo, just a couple of blocks from the BYU campus. His father was a beloved English professor at BYU for more than 30 years and the chairman of the English department. His mother and three siblings received their degrees from BYU. Three of his sons later played basketball for the Cougars.

Yet, he definitely didn't come from the Max Hall school of hating your enemies. In fact, late in his life, Harold tried to start a campaign to improve the civility in the often-rancorous BYU-Utah rivalry.

He was impressed by the way schools such as Notre Dame and Nebraska treated their guests when they came to play. He thought it would be great if BYU officials would hang a banner welcoming the Utes to LaVell Edwards Stadium before a football game. Or perhaps hold a dinner for officials from both schools prior to big games.

"The rivalry between Utah and BYU can get out of hand and it always made my dad sad," Harold's son Kurt said. "He was saddened by how vitriolic and hate-filled the rivalry can become for some people."

Harold met with the BYU Alumni Association Board more than once to discuss his ideas and wanted to do the same at Utah.

I wrote a column about Harold's ideas back in 2009 and received a positive response from many readers who wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

It wasn't too long after, that news came out about Utah jumping to the Pac-12 and BYU going independent, which seems to have cooled off the rivalry a bit. Still, as long as Utah and BYU continue to compete in sports, ideas of civility between the schools, as Harold urged, should be promoted.

Although he worked as a structural engineer, Uncle Harold sometimes wondered if he should have taken an offer from former BYU coach Stan Watts to be an assistant coach soon after he completed his college career.

He would have made a great coach.

In fact, he was a great coach, when he tutored each of his four sons in a variety of sports over the years. Kurt recalls what made his father such a great coach.

"Dad always wanted his players to feel confident and think they were better than they actually were," he said. "You always had a lot of freedom and encouragement, but that didn't mean you didn't get hollered at. It was a good blend."

Kurt said he's received a bunch of e-mails from former players of "Chris" the past few days since his dad died and the common thread in everybody's thoughts was he always made them feel good about themselves.

"That's why Dad should have probably gone into coaching instead of engineering," Kurt said with a chuckle.

Uncle Harold was a competitor who loved to win. My older brothers recall playing a pickup game against him and another uncle in our backyard during a family get-together when Harold was probably in his 40s. While my brothers were able to go in the house and get their gym shoes on, Harold played in his dress shoes, slipping and sliding around on the cement and mixing it up like it was a real game.

Of course, his team won.

But as competitive as Uncle Harold was, he believed good sportsmanship was just as important as winning.

When I asked Kurt if his dad was the type of coach who would rag on officials, he had a one-word answer.

"Never."

Kurt said he would compare his father's coaching style to that of John Wooden.

"There definitely was intensity and fire, but he was always focused on his players feeling good about themselves and having confidence," Kurt said.

Uncle Harold would certainly agree with the first two lines of coach Wooden's sportsmanship pledge he used to hand out to youth groups.

"I will be a good sport whether I win or I lose. No whining, complaining, or making excuses."

Uncle Harold will be laid to rest later Monday and be remembered for his athletic accomplishments, but mostly for being a great person. Here's hoping his ideas of encouraging civility, instilling confidence and displaying good sportsmanship will live on.

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