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Ken Mink plays college basketball ... at age 73

The community college player from Knoxville, Tenn., defies stereotypes to become what may be the oldest college shooting guard in the world.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent / November 19, 2008

Breaking barriers: Ken Mink, who plays for Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., relaxes at his home in Knoxville.

Carmen K. Sisson

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Knoxville, Tenn.

The gray Cape Cod is easy to overlook on this quiet street in Knoxville, Tenn. No team pennants hang in the windows, no collegiate flags wave in the breeze. The parlor is surprisingly devoid of sports paraphernalia as well.

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Paintings adorn the walls, and an eclectic mixture of books lines the bookshelves. There’s a mounted bass above the fireplace, and a cowhide rug covers the floor. If you ask, Ken Mink will show you the modest display of basketball medals he’s received. Otherwise, he won’t mention them at all.

This isn’t your typical college athlete’s home, but then, Mr. Mink isn’t your average basketball player. He’s climbed the Matterhorn. Parasailed over the Caribbean. Water-skied in Jamaica. And this fall, at age 73, he became what may be the world’s oldest college basketball player, joining Roane State Community College as a shooting guard and shattering stereotypes in a sport where youth is everything and players over the age of 25 are anomalies.

But Mink’s not looking to break records. He says he’s seeking redemption, attempting to fulfill a dream he’d abandoned and forgive a betrayal he can’t forget.

He left college in 1956 believing he’d never touch sneakers to hardwood again. Now he’s running suicide sprints, practicing free throws, lifting weights, and trading passes with players half a century younger.

Last fall, joining a college basketball team at his age seemed as likely as lapping Michael Phelps in the pool. He’d considered returning to school in his 20s, but by then he had a family. He played ball with his three children, but as the years passed, he thought less and less about joining a team again.

While shooting hoops in his neighbor’s driveway not long ago, though, he noticed something remarkable – he was nailing every shot.

“He said, ‘I’ve still got it!” his wife, Emilia, recalls. “And I said, ‘Got what?’ I didn’t take him that seriously, but then a week later, he told me he’d contacted all these colleges.”

Mink wrote to eight schools, knowing it was the longest shot he’d ever taken. Weeks passed. No one replied, not even to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then coach Randy Nesbit called from a small college in Harriman, Tenn., 35 miles away. Mr. Nesbit was willing to give Mink a chance. Most of all, Nesbit was intrigued: He wanted to know if Mink was serious.

“I reply to everybody, whether they’re 8 or 73,” he says. “I didn’t 100 percent believe it was real.”

It was one thing to play ball in your driveway, but Mink hadn’t undergone any sort of formal conditioning, nor played competitive ball, since the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

There was no way he could match the speed and intensity of the 19-year-olds he’d be playing against, but years of swimming, golf, tennis, skiing, and other activities had kept him at an enviable fitness level. More than that, he had what every athlete needs – a little talent, a strong dose of moxie, and a whole lot of heart.

The season was already under way, but Mink didn’t waste time. He sat in on practices and got to know his future teammates. He trained at his church gym and joined a senior basketball league, the Smoky Mountain Papas.

“The first game, I scored one basket,” he says. “I was so sore I could hardly stand up. When I got home, I thought, ‘Well, my basketball career is over.’ ”

Still, he ignored the naysayers and pressed forward. “I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone except myself,” Mink says. “I wanted to replicate a dream that got interrupted.”

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