Thanks, Kohawks

5 03 2010

With this being the “real” start of the college basketball season for those of us under the category of “casual fans”, I find it hard to figure that our season is already over.

Our season?

Sam and I spent many of our Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons inside the Eby Fieldhouse at Coe College this season.

And what a season it was.


A college basketball team with a 4-21 record just wants the season to end right away.

Only we really didn’t.

Sam walked away from watching this team knowing what it means to keep battling.

The Coe College men’s basketball team did something absolutely incredible this year and the players will probably never truly understand it for another decade.

These eighteen guys did their part to open the eyes of a 7-year-old to the magic and precision of being a team, especially when things don’t go right.

Sam’s journey into becoming a “Kohawk” happened in early November of last year. A few weeks before that, head coach Pat Juckem invited me to be the emcee for the program’s steak fry fundraiser to open up the season. The only real basis for Pat picking me was that a) I played ‘noonball’ at the school a few times a week and “knew my place” amid the legitimate former college basketball players and b) television news anchors can speak on any subject or any cause as long as a steak and dessert are included.

After the program, Pat pulled me aside and invited young Sam to be a ballboy for the men’s team but on one condition.

He had to show up at practice.

So, on a chilly November afternoon, right after picking up Sam from school, we drove downtown to the Coe campus. Because of his dad and his bizarre priorities, Sam dribbled the basketball along the concrete of the campus walk for about a quarter-mile, finally pulling up at Eby Fieldhouse.

Instead, the “Echoes of Juckem” filled the gym. Lots of talking, pointing, emphasizing.

“I think they’re trying to play defense,” I told Sam as he tried to process the sight of nearly twenty basketball players elbowing, pushing and defending the tar out of each other.

This went on for another fifteen minutes when Juckem finally let up. We made eye contact.

“Alright, guys! I want you to meet Sam here!”

My son tried to hide behind my legs. THAT was his introduction. I shook him like an Iverson crossover, circa 1997. Now Sam was in plain view.

“Sam is 7 but plays on a third-grade team over at Kennedy. He will be with us for the season. Welcome Sam!”

The players clapped at the introduction.

“Pretty good and amazed,” is how Sam described his first meeting with the players five months later.

* * *

Division III basketball is played in real obscurity. Basketball fans who went to gigantic schools (I graduated from Wisconsin) may not realize that most college basketball players sweat, grind, succeed and fail in front of crowds of 150 or 200. A handful of Division III colleges can draw “four figures” for most home games – Washington University and Wisconsin-Stevens Point come to mind off the top of my head – but, for the most part, it’s playing basketball in a vacuum. I wonder, especially for the student-athletes from the smaller Iowa towns – where Friday night home games are the ONLY social event in town – if the transition is jarring at first.

November 17, 2009. Mount Mercy at Coe. Nearly a full house because Mount Mercy’s campus is eleven blocks away.

“Just make sure Coach Pat gets his water six minutes into the game,” I tried to remind Sam.

“I was kind of nervous,” Sam says now. “I didn’t know the players’ names.” At this point, it was just numbers.

Sam and I had actually worked out a decent system so he could be the ballboy and waterboy. Before the game, Sam would collect up all the loose basketballs, put them in the cage at center court and push the cage behind the bleachers.

Yet, once the game started, a 7-year-old’s attention span had to get pushed into maximum overdrive.

“Got three in!” I’d yell over the crowd noise as three Kohawks would get up from the bench and go to the scorer’s table. Sam would rush over to the large orange water cylinder and make fresh cups. Time was critical. After all, we had a goal.

“They needed to get water five seconds after they sat down,” Sam reminded me. Gotta have goals in this life. Get the guys their ice cold water within five seconds of leaving the game.

You only saw the easy stuff here.

Some rules to remember: Coach Juckem was usually ready for his first cup of water of the night whenever he ditched his jacket. That was a sign.

After the first two games, Sam was getting more comfortable with the players and they with him. We even made an early-season road trip, to Cornell College, where Sam worked the game, making sure the players got their hydration on.

The season didn’t exactly go as planned, unfortunately.

