They know they are fortunate. They know his history, that he once coached Chauncey Billups at CU, that he has coached from Air Force to the Ivy League, that he has basketball stories to fill a book — a series of books, even.

They know a lot about Terry Dunn, but for now the 19 boys packed into a classroom at Sierra High School just know that someone needs to hit the lights. They know it's smart to trust Coach Dunn, that he surely has something cool to show them before practice.

The film projector shoots a grainy image across the whiteboard. "I've seen this before," one player says. The first image is a portrait of the late, great N.C. State coach Jim Valvano. "Wait, no, I haven't."

And they gaze, and they listen. The Stallions, who are 20-3 and open the Class 4A state tournament Friday, are glued to the "30 for 30" series — "Survive and Advance" — that chronicles N.C. State's improbable run to the 1983 NCAA championship.

They see the Wolfpack overcome a six-point overtime deficit to win their first game of the tournament, a 12-point deficit to win their second game. They see Valvano hold a practice in which he teaches his players how to cut down the nets, just in case.

"Are we going to practice cutting down the nets, Coach?" one player asks Dunn.

And they gaze, and they listen. Then they groan.

"OK, we'll watch the rest tomorrow," Dunn says, flipping the lights back on. "Hopefully this gives you some parallels in what we're trying to accomplish the next three weeks."

Why show a documentary about a team most of them had never heard of?

"This time of year," Dunn says, "Basketball is more about the mental than the physical. And I can't think of a more mentally strong team than that one."

The other 351 boys and girls basketball teams still alive in the state playoffs all are fortunate, too. This one, hustling through a hallway at Sierra on the way to practice, is like its well-traveled coach, not ready for the season to end.

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Some of his stories fly over the heads, like the one about Gene Keady. Dunn was a teenager playing for the legendary Swede Erickson at Casper College. Keady was the coach at Hutchinson Community College, the powerhouse from Kansas.

One frigid Wyoming night, after Casper beat Hutch, Keady remarked: "Just remember. You guys have to come to our place. We're going to have the mayor of Hutchinson ref that game, just like you guys had the mayor of Casper ref this game."

After 29 seasons of coaching, the stories seem endless. Dunn, 62, is the rare coach who can grip a room with stories from the high school level (Harrison in the 80s, Sierra the past five seasons) and the college level (as an assistant at Air Force, Army, Colorado and Colorado State).

Put it this way: Sierra's coach took the job after serving as a head coach in the Ivy League. How many high school players can say that about their coach?

Then Dunn says this, and, given the scope of his career, it carries weight: "I'm as proud of this group as any I've ever coached at any level. There are groups of kids where you don't want the season to end. This is one of those."

Dunn grew up in New Jersey and followed his brother, Jerry Dunn, to Casper College. (Jerry is the head coach at Tuskegee University and once coached Penn State to its only Sweet 16 appearance, in 2001). After a successful run at Harrison High School from 1982-90, Terry Dunn's college stories began at Army. His first annual salary: $12,000.

Later he joined Reggie Minton at Air Force and, in 1994, pursued an assistant spot at CSU. To land the CSU job, he had to grab the attention of Stew Morrill, the head coach.

"I found out what kind of flowers his wife likes," Dunn says, and he sent a bouquet to their home in Fort Collins. The ploy worked; Morrill hired Dunn in Fort Collins.

His eight seasons at CU included one with Billups, the finest player he's coached.

"It's rare when a guy makes everyone around him better," Dunn says. "That's Chauncey."

It's rare, too, when coaching stories all have happy endings. Somebody has to lose.

That was Dunn at Dartmouth. Midway through his sixth season in the Ivy League, Dunn was forced to resign for reasons he declines to discuss.

"It was painful. I haven't talked about it, and I'd rather not," Dunn says. "We had a difference in philosophy. I hated to leave. I really liked it there."

The Sierra job opened up — "Timing's everything" — and Dunn returned to the city he calls home. "This time of year," he says, is when the best stories are written — no matter the level of basketball.

"I always said if I'm ever not able to coach college basketball, I wouldn't mind going back to high school basketball," he says. "It's no different. It's the feeling when the game starts that gets me. It doesn't matter whether it's 12,000 or 500 (fans). Now it's just 32 minutes instead of 40."

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Dunn, the dean of students at Sierra, arrived at school at 6:50 am. It's now 8:10 at night and the Stallions are in the most hectic, noisiest, fun part of his day.

Practice.

"That team we watched in the video (N.C. State)? They didn't do a lot of dribbling!" Dunn shouts across the gymnasium. "They did a lot of passing, a lot of cutting, but not a lot of dribbling. And I think they cut down the nets!"

When a teenager has been yelled at, disciplined, joked with and embraced for four years, there is a certain player-coach relationship only time can perfect. The Stallions are in that place; seven seniors, three of which are starters, who arrived at this high school almost simultaneously as Dunn. "These are his guys," a teacher says.

"Being here for four years, we've created a family," says Darrion Pyos, a senior forward. "Coach Dunn, he's bigger to us than basketball."

They know his stories, most originating from his college days, like the one about CU forward Chris Copeland. A sub for most of his career in Boulder, Copeland later earned a $6-million contract in the NBA. Dunn often translates his stories into life lessons.

"Coach says (Copeland) had a poor work ethic, but when he changed that, he got really good," Sierra senior Anthony Dunlap says.

Or like the one he learned from Morrill at CSU, a motivational ploy when a kid doesn't play hard: "Sitting on the bench is sitting on your ego." Or how Sierra's out-of-bounds plays are those Dunn taught at the college level: "Four Low," which he used at Dartmouth; "Kansas," which Dunn borrowed after scouting Bill Self's playbook.

"His stories always have a meaning," said Ke'Andre Lewis, another Sierra senior.

Dunn blows the whistle dangling from his neck. Practice is over. A dozen players huddle around and fix their eyes on the coach. He could be back in the WAC, the Big 12, the Ivy League, or here in a high school gym. His message is the same, too.

"This time of year," Dunn begins, and they don't want the story to end.

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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