Aging athletes share a well-known, though little-studied, biological and mental phenomenon. The basics are quite simple: The older one is, the better one believes one was. I know because my colleague, Dr. Greg Robinson-Riegler of the Psychology Department, who is an expert on memory and its functions, studies this. I also know because I continue to experience the phenomenon myself. Thus, it’s my duty to warn you, readers, that this article is based almost entirely on said phenomenon. Verbum sap sat – a word to the wise.
As far as any of us can remember, the Noontime Basketball Association (henceforth, the NBA) began in 1990. We’re not sure when exactly. In fact, I have serious reservations about the year because it comes from a source who was, according to medical experts, quite literally dead after going into cardiac arrest in the fall of 2008. Agapitos Papagapitos (economics) – or “AP” as he is better known – cannot recall a single thing from his time on the other side of the great divide: no light, no tunnel, no voices, no virgins, no God. Miraculously, however, he recalls the origins of the NBA from the mists of his memory.
According to another, more reliable source, Dave West (graduate software), the NBA was the brainchild of Rick Haught, former director of student activities, who initiated play along with Steve Miller, Mitch Olson and Charlie Wifler in the spring of 1990. I also know with absolute certainty that I joined the NBA in the fall of 1990. It was my first semester at St. Thomas, and I was trying to figure out what buildings my classes were in when I stumbled upon Schoenecker Arena around the lunch hour. A group of older gentlemen – clearly not students – were playing basketball. They asked who I was and whether I wanted to play. I told them I was a new hire in the Philosophy Department, and they invited me to join them Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon.
And so the legend began.
Over the course of the next 20 years, our group has hooped it up in every gym on campus. We played in Schoenecker Arena, the Coughlan Field House, the musty third-floor gym in old O’Shaughnessy Hall, affectionately known as the “Sweat Box,” and most recently in McCarthy Gymnasium. We’ve played cutthroat, 2-on-2, 3-on-3, 4-on-4 and 5-on-5. Sometimes we’ve even played 3-on-4 or 4-on-5 – just so everyone has a chance to play and no one has to sit.
We’ve played with the 3-point line and even had a 4-point shot from the side court foul line and the NCAA logo near half court. Some members of the NBA have played in almost every annual St. Thomas 3-on-3 tournament, and a few of us have played at the Target Center against 3-on-3 winners from St. Ben’s. By my admittedly conservative calculations, we’ve played somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 games of basketball in the last 20 years. I have no idea how many shots we’ve missed during that time – but “a lot” is definitely a colossal underestimate.
It is neither easy nor possible to remember all the names of the faculty, staff, students, alums and assorted friends and family members who have played in the NBA over the last 20 years. In addition to those already mentioned, the more memorable players include Nate Krekula (Air Force ROTC), Mark Pizzato (theater), Aju Fenn (economics), Dave Jones (English), Dave Dorman, Chris Gargaro, Ken Frank (application support), Bill Jahner, Brad Stewart (sociology), “Happy” John Wadie, Mark Neuzil (Communication and Journalism), David Landry (theology), Mike Degnan (philosophy), Sam Hawala (Opus College of Business – OCB), Paul Wojda (theology), Todd Empanger (food service), Cole Tallman (volleyball coach), Thanh Pham (volleyball coach), Mathews Grant (philosophy), CJ Lindor ’05, Kyle ’09 and Mike Wifler, Blake Bergeson, Patrick Kunkel, Pete and John Laumakis and Aaron McCauley – who used his NBA experience to become a mixed martial arts fighter.
Players have come and gone. Some to heaven, we hope. But somehow, miraculously, the core group – some of whom go all the way back to the early 1990s – is still playing, still missing shots, still fouling each other, still disputing calls and still talking trash. The current core includes Dave “Soup” Campbell ’00, Rick “The Hack” Kunkel (OCB), “Lawyer” Jeff Johnson, “Big” Jeff Bergeson, Bernie “I now have a left hand” Brady (theology), John “I used to be a star” Olson (OCB), Eric “I do not palm the ball” Johnson, Drew “I played at Hamline” Sosinski (client services), Jessica “I still don’t know why I play with you guys” Toft (social work), Le “I finally graduated and got married” Sarin ’05, Michael “I’m en fuego” Scham (modern and classical languages), Agapitos “I’m not dead yet” Papagapitos, John “I’m really on the faculty” Wentz (engineering), Bob “I love the Lakers” Herbers, Dennis “I’m working right now” Hollie (physical plant), Charlie “Whiff” Wifler and me. Tommy Becker, Matt Joshi, Peter Bussa, Peter Leslie and Carolyn Dienhart are among the current students brave enough to play with the “old folks.”
What is particularly noteworthy about the group as a whole, in addition to its surprising longevity, is the fact that during the course of the last 20 years, some NBA players remarkably and miraculously not only have earned tenure and promotions to associate and full professor, but also actually made some significant contributions to the university beyond the basketball court.
For example, our roster includes four Professors of the Year (Brady, Degnan, Landry and AP), a Distinguished Educator Award winner (Kunkel), two chairs of the Faculty Senate (Kunkel and AP), four directors of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program (AP, Brady, Landry and Laumakis), multiple department chairs (AP, Kunkel, Brady, Neuzil and Olson) and even an associate dean (Stewart). To the best of my knowledge, President Barack Obama never played with us – though we’d be happy to have him if he’s ever in Minnesota and looking for a game.
We’ve had our share of weddings and children, and unfortunately, we’ve also had our share of sadness too. In addition to the loss of family members, we have had three guys die – Steve Miller ’03, AP (but he managed to come back!) and Charlie Wifler (God bless him! He continued to play while battling cancer and passed away on Oct. 10, 2010). Some jobs have been lost, some marriages have ended and some guys have moved away. Inexplicably, no one has won the lottery yet!
