Every team needs a utility player, a guy who doesn’t care how he contributes as long as he contributes.
A guy who puts the team before himself. A guy who values winning more than impressing.
For the Montana men’s basketball team that player is senior guard Mario Dunn.
And if there’s a Grizzly who might have expected to play a larger role by this point in his career, that would be Dunn. But don’t expect to hear a complaint. That’s not what he’s about.
Dunn came to Montana from Oakland, California, the same city that produced Griz great Will Cherry. Expectations were high and Dunn lived up to them. He started 16 games as a true freshman, including all but one Big Sky Conference game. As a sophomore, the point guard started all 33 games, ranked third in the league in steals and seventh in assists while being named honorable mention all-league.
But it was during that sophomore season that Dunn first injured his left (non-shooting) wrist.
“Sophomore year, first time we played Montana State here, I think it was in January,” Dunn said. “I tried to brace myself for a fall.”
His career has been a series of starts and stops since.
Dunn first had surgery on the wrist between his sophomore and junior years.
“When it first happened I talked to Coach Trav (DeCuire) a lot,” Dunn said. “I had my first surgery and was supposed to be back before the start of the season, then I found out I had to have another one. That hit me hard. I missed the summer workouts and then missed until December. That was kind of tough. Coach Trav did a pretty good job of keeping my head up and staying the course. That was helpful for me and my family as well.”
Dunn returned in December of his junior year, but with the emergence of Walter Wright and Michael Oguine, his minutes fell from 31.7 a game as a sophomore to 17.2 last season. His minutes have tailed off again this season with Ahmaad Rorie added to the mix. Dunn recently missed four games after aggravating the wrist injury, but returned to the floor last week.
Even while sidelined, he was valuable to DeCuire.
“Leadership. Communication,” DeCuire said of how Dunn contributed while idled. “He’s an extra voice on the bench, communicating things on both sides of the ball. Mario’s a winner. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win, if that means he’s not in the game, then he’s going to be an emotional presence. That’s the biggest thing he gave us.”
Dunn enjoyed that role.
“Those actually weren’t bad,” Dunn said. “I had a lot of fun on the bench, encouraging my guys. We won all those games when I was out. As long as we’re winning, I’m happy.”
When Wright was suspended for the first half of the game at Sacramento State, it allowed Dunn to play a larger role in front of friends and family who came over from the Bay Area.
“I got to see a bunch of family members,” Dunn said. “Got to see my old high school coaches. It’s good having that support. It felt like a home game for us.”
Both Wright and Rorie were held out of Thursday’s home loss to Eastern Washington, allowing Dunn to return to the starting lineup. He could be there again Saturday against Idaho if Rorie and Wright are again held out.
“Be one of our better defenders, be in all the right places, communicate, lead, make plays that win,” DeCuire said of what he expects from Dunn on the floor. “If that means shutting someone down, make a big shot, get a loose ball, take a huge charge; he’ll do all of those things. He’s kind of your 5-11, 6-foot utility guy and he’s always been that for us. He’s been that since he was a sophomore and I expect that to continue.”
Dunn is a sociology major who expects to graduate this spring. He stayed in Missoula last summer and worked at the Poverello Center.
“The most eye-opening thing for me is that a lot of those people who are homeless aren’t bad people,” Dunn said. “They just don’t have the opportunity and they lack the resources that most of us have.”
Dunn hopes to continue working in a career along those lines.
“I want to work with teenagers who aren’t going on the right path and give them a different opportunity,” said Dunn, who knows the pitfalls that can await teens in tough cities like his hometown. “You see stuff. I went to high school in Richmond. You get out of there and you look back in and you see stuff that isn’t right. I want to do things to try to change it and do whatever I can. I want to help bring change to where I’m from.”
Dunn’s journey as a Griz has been a tough one, but his positive attitude helped him through it.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Dunn said. “You have your ups and your downs with injuries. For the most part I just tried to stay positive and do what I can.”
And he has no regrets.
“No, hell no,” Dunn said emphatically. “I love it. I love the community. I love the support we get. There’s nothing better in the Big Sky.”