KEARNEY — Tom Kropp always has seen himself as a teacher.
After NAIA All-American accolades in football and basketball at Kearney State College. After two-plus years in the NBA and four years playing professional basketball in Belgium.
And after more than 30 years as a basketball coach with the Lopers, Kropp retired from the sideline in 2015 to go full-time into teaching. Kropp completed his doctorate after four years as an assistant coach at KSC. He took a two-year sabbatical to complete his degree at Lincoln.
"I remember I was making $18,000 and that would have been in like 1988. The first year, I made a pretty big sacrifice and they paid me half my salary. ... My second year I didn’t have any income. So over a two-year period, I made $9,000," he said. "I made quite a commitment to get my doctorate. But then when I came back, I never let it pay off because I only taught one class a semester. I always thought someday, at the end of my career, I would like to ... take advantage of what I had done and spend a few years teaching."
He knew it was time to quit coaching when the long bus trips in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, then the three-day road trips in the MIAA took its toll physically.
"What was really killing me were those overnight trips, where we get back at nine on a Sunday morning. It got to the point where ... it was starting to take me two, sometimes three days to recover from that. I knew that it was probably time for me to move on because it was taking its toll on me," he said.
His transition into the classroom came easy. He continued with sports psychology and basketball theory, both courses he’s taught throughout his 40-year tenure at UNK. Since his retirement, he’s added Introduction to Sports Management and Sports as a World Religion to his teaching load.
"These five years have passed so fast. I was only going to do it for a couple of years, two or three years, but I do enjoy teaching," he said.
Sports as a World Religion is one of his favorite courses. It looks at the way people are fanatical about sports.
He points to Belgium as an example. A country one-fourth the geographical size of Nebraska, but with more than five times the population, it has 15 first-division soccer teams that play in 50,000-seat arenas.
"It’s kind of a neat course because all you talk about is how sports have grown so much in the last whatever 50 years or so and some people kind of substitute sports for religion. I mean they’re so into it," Kropp said. "It’s amazing how big sports are all over the world."
Kropp is familiar with Belgium. While playing there, he met his wife and every year, for 38 years, they’ve returned to Belgium in the summer.
That streak ended this year because of COVID-19.
In the past, his wife, Sonja, would leave for her home two weeks before Tom and their daughter, Dominique, would come over for two more weeks.
"She can actually get there without a problem, but then she has no guarantee that she can get back to the United States, so basically that’s the reason that none of us are going over," he said. "Maybe we will see what it looks like at Christmas."
Teaching took a turn, as well, when the university shut down in mid-March.
"Things went really well for two-thirds of the semester. And that was just normal," Kropp said. "But then we got into the last third of the semester and they put everything online."
That made teaching somewhat of a challenge for someone who admits he’s not all that sharp with computers. Fortunately, he had help.
Dominique was completing her doctorate at Kansas, which also shut down, and she came home and was able to help him work through the online teaching aspects.
"It went OK, but the big reason was I had Dominque there to help me with the technology," he said.
Even before the pandemic, his daughter has been his go-to person for internet technology.
Having Dominique at home provided another benefit. As a family, for five straight weeks, they became enthralled by the ESPN documentary "The Last Dance," which profiled the Chicago Bulls’ championships with Michael Jordan.
"Oh God, I enjoyed that," said Kropp, who played a year and a game for the Bulls. "There were like 10 different things in there where I would see somebody, whether it was the ball boy, or the announcer for the game or whoever, but I would see them and they were people that were around when I was around. So that made it more interesting for me."
It also confirmed something he’s believed for some time: Jordan was the greatest of all time.
"I followed Michael Jordan’s career really close. When people are comparing — and a lot of people disagree with me on this — but when people compared LeBron James to Michael Jordan as a basketball player, that just irritated ... me because I thought there was no comparison to LeBron James and Michael Jordan. (The documentary) really showed Michael Jordan in his prime.
"That was probably the second thing that I most enjoyed; people got to see Michael Jordan at his best in that whole 10-hour production."
Kropp said he also could relate to the players, who have lives away from the court. While playing for the Bulls and the Washington Bullets, Kropp said practice ran from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The rest of the time, the players would be looking for something to do — family, golf or going to the casino.
"We never practiced longer than an hour and a half, but then they would have other things, family or whatever that they were involved in. That’s something I really related to," he said.
That downtime will be one of the things Kropp will be watching closely when the NBA restarts its season with all the players, coaches and support personnel confined to one location.
In the past three months, Kropp has experienced more confinement than he would like. Besides coronavirus precautions, he battled a separate lung ailment and spent three six-day stays in the hospital.
"Laying in that bed for six days, by the time I got to my third stretch there, God I was going stir crazy," he said. "And to think that those guys are going to be in that bubble for, what are they talking, like seven weeks? That’s going to test them quite a bit. I don’t know how they’re going to stay entertained. It’ll be interesting.
"It might be good for them. All they have to concentrate on is basketball. So some of them, over a seven-week period, might make some big jumps. Not the big stars, they’re already at a high level. Some of those other guys, marginal players, just having nothing but basketball for seven weeks might be a big advantage for some of those guys."
And, yes, Kropp will be watching. He watches a lot of basketball, Lopers included.
He said he attended seven UNK games this season and watched the rest online when he didn’t have other commitments.
"I really enjoyed watching the men’s team play because Coach (Kevin) Lofton and I definitely have the exact same philosophy and that’s being unselfish, being hard-nosed and playing hard. Last year’s team, I enjoyed watching that team as much ... as any team I coached because they had all those qualities that you try to instill in your players," he said.
He also became a big fan of the Kansas Jayhawks this year because one of Dominique’s duties while working on her doctorate was to tutor members of the Kansas men’s basketball team.
"She knew all of those players because she tutored them for like three hours a week. ... So it was kind of neat for me to follow Kansas because she’d tell me, ‘This guy is a great guy,’ and then say, ‘This guy, he’s spoiled.’ So I kind of had the inside scoop on the Kansas basketball team, which made it fun for me to watch them, not in person, but on TV."
He also keeps close tabs on the Oregon Ducks because of friendships with coach Dana Altman and assistant coach Kevin McKenna.
"I follow a lot of teams, but I don’t really have a desire like to go to a Super Bowl or an NBA Finals game or anything. I’m just pretty satisfied, watching what I have to watch around here," he said.
He also enjoys following UNK’s other teams. He said he usually has 20-30 athletes in his classes each semester and they keep him interested in the other Loper teams.
"I never enjoyed coaching as much as I enjoyed playing. It wasn’t even close," he said. "One thing I really enjoyed about coaching was the relationships I had with the kids. I miss the relationships. ... The relationships meant more, by far, than any winning and losing or any of that.
"One advantage I do have is in teaching, you still create relationships with your students. Now it’s not nearly as strong because you’re not around your students as much as you are your athletes, but it’s been a nice transition for me rather than just stopping coaching and retiring. ... That’s helped me out. It’ll be a lot easier for me now to completely retire after I’ve had this five or six years teaching than it would have ... had I gone cold turkey and just hung it up at age 62, when I retired from coaching.