The Old Man And the J

December 08, 2008

IT'S GRATIFYING toKen Mink that he has received hundreds of e-mails telling him what aninspiration he is to older people, not to mention younger ones. It's thrillingto him that he has been interviewed by media outlets from across the country aswell as from France, Italy, Japan and Portugal, all fascinated by the story ofthe senior (citizen) who's also a sophomore (shooting guard). It'smind-boggling to him that movie producers have offered to buy the rights to hislife story.

But Mink wasn't insearch of flattery, fame or fortune in September, when he became the oldestcollege basketball player ever in the U.S. He doesn't drag his 73-year-old bodyhome from a 2 1/2-hour practice every day at Roane State Community College inHarriman, Tenn., aching so badly that he can barely open the door of his 2004Ford Wrangler, just to get a little publicity. So why is he doing it? Truth is,as hard as it is to keep up with players who are young enough to be hisgrandchildren, answering that question is even harder: "The best way I canput it is, did you ever have that feeling that you left somethingunfinished?"

That feeling hadbeen with Mink for 52 years, ever since he was booted out of Lees JuniorCollege in Jackson, Ky., after his freshman season. Seems some prankster hadsoaped up the coach's office furniture and put shaving cream in his shoes. Thecoach and the school president believed that Mink was the culprit, anaccusation he denies to this day. "It was a crock," he says. "Iwasn't above pulling a joke, but they had the wrong man on that one."

After beingexpelled, Mink dropped his dream of playing at a four-year school. He did ahitch in the Air Force, spent 38 years as a newspaper reporter and editor inKentucky and Tennessee, raised three kids and played lots of pickup basketball.He had always been a gym rat, so addicted to hoops that when he broke his rightcollarbone diving for a loose ball as a teenager, he kept playing lefthandedand never missed a day on the courts. Fast-forward to a year ago, when Mink wasshooting baskets on the driveway hoop at his home in Knoxville. Always deadlyfrom long range, he made 20 jumpers in a row from three-point distance andstarted thinking crazy thoughts.

"I've still gotit," he told his wife of 10 years, Amelia.

"Still gotwhat?" she said.

Still got game,Mink might have said, if he had been about 50 years younger and 50 timeshipper. He also had that half-century-old itch left unscratched, that sophomoreseason that he still had coming to him. So he sent e-mails to the coaches ateight nearby small colleges, and about two weeks later he received his one andonly reply, from Randy Nesbit at Roane State. "I'm the kind of guy whocries at movies real easy," Nesbit says. "His story just kind of got tome. I figured, why not?"

Although Mink haskept himself in good shape, at six feet and 192 pounds he's a guy with wispywhite hair who sprints about as fast as his teammates jog, whose game is notonly below the rim, it's below the net. He often skips the most strenuousconditioning drills, and on defense he's pretty much incapable of keepinganyone from driving past him. As the 12th man he plays only in blowouts, ofwhich there had been two at week's end, and he has scored two points, whichcame when he pump-faked a whippersnapper into the air, deftly drew the foul anddropped in both free throws. The fans in attendance celebrated as if RoaneState had just reached the Final Four. No wonder the screenwriters keepcalling. This is Rudy meets The Bucket List. (Mink won't sign any deals untilafter the season because he doesn't want to jeopardize his eligibility.)

Mink's teammateslove him like a grandpa. They teach him hoop slang—who knew dish the rock meantpass the basketball?—while he teaches them history on bus trips. A game againstBryan College in Dayton, Tenn., prompted an informal lesson on the ScopesMonkey Trial held there 83 years ago. But Mink doesn't have to say a word toenlighten the Raiders about other things, such as seeking new challenges,testing the limits of their abilities and finding as much satisfaction in theeffort as in the result.

The only item lefton Mink's quest for basketball closure is to do a little detective work and getto the bottom of the shaving-cream incident. He has no illusions aboutextending his career beyond this season, though when he read a suggestion on aNorth Carolina message board that the Tar Heels should offer him a scholarship,he couldn't resist replying. "Don't bother," Mink wrote. "I'm goingpro."

TALK BACK
If you have a comment on Ken Mink's comeback, send it to SI.com/pointafter.

Why is Ken Mink trying to keep up with players youngenough to be his grandkids? "The best way I can put it is, did you everhave that feeling you left something unfinished?"

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)