Neitzel Finds Way Back to High School Hoops

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

July 31, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS – Drew Neitzel is a self-proclaimed basketball junkie.

So when the opportunity arose to reconnect with the high school basketball scene, the former Mr. Basketball and Michigan State standout didn’t think twice.

Neitzel, 35, has spent the past five years as a high school basketball radio analyst alongside longtime broadcaster Bret Bakita.

“It was a natural fit for me coming back to Grand Rapids, and I’ve known Bret since he was broadcasting my games at Wyoming Park,” Neitzel said. “He was looking for a partner and reached out to me. 

“I didn’t have the time or desire to maybe get involved with coaching locally, so the high school broadcasting was the perfect fit to keep me around the game and feed my appetite for the game. Friday night hoops is one of the best atmospheres with the student sections and great crowds, and there’s a great following in West Michigan. It’s great to be a part of that high school action again.”

Bakita has been a staple in the West Michigan sports scene and has been a mentor to Neitzel.

“Bret is a true professional and a great guy to work with and learn from,” Neitzel said. “It’s been a great fit and a great team, and hopefully we have a season this winter.”

Neitzel and Bakita were broadcasting a boys District Semifinal in Holland the night before the Covid-19 pandemic started affecting the landscape of sports.

NCAA conference tournaments were canceled, and soon after March Madness and the remainder of the high school winter and spring seasons as well.

Netizel currently lives in Grand Rapids with wife, Kristi, and their son, Drake, who turns 1 in August.

The recent pandemic has changed the lives of many around the world, but Neitzel has tried to take everything in stride.

“It’s certainly been different, and my wife and I are both working from home, which has been good since we have a 1-year-old,”  said Neitzel, who works as a financial advisor in Grand Rapids. 

“We try to see the positives with everything going on and the craziness in the world, and working from home allows us to spend extra time with our little guy.

“It presents its own challenges, but overall we’re doing well and we’re trying to be smart and responsible by social distancing and staying outside. Not putting ourselves in harm’s way if we don’t have to.”

The pandemic and enforced precautions has put a damper on summer activities, which included Neitzel’s annual basketball camp.

The popular Drew Neitzel Basketball Camp has been running for more than a decade, but likely will be halted due to the pandemic.

“This would’ve been our 12th year, and it has been very successful and continued to grow,” Neitzel said. “It’s the one week in the year that I get to get back in the gym with the kids and my dad and 15 of my good buddies who help coach.

“It’s disappointing that we haven’t had the chance to run the camp, and we haven’t officially canceled it, but it looks more like that’s going to be the outcome with everything going on and the gyms not being allowed to open.”

His stellar high school career at Wyoming Park included becoming the school’s all-time leader in points and assists, while winning the Mr. Basketball Award and taking his team to the Class B Semifinals as a senior in 2004. In one of the most memorable games in MHSAA Tournament history – and before a capacity crowd at the Breslin Center – Neitzel scored 36 points but saw his team fall 79-63 to a Detroit Renaissance eventual champion that included major Division I college prospects Malik Hairston, Joseph Crawford and Tajuan Porter.

Quickly, Neitzel made an impact in East Lansing as well. He was a starting point guard for a majority of his time as a Spartan, and helped Michigan State reach the Final Four as a freshman.

“I couldn’t have written a better college career,” Neitzel said. “You wish you would’ve won more games and went to more Final Fours, but when I look back, to step in and start halfway through my freshman year for Coach Izzo and for him to give me the reins with a senior-heavy team was a great experience.

“That 12 months of my life was absolutely crazy. My senior year of high school going to the Breslin Center, winning Mr. Basketball and then earning a starting spot and going to the Final Four was a wild ride. It was an awesome year for me, personally.”

After not being selected in the 2008 NBA Draft, Neitzel played professionally in Germany and France for five years while also being invited to NBA summer leagues and training camps with Minnesota, Portland and Dallas.

His last taste of the NBA came in 2011 during training camp with the Mavericks. He was eventually cut, and finished the season in the G League.

“That was a great experience,” Neitzel said. “They were a first-class organization and Mark Cuban and Rick Carlise were great. It was the year after they beat Miami in the NBA Finals so they were still on cloud nine from the championship.

“The guys in that locker room were Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom. I was a fly on the wall, and to be around those NBA greats and veterans was definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

Made in Michigan 2020

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Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Drew Neitzel attempts a free throw before a packed Breslin Center during the 2004 Class B Semifinals. (Middle) Neitzel, with wife Kristi and son Drake. (Top photo by Gary Shook; middle courtesy of Drew Neitzel.)

