The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day to fast, in a futile effort to spur intestinal recovery. It's a day of college football. And for the insane, a day to shop. In the past it was also always the night of the Alumni Basketball Game at Worthington Community College, now awkwardly named Minnesota West Community and Technical College or, simply, Minnesota West.
I played in the alumni game twice as a player for WCC, and then three or four times as an alum. We always held the game the day after Thanksgiving. Traditionally it was sort of the tipoff to the season. Today, by the Friday after Turkey Day, both the men's and women's teams have played five or six games. And the school dropped the alumni game several seasons ago, a few years after the ultimate nightmare happened: a former player, now out of shape but still overly competitive, barreled into one of the real players, hurting the kid's leg and costing him several games. And I suppose you can only watch out-of-shape and over-the-hill players compete for so long before it gets to be a bit much.
Still, it was always a fun game to play in, whether as a current player or former one. If the alumni team somehow managed to defeat the current incarnation, it was always a sign that the season would be a struggle. Because if the team couldn't knock off a bunch of former players, how were they going to do against current college players? Many of the alumni who returned were still young guys who just recently left the program, but the highlight was when some of the older players reappeared, guys who made their mark a decade earlier. Though occasionally bulkier and always slower, the best players from the past rarely lost much when they returned, retaining their deadly shooting eyes or low-post moves.
As a kid, one of the more memorable alumni games occurred in 1984. It had nothing to do with the games themselves. But that night, Doug Flutie completed one of the most famous passes in college football history, connecting on a Hail Mary on the final play of the game to lift Boston College over Miami, 47-45. We didn't believe it. And, listening to this, neither did Brent Musburger.
I watched it at my grandpa's farm, then rode to Worthington for the alumni game with my uncle Jerry. The alumni games were always a special night in our family and not simply because of my two-year stint with the Jays. My uncle Mike Fury has coached the women's team for 29 years. He just won his 350th game. So we went to the games when I grew up to watch uncle Mike's teams play. In addition, seemingly every member on my dad's side of the family went to the school, including my grandpa, making the school more than a two-and-done place for us. My cousins Gretchen and Sara Jo both played there as well.
Following the games, the former players gathered with family, friends and coaches for a night of drinking and reminiscing, though there was probably more of the former than the latter.
Players returned for the memories, not the basketball. The game gave them a chance to reconnect with old teammates and coaches. The numbers on the scoreboard didn't matter, only the number of people who came back to their old school.
Community college basketball has always been way below the radar of the college hoops world. Division I, Division II and Division III basketball receives the most attention, from fans and the media. But community college ball often offers high-caliber play. Depending on the school and the level of play, fans can also get the chance to see guys who one day will be the ones starring at those higher levels.
For the record, we won the alumni game the two years I was a player at WCC. Might have won one game as an alum (and the team did struggle that year). I couldn't have asked for a more enjoyable two years of basketball. It gave me a chance to extend my career a couple of more seasons, I had a great group of teammates, and a great coach in a guy named Mike Augustine, a Denver guy who favors the Pittsburgh Steelers but found a home on the Minnesota prairie. My sophomore season, we set a school record for most points per game, averaging just under 90 a game, a mark that still stands. We set the school record for points with either 124 or 125. In another game, we scored 120. Our team had firepower throughout the lineup, fully capable of scoring inside and outside.
Defense? Yeah, we sometimes struggled defensively, perhaps believing that the best defense was a great offense. And often it was. We lost one game on a halfcourt shot by a man named Fritz. Late in the season, needing just one win to qualify for the state tournament, we lost on the road to a team we'd crushed twice earlier in the year. A game later, we lost to a team we'd previously defeated by 20.
But in the end, as disappointing as it was to not make the state tournament, the memories from those two seasons and that final year in particular stand out.
Some of those memories are classic "juco basketball" memories. Such as the game that was interrupted by a chair thrown onto the court. An opposing player tossed it in his best Bobby Knight impression. Disgruntled with his head coach, the head case of a player took out his frustrations on his padded seat.
This would seem like an obvious technical foul, because even if the player wasn't upset with the reffing, the fact remained: HE THREW A CHAIR ONTO THE COURT. No technical. As way of explanation, the ref wandered over and told Augie, "I'm not calling a technical, because I think his coach will punish him enough." We lost the game in the final minute, one of those two late losses that cost us a trip to state. All because a ref relied on a coach to discipline a chair-thrower. Like I said, it was one of those classic community college basketball moments.
Another game that year, the bus broke down outside a Hardee's on our way to Minneapolis. The women's basketball team from Macalester picked us up in their bus as we hitchhiked to the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, I forgot my bag on the broken-down van, requiring me to borrow the basketball shoes of our assistant coach. A noble and generous gesture, but the guy's feet were two sizes smaller than mine. It's a wonder I didn't develop the feet of Bill Walton following that game.
All of those games remain vivid in my mind. There are no more alumni games at WCC - or Minnesota West. No more chances to test the hamstrings against the newest group of Bluejays. No chance to test the kidneys following the game. No alumni game on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but plenty of memories.