You see, the 2009-10 Kohawks only had one senior, Cass Behrens, a guard Sam would often call “mean as a snake with the heart of a lion” to his face when handing him water. Freshmen, just months into their college experience, were trying to guard more mature and more experienced players.

The losses piled up. 2-5. 2-7. 2-10. We tried everything during this stretch of road losses. Sam and I would dial up websites, looking for any scores or information, only to meet the agony of defeat.

Then a funny thing happened. The defeats, often close and frustrating, only made Sam and me want the next home game to arrive even faster. I wanted to spend the season teaching my son a lesson about “sticking it out”.

The rewards – when they did come on the court – have already formed true memories. At 2-10, Coe knocked off Buena Vista at home, snapping an eight-game losing streak. It’s about 9:40 PM. It’s a school night. I even had my younger daughter, Katie, with us.

Big Dan always came over, win or lose, to thank Sam.

As we are leaving Eby Fieldhouse, satisfied with the first win we’ve witnessed in six weeks, we hear yelling coming from upstairs.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Sam motioned to follow him.

We walked into the room where the players would wolf down walking tacos, brownies and chug Gatorade bottles afterward. Because it came from the joy of a win, I told Sam to go on win.

The players yelled out, “SAM!” as he fought off his shyness and sat down next to forward Fred Rose and munched on a sandwich and cookie.

By this point, we had gotten all of the players’ names matched with the numbers. As we would read the program with each game, we also learned more about the students’ hometowns, their majors and, after a while, I’d learn about their background and what they wanted to do with their life.

More losses came. They wouldn’t let up. 3-10 turned into 3-19.

I know the frustration this brings to a basketball team. When I was sixteen, I played on a 4-20 squad. March 1 couldn’t come soon enough.

Yet with each close loss, Sam & I could see the Kohawks making progress. Sam had mastered “the game” of being a waterboy so much that he could outsource some of the duties to his little sister or even Coach Juckem’s two boys. Sam would shake the hands of the players, win or lose as they would come out of the locker room.

I can’t tell you how many times players would come up to me – after another night of disappointment in the end – and thank us. “We really appreciate you and Sam coming by tonight,” I’d hear.

Sam would nod and go back to shooting his post-game baskets on the Coe floor – the one time I would let him shoot. “Not at halftime, Sam,” I’d remind him when he would see other kids shooting baskets, “you’re on the clock, buddy.”

The final home game of the 2009-10 season ended with another tight loss to a top-team. Central College escaped with a win as Coe dropped its 20th for the year. Afterward, we went to the postgame “mess hall” so Sam could tell the players goodbye and thank you.

Chuck was always good for: WHAT'S UP, SAM!

Sam, bless his heart, resisted any major proclamations from his “vocal” father. I just let out a sincere, “thanks so much for having Sam with you.”

Amid the clapping, some yells from the players. “THANKS, SAM! SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!”, the baritone-blessed Charles Cotton barked out.

We weren’t done with Eby Fieldhouse quite yet.

The Coe women’s basketball team rode out a regular-season IIAC title to be the top-seed in the conference tournament. The Fieldhouse took on a true home-court advantage for their playoff games.

Once Sam’s third-grade team practice wrapped up, we zipped downtown to watch the first playoff game. In a sea of black t-shirts for the student section, Sam, still in his Kennedy green/white practice uniform, spotted a half-dozen of the men’s players.


For the rest of the game, Sam, normally the tallest kid in any class he walks into, stood in the bleachers next to his friends, 6’7″ Dan Borngraeber and 6’5″ Joe Parys. “I’ll just see you after the game,” I told him and sat in another part of the gym.

Sam’s final two games at the Fieldhouse this year weren’t about shucking balls and chugging water for the players. He was able to also see these players as student-athletes, role models and even friends. Not a bad deal for a 7-year-old.

Best of all, I could see my son’s attitude about winning and losing getting shaped by this experience.

Thanks, Kohawks. We’ll see you next year!




One response

5 03 2010

What a fabulous article! Might not have been the season they wanted but those players and coaches showed their class throughout. Can’t wait to see Sam on Coe’s basketball team in 2020! 🙂

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