It’s déjà vu all over again for Ken Mink. Fifty-three years after he was kicked out of basketball and college for something he said he didn’t do, the 73-year-old’s return to the hard court has again been put on hold.
On Thursday, TODAY profiled Mink, who last year because the oldest person ever to play college basketball. One day later, the news broke that Mink has been ruled academically ineligible to play for the Roane State (Tenn.) Junior College Raiders. As in 1956, he said, it’s all a misunderstanding.
Mink called the ruling “a total miscarriage of justice … It's a nightmare. It’s déjà vu 1953. My wife said, ‘Ken, are you cursed or what?’”
According to NBC affiliate WBIR in Knoxville, Tenn., Mink needed to take a minimum of 12 hours of coursework to remain eligible to play. He took the minimum, but when it appeared that he might not pass a Spanish course, his coach, Randy Nesbit, told him to take another course so he would be sure of having the necessary credit hours. Mink signed up for an online course whose credits were supposed to transfer directly to Roane. But his grade, which was earned in December, wasn’t posted until January. The National Junior College Athletic Association said that made Mink ineligible. The NJCAA also told Roane it had to forfeit a victory in a game in which Mink played.
The Roane college president and athletic director agree and have appealed the ruling. With luck, Mink hopes to have his eligibility restored in time for the team’s final game on Wednesday, Feb. 25.
"The college president agreed. They appealed [Thursday]," Mink said. "What’s bad about it is it’s so blatantly wrong, is that it’s terrible. Guys on the team are devastated, fans are devastated."
Mink became a national story last year when he decided to try to resume his college basketball career 52 years after it was cut short. By any stretch of reason, Mink’s dream should have been deader than disco. He was 73 years old and he wanted to finish a college basketball career that had been cut short 52 years earlier. But he could still shoot the ball, could still dribble, could even throw a behind-the-back pass. All he needed was a coach willing to take a chance on him.
In a report by NBC’s Peter Alexander that aired on TODAY Thursday, the oldest man ever to play college basketball told how it all began with a session shooting hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. Mink hit his first shot and his second and 19 out of 20.
“I thought, ‘You know, I really could still play,’ ” Mink told Alexander.
Thanks to Nesbit, a junior college coach who believes in giving people chances, Mink got a shot with the Roane Junior College Raiders basketball team. He’s 35 years older than the college he attends, older than his teachers and the college president, old enough to be his teammates’ grandfather. He is, in fact, the oldest man ever to play college basketball.
A career cut short
His story goes back to 1955, when Mink graduated high school and was awarded a scholarship to play basketball at Lees Junior College in Kentucky. During that season, he figures he averaged around 13-14 points a game. He once scored 21 in a game.
But his career lasted just one season. In 1956, somebody sprayed shaving cream all over the coach’s office.
Lees was a religious school that had a low tolerance for misbehavior. The college president called Mink into his office.
“He said, ‘Why did you soap the coach's office?’ ” Mink told Alexander. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he says, ‘You took shaving cream. You sprayed it in the coach's shoes, on the walls.’ ”
The road not taken
With no other options, Mink joined the Air Force, got married, raised a family and got a job as a newspaperman, eventually becoming the managing editor of a newspaper in Virginia. He’s semiretired now, serving as the editor of an online travel magazine and pursuing an active lifestyle that includes golfing, skiing and even hang gliding.
But none of the many sports he pursued could heal the wound he had experienced 52 years earlier.
“I knew that I had been cheated out of a year of basketball,” Mink told Alexander. “And that's frustrated me my whole life. I needed some redemption here. I gotta end that nightmare that's been haunting me for 50-some years.”
So last summer, Mink set out to sell himself. It wasn’t your ordinary pitch for a spot on a college basketball team. There were no game tapes full of highlights, no talk about how high the would-be player could jump. It was just an e-mail asking coaches if they might have a spot on their roster for a kid who was a pretty good player — back in 1956.
Mink sent the e-mail to eight junior colleges within driving distance of his Knoxville, Tenn., home. Amazingly, Randy Nesbit, the coach of Roane State Community College, was intrigued and decided to give Mink a shot.
And so, at the tender age of 73, Ken Mink laced up his sneakers and took to the court with kids who could be his grandchildren.
Coach Nesbit said it wasn’t hard to give Mink a try. “I thought this was a great story,” he told Alexander, adding that his first concern was whether Mink was physically capable of playing. “I had to definitely see if he could run up and down the court, make sure we had a uniform that could fit him.”
Mink, who worked out hard during the summer to get in shape, admitted the first practices were grueling. “There were times when I started to get out of the truck and it's like my body's not ready to move yet. Like — OK, gonna sit here for a minute,” he said with a laugh.
“I thought maybe he would become sort of haggard and worn over the course of the season,” Nesbit said. “But actually, it's gone the other way. He really looks a lot better than he did when we started.”
His teammates were skeptical, but they’ve come to embrace the septuagenarian they call “Mr. Ken.”
“It's like Norm walking into Cheers, every day,” Nesbit said in describing Mink’s status on the team. “The camaraderie is great.”
Incredible shrinking man?
Granted, Mink doesn’t get a lot of court time. He’s the guy at the end of the bench who comes in only when the score is so lopsided nothing anyone does can change the outcome. But last fall, in his first game appearance, he got hammered while taking a shot. He shook off the hard foul, walked to the free-throw line and calmly swished both shots. He was swarmed by teammates when he came off the court.
Alexander asked Mink to describe what he felt.
“OK, my dream's coming true,” he said. “And all the fans are going crazy.”
It’s not only the fans. Mink is writing a book about his experience, and he’s had several feelers from Hollywood. He even had an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show.
“You're still growing. I can tell,” Conan told Mink, who used to be 6-foot-2 and is now an even 6 feet.
“No, I’m shrinking, actually,” Mink said.
“You're literally shrinking?” Conan asked. “All over?”
“I can't say all over,” Mink replied as Conan and the audience collapsed in laughter.