The Plays and the Trash Talk
It goes without saying that this broad but shallow pool of basketball talent also has managed to produce some rather memorable plays – and some unforgettable verbal taunts.
Rick “The Hack” Kunkel once tackled a guy on a fast break lay-up at game point. As a result, we instituted the “Kunkel Rule” – you get the bucket and the ball for a foul on an uncontested lay-up. Not surprisingly, “Lawyer” Jeff Johnson first instituted the phantom time-out call (we do not use a clock – so there is no reason to call time out). He also invented the “scared” call, for use when he is in imminent physical danger (which happens to be almost all the time he is playing) and the “I just lost a contact lens” call for when he gets tired and is being covered by a new guy with lots of energy. We have had a few athletic students dunk during the course of a game, but to my knowledge not one of the regulars has ever managed to get close to the rim (without a ladder) – unless you count the time Mitch Olson blew out his knee while trying to dunk the ball in between games.
As you can imagine, in the course of 20 years we have managed to break numerous hands, ankles, noses and fingers. We have torn tendons and ligaments, and pulled more muscles than it is possible to count. We also have sprained just about every body part known to the medical community. No one has lost any teeth – at least not from physical contact during the game – but nasty bruises are a dime a dozen.
Perhaps the most enjoyable and funny part of playing with roughly the same group of guys for so long is the spur of the moment trash talking. We’ve heard great lines like these:
“How’s that, pretty boy?”
“Let that be a lesson to you!”
“I used you like a rented mule!”
“Call the Vatican, that was a miracle!”
“I must be the bus driver, because I’m taking you to school.”
“School’s in session, fellows.”
“You have something orange in your teeth.”
“What did we learn today?”
“Is that all you got?”
Two of my all-time favorites lines came from Mike Degnan when he said, “I’m el fuego (instead of en fuego).” And after a whirling-dervish-like pivot move he asked, “Oh, where am I?” In all my 40-plus years of playing basketball I have never heard anyone ask where they were in the course of a game of basketball – football, yes, but never on the court. I laughed so hard I cried!
No story about the NBA (in a university magazine) would be complete without at least some practical advice and words of wisdom – all learned and forged in the heat of battle. Below, in no particular order, other than how they were remembered, are some of the lessons we have learned:
• “Starting at noon” means starting at any time up to 12:45 p.m.It’s never too late to show up, because someone is alwaysbound to get tired or hurt.
• No matter how many times you unlock a combination lock, atsome point you will not be able to remember the numbers.
• The showers in old O’Shaughnessy Hall were part of a BiologyDepartment experiment. On the coldest day of winter, there willnot be any hot water in the shower.
• The training office always has ice.
• Mouthpieces are not required, but strongly recommended.Kevlar is even better!
• Noontime basketball is a contact sport.
• There is no law of physics or basketball coaching that we have not violated– repeatedly.
• If you take the ball to the hoop, you have assumed the medical risk –and you better have insurance.
• Student players tend to be faster, stronger and able to jump higherthan faculty and staff players. Faculty and staff players are smarterand better looking.
• If you’re not going to come back and play defense, feel free to yell“Send it!” from the other end of the floor.
• Every rule has at least three interpretations: a right one, a wrong oneand what I say.
• It’s always winners’ ball!
• The best defense is to let the offense self-destruct.
• No matter how ugly a shot looks, it still has a chance to go in.
• The uglier the shot, the greater the chance it will go in.
• Despite what most players think, the square above the rim is not theultimate target.
• Even the easiest shot can be missed at any time.
• The more wide open a shooter is, the less likely he is to make theshot.
• “Shoot it!” and “Make it!” are different commands.
• If Tommy Becker is taking the ball to the rim, get out of his way.
• You must win by two.
• On game point everything is contested – including one’s birth status.
• No matter how many points you are down, it is always possible tocome back.
• No matter who is keeping score, there’s at least one person with adifferent score.
• No matter how many games you’ve lost, it’s only the last game that matters.
• No one likes to lose the last game on Friday.
• Darwin was wrong. Sometimes the slowest and least-talented survive.
• Newton was wrong. Bodies at rest tend to get run over.
• Economists are wrong. Supply and demand does not exist on thebasketball court: Everyone wants the ball, and no one will give it up.
• Physicists are right. Some players are black holes: The ball goes in,and it never comes out!
• Aristotle said virtue stands in the mean. For some NBA players thatmeans standing in the lane all day.
• Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth. With our players, themeek stay at the 3-point line.
Other Profound Observations
• On any given day, at least one player will have a career game.
• The NBA is just like the real NBA – except for the money, talent, endorsements and criminals.
• Michael Scham has the worst socks in the universe.
• “What did we learn today?” is not a rhetorical question among the faculty players.
• “Who’s your daddy?” is, however, asked rhetorically.
• Given the talent of the ladies who have played with us, “Playing like a girl” is a true compliment.
• The older the player, the stronger his conviction that he’s right – about everything.
• You’re only as good as you think you are – minus a small fudge factor for age.
As I said at the beginning of this article, aging athletes have a tendency, in the immortal words of former President Bush, to “misunderestimate” both their abilities and their shortcomings. Still, I wouldn’t trade any of my NBA hoops memories – whether real or imagined. They might not be accurate, but they’re all I have – along with the unshakeable belief that I might play better next time. That’s more than enough to keep me coming back for the next 20 years to the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex or the “new” McCarthy Gym – I hope!
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