Hart Teammates Reunite After 80 Years Now as WWII Vets, Great-Grandfathers

By Tom Kendra
Special for

June 7, 2023

Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.

West MichiganNo one could have guessed that less than two months after graduation (on July 2, 1943), the two friends would head to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, the first stop on their way overseas to fight for their country in World War II.

No one could have imagined how many twists and turns their lives would take over the next 80 years – from the battlefields in the South Pacific, then back to West Michigan where they both were married with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now Harold even has a great-great-grandchild.

And, certainly, no one would have believed that the two young boys from Hart – who forged a friendship through high school sports long before the days of computers, microwave ovens and cell phones – would still be alive at the age of 98 for an emotional reunion last month, on May 22, seeing each other for the first time in 80 years and, to cap it off, the reunion took place in their hometown of Hart.

“It was such a great day,” Hansen said about the meeting, which was set up by Muskegon-area World War II historian Richard Mullally.

“We picked right up, talking about sports and the service and everything else.”

The conversation came easy for the two old friends, who played for Hart during a “golden era” at the school – particularly in basketball, as the Pirates won 11 West Michigan Conference basketball titles between 1940 and 1954.

Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. Perhaps the best team during that time period was Hansen and Tate’s as seniors in 1943. That team lost only once, to rival Scottville (31-25), but more than made up for it with an 80-10 trouncing of the Spartans in the final regular-season game.

Hart then crushed Scottville and Newaygo to win the District championship, only to have Michigan’s prep basketball season stopped abruptly at that point because of World War II.

That 1943 team featured four starters over 6-0, led by the duo of Hansen and Stan Kapulak (both 6-6), Joe Mack (6-2), Lyle Burmeister (6-1) and Stanley Riley (the lone starter under 6-foot at 5-11).

“The newspapers called us ‘The Hart Skyscrapers,’” said Hansen, who will be 99 on Nov. 6. “We were taller than most college teams at that time.”

Hansen and Tate’s friendship continued to blossom on the baseball field, only to have their lives turned upside down shortly after graduation 80 years ago, when all Hart senior boys who had been drafted headed to Battle Creek as a brief staging area on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific.

Hansen served in the Army Specialized Training Program and was part of the 52nd Signal Battalion and the 4025th Signal Battalion in the Pacific Theater.

“I had an all-expense paid tour of the South Pacific,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “The Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Hawaii, all over the place.”

Tate did his service in the 24th Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Japan.

During their visit last month, Harold showed off the Japanese Samurai sword and Arisaka rifle which he had sent back from Japan to Hart. The week after their visit, both took part in Memorial Day parades – Hansen in the Lakeside parade in Muskegon and Tate in his 77th Memorial Day service in Hart.

Hansen, who still has a home on a small lake in Holton and lives at a senior care facility in Muskegon, played many years of semi-pro basketball and did some coaching. He worked at GTE and has five children and 10 grandchildren.

Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II.“I have been so blessed,” Hansen said, sorting through one of his many scrapbooks. “All five of my kids are great and I have grandkids that are just amazing, everything they are doing. I don’t even know all of their names, but it’s sure been fun watching them.”

Tate returned to Hart after his military service and has been there ever since, at first working as a carpenter with his father and then becoming a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring 26 years ago at the age of 72. He has lived in the same home for 75 years and has three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandkids and now one great-great-grandchild.

Tate laments the demise of his beloved American Legion post in Hart, a town with just over 2,000 residents, as the number of members has steadily declined.

One topic that brings a smile to both of their faces is the recent resurgence of the Hart High School athletic program, which drew media attention not too many years ago for all the wrong reasons – notably a football program which went 24 years without a winning record.

That string was snapped with a 6-3 mark and the school’s first earned playoff appearance last fall.

But that was just the start.

This winter, Hart’s boys basketball team finished the regular season 22-0, the girls basketball team made it to the Division 3 Semifinals at the Breslin Center, wrestling qualified for the Team Finals for the fourth-straight year and competitive cheer placed fourth in Division 4. This spring, the Hart girls track & field team won its second-straight Division 3 Finals team title, and the boys placed fourth.

“It’s a great place to call home, a great place to live, always has been,” said Hansen of his hometown, which got its name from its central position in the “heart” of Oceana County.

And who would have imagined that these two high school teammates could still come home again for a reunion at the age of 98?

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Members of the 1943 Hart High School varsity baseball team gather together, preparing for a team photo. Among those are Harold Gayle Tate (far left) and Walter "Stretch" Hansen, at 6-6 the tallest player in the back row. (Middle) Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. (Below) Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Top photo courtesy of Stretch Hansen. Middle and below photos courtesy of Richard Mullally.)