Before Sunday’s basketball game, Coach Yogi Woods gathered the junior varsity at Lambuth University. Watch out for 73 on the other team, he said. He did not mean the player’s number. He meant his age.
The visitors, Roane State Community College, had a septuagenarian guard, Ken Mink, college basketball’s oldest player, who has started a second career after his first ended a half century ago with a mysterious shaving-cream incident.
If the 6-foot Mink was good enough to play, he was good enough to be guarded, Woods told the Lambuth players. Then he turned to the freshman Kendrick Coleman and said: “If he goes in for a layup, don’t let him have it. If he scores on you, we will never let you forget it.”
This mixture of curiosity and macho dread has greeted Mink all season at colleges throughout Tennessee. After all, how do you defend a guy whose peers are generally pumping iron to supplement their blood levels, not to build their muscles? On Nov. 3, the junior-varsity coach at King College told one of the Roane players, whom he had coached in high school, “If the old guy scores, we’re walking home.”
Late in that game, Mink entered and found himself open in the corner. He gave a pump fake, and the defender ended up draped over him like raccoon coat. Calmly, he hit both free throws. The Hack-a-Mink strategy had failed.
“I thought some teams would play along, humor him,” said Randy Nesbit, the coach of Roane State, located in Harriman, Tenn. “No, they’re not like the Washington Generals. They’re like sharks sensing blood.”
At home games, Mink has been a crowd favorite. Attendance, usually about 100 per game, has on occasion swelled to 400. Mink’s wife, Emilia, 68, wore a retro cheerleader outfit to the season opener, complete with saddle shoes and a poodle skirt. She held up a sign that said, “Ken Can, He’s Our Medicare Man.”
No one has been happier than the guy who runs the Roane concession stand.
“He even put a new item on the menu, polish sausage with peppers and onions,” Nesbit said. “It was just plain hotdogs before.”
For a guy Mink’s age, two-a-days are a likely reference to multivitamins, not double practices. But while shooting around in a neighbor’s driveway in the summer of 2007, he realized he still had his shooting stroke. So he sent e-mail messages to eight tiny colleges near his home in Knoxville, Tenn. Perhaps a small school could use a guy with an old-school push shot.
“You do realize you’re 72?” Emilia Mink asked her husband. “Do you think you can convince someone you’re not?”
Nesbit, the Roane coach, grew intrigued. A former point guard and coach at The Citadel, he kept himself in terrific shape at 50. He was curious about the possibilities of athletic performance at an age when Gatorade has been replaced as the sports drink of choice by Metamucil. Still, he wanted to meet Mink before offering him a spot on the team.
“I think he wanted to make sure Ken wasn’t out on a weekend pass,” Emilia Mink said.
Ken Mink told Nesbit a story of unfinished business: he had played at Lees College in Jackson, Ky., only to be expelled from the then-Presbyterian school in 1956 as his sophomore season began. His crime? Mink said he was accused of soaping the coach’s office with shaving cream, slathering the lights and even the coach’s shoes.
He denied it. “I don’t even shave,” he said he told the university president. Apparently, his alibi was not as smooth as his baby face.
“It’s been eating at him all these years,” Emilia Mink said. “Ken likes to finish what he started.”
Marcus Mullins, a student manager on that Lees team, said he remembered Mink as a “good, hard-nosed player, a big raw-boned kid.” (“I used to be 6-2,” Mink said.) While he was not certain of the facts, Mullins said, the university president at the time was a stern man who did not tolerate prankish misbehavior.
“I know there was an incident, and suddenly he was gone,” Mullins said of Mink. “I’m sure he’s telling the truth.”
Mink said he joined the Air Force in November 1956 and played regularly in military tournaments for four years. He then went on to a career as a newspaper editor, continuing to play basketball in recreation leagues. Since retiring in 1999, he and his wife said, Mink has kept active by playing golf, walking, hiking, skiing, even hang gliding. He has published a book, “So, You Want Your Kid to be a Sports Superstar,” and along with his wife, edits an online travel magazine.
His hair is gray and thinning, but he does look younger than 73. Still, basketball and school have required adjustments. Spanish gave him more trouble this semester than wind sprints, so he replaced it with sociology
I’m threatening a 3.0,” he said.
By that, he meant his grade point average. He would kill for that to be his scoring average.
His goal is to score in double digits. Not for each game. For the season. With the holiday break approaching, Mink is 8 points short.
“His productivity has dropped since he shaved his mustache,” Nesbit said.
Still, there is a half-season remaining. Mink travels with his teammates in a vehicle the size of a rental-car bus, taking his own room on the road, receiving scraps of playing time during blowouts. He is writing a book about his season and a rap song for his teammates.
On one hand, his teammates admire the audacity of his effort. “Most 73-year-olds are using walkers,” forward Keith Bauer said. On the other hand, they do not spare him the tart wit of the locker room. When Mink joked that he had friends in high places, guard Philip Helton shot back, “Where, heaven?”
Mink has a nice shooting touch, and he can use his left hand around the basket, but it is the commonness of his talent, not the rarity, that makes him such an inspiring story, Nesbit said.
“He’s not a freak of nature beating Father Time,” Nesbit said. “There’s no special diet. People pull for him because he looks like a 73-year-old man. If people stay active and healthy, a lot could do what he’s doing.”
Sunday, after Roane’s lead had grown to double digits against Lambuth, Mink entered the game with 39.5 seconds remaining. He dribbled against pressure but did not take a shot before the buzzer sounded.
“At least, I didn’t turn the ball over,” he said.
There was no time to celebrate. The players piled in their bus for a long ride home. Final exams would begin in the morning. Earlier this season, teammates invited Mink to a party at a player’s apartment. He asked his wife for permission to attend, and she said no, according to Nesbit. It was just as well.
“If he starts breaking training, it’s all downhill,” Nesbit said.