I originally wrote this last Thanksgiving. My fiance thought I should resurrect it for today. She is in charge of the sweet potatoes today, which includes, of course, marshmallow distribution. Needless to say, this is a small sacrifice to make, infinitely smaller than giving up marshmallows on the sweet potatoes.
Luckily, everything that I wrote about a year ago seems to have staying power. I’m still thankful for the older Gopher fans at The Barn that have paid their dues, sat through some frankly terrible teams, and didn’t and won’t give up on the team. Kevin Payton has moved on, but he was more of a symbol of everything that is great about college sports. If I was redoing the list now Damian Johnson would take his place. The senior captain has already graduated, and never seems to stop smiling.
Obviously Tubby Smith should also be added to the list. He has done nothing but show infinite class and integrity leading the team, both on and off the court, and has shown that he more interested in producing world class citizens than a world-class basketball team, and yet he still wins.
This list is just a small sample. There’s plenty more to be thankful for.
As the nation pauses for a day to remember all that we have, we as Minnesotans, students, alumni, and Gopher fans also have plenty to be thankful for. However, instead of pointing out the obvious (except one exception), I’d like to draw your attention to unsung, rarely noticed people, places, and things that make attending Gopher basketball games a true delight.
1. “Hail Minnesota” is both Minnesota’s song and the school song of the University of Minnesota. Its epic drumroll and superfluous fanfares set the mood on game day perfectly. Unfortunately, when it is played about 45 minutes before tip off there are rarely more than 100 or so people in the arena, but the 11,000-14,000 others that attend games are missing out. It is really a shame the pep-band doesn’t play it when more people are around. If have the chance, get to the game early, and listen in on this great tradition.
2. The older gentleman with the striped shirt who sits about 15 rows behind the visitor’s bench. is a treat. I don’t know his name, how old he is, where he comes from, or what he does, but to see him wave his cane at the end of the rouser, or in anger when a referee makes a particularly bad call, should show the rest of the crowd that its ok to get into the game, even if you aren’t sitting in the cheap seats.
3. The ushers in the student section have a particularly ungrateful task. Not only do they need to put up with occasionally drunk and unruly college students, but they have to do so when they would rather be watching the game mere feet from the court. Instead, of being grumpy, they take up their task with a smile, always have a kind word or smile, and on more than one occasion have demonstrated infinite patience. Next time you are a game and you see the guy who looks like Alan Alda or the two ushers that look a little too much like Statler and Waldorf, say hi and thank them, they deserve it.
4. The student section gets a lot grief, some it deserved. They aren’t as roudy as Duke, but the aren’t as vulgar as the Badgers either. For every intoxicated student chanting something that is inappropriate (or very appropriate depending on the situation) there are plenty of very passionate and knowledgeable students that have been watching Gopher basketball for years. They are proud of the tradition and want to bring it back. The Barn Yard isn’t the best in the country, but the foundation is there, and they will be back.
5. The fans in the obstructed seats know they are playing the lottery when they buy a ticket. Some of the obstructed seats require fans to turn their heads slightly to the left or right, while others require them to have a great imagination, because the large post a foot in front of them is anything but transparent. But they come anyway, and are some of the loudest and most enthusiastic people in the building.
6. Dick Jonckowski has been been the public address announcer at Williams Arena since I started attending games when I was five years old, and probably long before that. He doesn’t always get the players name’s right, has never pronounced a name of African or Eastern European origin the same way twice. He also doesn’t try to be bigger of the game, or draw unnecessary attention to himself. He is an institution much like Williams Arena, traditional, unique, endearing, and irreplaceable.
7. Kevin Payton‘s basketball career hasn’t gone has hoped. He isn’t the versatile and tall point guard that was supposed to drive teams crazy on both end of the court. Instead he has had to be content with the equivalent of Thanksgiving left overs, playing most often at meaningless times and meaningless game. However, instead of sulking, complaining, and doing more harm than good, he has found a role on the team even more valuable the role he could have on the court. He has become a leader, leading the team on to the court at the beginning of each half, leaping off the bench celebrate and encourage his teammates, and spending more time standing on the bench and leading cheer than the cheer leaders. He is the kind of player that makes college athletics special.
8: If you leave Williams Arena from the University Avenue gate, the odds are you’ll be treated to a tuba mini-parade. As the tuba players head back to wherever they keep their tubas, you’ll hear them play the sweet sounds of “Hey Baby”. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor bitterly cold temperatures that are enough to freeze lips to brass instruments keep them from playing outside after games, and the long walk back to Coffman wouldn’t be the same without them.
9. The Gophers are the only Division I team in the state. Some people think it is absolutely ridiculous that states like Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota have more than one Division I team in the state, and I agree, those states have too many. Minnesota is lucky though. There is something special that such a ethnically and geographically diverse state can all be cheering for the same team. On a January night, a Somali kid from Cedar-Riverside can have a whole lot in common with a Czech iron miner in Hibbing, a German beet farmer outside Moorehead, an Indian doctor in Rochester, a Hmong farmer outside of Marshall, and a fortune 500 CEO in downtown Minneapolis, if only for a few hours.
10. Williams Arena, The Barn, is unique in so many ways, and all too often under appreciated. Yes its old, and the pain is chipping and there is more than one rusty girder, but the elevated floor sets stage for drama, suspense, passion, and so much more. Its one of a kind, and its in our own back yard, and for that I am thankful.