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IT'S GRATIFYING to Ken Mink that he has received hundreds of e-mails telling him what an inspiration he is to older people, not to mention younger ones. It's thrilling to him that he has been interviewed by media outlets from across the country as well as from France, Italy, Japan and Portugal, all fascinated by the story of the senior (citizen) who's also a sophomore (shooting guard). It's mind-boggling to him that movie producers have offered to buy the rights to his life story.
But Mink wasn't in search of flattery, fame or fortune in September, when he became the oldest college basketball player ever in the U.S. He doesn't drag his 73-year-old body home from a 2 1/2-hour practice every day at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., aching so badly that he can barely open the door of his 2004 Ford 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 his grandchildren, answering that question is even harder: "The best way I can put it is, did you ever have that feeling that you left something unfinished?"
That feeling had been with Mink for 52 years, ever since he was booted out of Lees Junior College in Jackson, Ky., after his freshman season. Seems some prankster had soaped up the coach's office furniture and put shaving cream in his shoes. The coach and the school president believed that Mink was the culprit, an accusation he denies to this day. "It was a crock," he says. "I wasn't above pulling a joke, but they had the wrong man on that one."
After being expelled, Mink dropped his dream of playing at a four-year school. He did a hitch in the Air Force, spent 38 years as a newspaper reporter and editor in Kentucky 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 right collarbone diving for a loose ball as a teenager, he kept playing lefthanded and never missed a day on the courts. Fast-forward to a year ago, when Mink was shooting baskets on the driveway hoop at his home in Knoxville. Always deadly from long range, he made 20 jumpers in a row from three-point distance and started thinking crazy thoughts.
"I've still got it," he told his wife of 10 years, Amelia.
"Still got what?" she said.
Still got game, Mink might have said, if he had been about 50 years younger and 50 times hipper. He also had that half-century-old itch left unscratched, that sophomore season that he still had coming to him. So he sent e-mails to the coaches at eight nearby small colleges, and about two weeks later he received his one and only reply, from Randy Nesbit at Roane State. "I'm the kind of guy who cries at movies real easy," Nesbit says. "His story just kind of got to me. I figured, why not?"
Although Mink has kept himself in good shape, at six feet and 192 pounds he's a guy with wispy white hair who sprints about as fast as his teammates jog, whose game is not only below the rim, it's below the net. He often skips the most strenuous conditioning drills, and on defense he's pretty much incapable of keeping anyone from driving past him. As the 12th man he plays only in blowouts, of which there had been two at week's end, and he has scored two points, which came when he pump-faked a whippersnapper into the air, deftly drew the foul and dropped in both free throws. The fans in attendance celebrated as if Roane State had just reached the Final Four. No wonder the screenwriters keep calling. This is Rudy meets The Bucket List. (Mink won't sign any deals until after the season because he doesn't want to jeopardize his eligibility.)
Mink's teammates love him like a grandpa. They teach him hoop slang—who knew dish the rock meant pass the basketball?—while he teaches them history on bus trips. A game against Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., prompted an informal lesson on the Scopes Monkey Trial held there 83 years ago. But Mink doesn't have to say a word to enlighten the Raiders about other things, such as seeking new challenges, testing the limits of their abilities and finding as much satisfaction in the effort as in the result.
The only item left on Mink's quest for basketball closure is to do a little detective work and get to the bottom of the shaving-cream incident. He has no illusions about extending his career beyond this season, though when he read a suggestion on a North Carolina message board that the Tar Heels should offer him a scholarship, he couldn't resist replying. "Don't bother," Mink wrote. "I'm going pro."