Kevin Lynch (right) with 89-90 teammates Melvin Newbern (front) and Connell Lewis.
Earlier this season, I started a blog series highlighting different former Gophers, looking back at their careers here and catching up with what they’ve been doing since then.
The latest victim, Kevin Lynch, has not stayed out of the local spotlight, now broadcasting for the Minnesota Timberwolves and making occasionally appearances over at the Barn. But the Minnesota-native – who lives in Eden Prairie now --has a lot of history in the state, from his high school years at Bloomington Jefferson, to his Gopher years, and a wealth of experience elsewhere, playing for the Charlotte Hornets for two seasons and then heading overseas to Spain and Germany. I enjoyed chatting with him about all of it.
So Kevin, you’ve said you still play over at Lifetime Fitness – play with any former or current players? I still play pickup basketball two, three times a week and try to keep my gut small and keep running around and try to be somewhat healthy … The guys I play with, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I don’t really care about I don’t want to play with former gopher players or former NBA players or current. I don’t really do that anymore. And that’s kind of been an issue I have with pickup basketball. You have too many guys that ... act like they’re still playing for money, it’s too big of a deal, there’s too much trash-talking and fighting. And then I come out there and they know I used to play in the NBA and they want to prove something to me and I’m 42 years old and I’m like, ‘I’m too old for this.’ I do this for the exercise, I don’t do this to exercise my manhood, like a lot of these young guys do. I just want to run around and break a sweat and have some fun with some guys. We’re just all respectful of each other. I don’t play a lot of pickup basketball now with younger guys, I kind of play with guys my age or older and it’s just more fun.
Totally get that. When you were coming out of high school, did the ‘U’ just seem the natural place to play? Why did you end up choosing it?
There are a few reasons. At the time, the program had kind of been dragged through the mud a little bit. Back in 1986 there was the big rape scandal; that was right when I was in high school. And it just seems like this program, every 15 years goes through some big scandal, there’s just been three big scandals in the last 30, 40 years it seems like. Anyway, so at that time, when I was in high school, the program was kind of dealing with that, the coach quit and a bunch of players were kicked off the team and there was a bunch of stuff going on and it wasn’t in a very good position. And then they hired Clem Haskins and I was a part of Clem’s first real recruiting class. I was just really impressed by Clem, and he basically kind of sold me on [the idea of] ‘Hey as a freshman, you’re going to get the chance to play a lot at a Big Ten school,’ and it was a good school. Initially as a high school kid I kind of thought it might be best if I leave the state, go somewhere else and kind of expand my world a little bit but Clem kind of sold me on the U. My parents kind of thought that the U might be a good option, so I kind of listened to them too, and playing close to home, that was another thing that turned out to be a pretty good idea. So it all turned out pretty well and I can’t complain.
Considering your relationship with Clem, years later when you heard about the academic fraud scandal, did that shock you? Was I shocked? I was shocked. I wasn’t a part of all that, and all that stuff happened after I was gone. Stuff like that happened probably in a lot of places. Yes, I was probably, on some level [thinking] “things are happening.” Now, I wasn’t a part of it. If you don’t believe me, just look at my transcripts and I’ll show you my grades (laughs). I feel bad for Clem. I respected Clem a lot. It’s too bad all that stuff happened. I feel bad for him because I did respect him a lot and I think he was a good coach … as far as all that stuff, it’s too bad it happened, but that’s the way it goes and I think it does happen more often than what people end up knowing.
Your teams, of course, had some great years. Any favorite memories from ‘89 and ‘90? We beat Iowa and they were maybe ranked fifth, they had a top-ten ranking. My sophomore year was the year where we really started to play well and kind of bring it all together and we played Iowa at home in early January and we beat them at the last second and we had a great celebration in the locker room, because we were a pretty young team at that time, most of us were sophomores and juniors, and we had just had so little success. We lost – I don’t even know – my freshman year at the U, we had lost 20-some Big Ten games in a row. And we were a really bad team but we were really young, there was some talent there, we just couldn’t put it together. And my sophomore year, it’s like a switch was turned on and we just became a good team. We beat Iowa and we just pulled off a last-second tip-in and we all went down the floor into the locker room after the game and we were all jumping up and down celebrating and someone had the TV on and our coach, Clem, was getting interviewed up on the floor and so we’re all celebrating this big win in Williams Arena. Someone said Hey, coach is on TV, so we all stopped and watched the interview, and then when the interview was over, we knew just within seconds, 30 seconds he’d be walking in the door to come talk to us. So we all hustled over to the door coming in from the hallway and we all kind of hunched down waiting for him. He came walking in and we just mobbed him. It was such a great team moment of celebration and I swear, things just turned around after that game and after that little celebration and then we beat Illinois, who was ranked No. 1 two weeks later at Williams Arena and it was weird the way things just turned and we became a good team. And next thing you know we’re in the tournament at the end of the season and the next thing you know we’re playing Duke in the Sweet Sixteen and then we just rode that momentum all through the following season, too, when we were juniors and seniors.
That camaraderie you get in situations like that, years like that, is that the stuff you miss most? I can look back on my years at Minnesota and you can think of individual success, or certain games when I had a ton of points or certain plays like a dunk, certain things that can get you excited, but none of that comes even close to what you feel with these guys that you went to battle with every game and every practice and they’re like your brothers. That’s your most special time.
The game we lost my junior year, when we lost in the Elite Eight against Georgia Tech, I’ve never been in a locker room that was more sad and depressing after we lost that tough game. We got jobbed. They had a couple of ACC refs doing that game and they shot like 35 free throws and we shot like 12. We were up 12 at the end of the first half, I was on the bench at the time and I was thinking to myself, we’re going to the Final Four. And we did, we kind of got hosed. But after that game, we’re in the locker room and you had teammates crying, you’re just completely heartbroken. Everybody poured their souls into this team and into the effort. But it’s stuff like that that makes it special when you look back.
How different is that part of it in the NBA? It’s so different. In the NBA, you show up and you put forth an effort and you play hard and you try to help the team. You show up for your job, you punch the clock, you try to do well for yourself, which hopefully helps the team effort and then you go home.
When I played for Charlotte, nobody was really that close. In college, you’re just close. You do everything together as a team. In the NBA it’s just the opposite: just do your best when you’re together. After that, everybody goes 12 different ways. That was my NBA experience. It was so different.
Did you enjoy your time there? Yes and no. I did because I had an opportunity to live my dream. As a little kid I wanted to play in the NBA, that was my goal and I was living it, so that was great. But at the same time, it was a disappointment too, because of the lack of camaraderie as a team. It’s such a business, it’s all about money. I was disappointed at my NBA experience because all the other off-the-court stuff and all the politics of playing time and contracts and coaches, dealing with them. ... It didn’t live up to what I was hoping it was going to be.
Why did you go overseas? I had an opportunity to go to Spain which was one of the top leagues in Europe. And in going over to Europe I found kind of that team feel that you didn’t get in the NBA but that I experienced in high school and college, was there. It was much more of a college type of atmosphere and I really enjoyed that and I had success over there.
Why do you think that is, that you get that atmosphere there and not in the NBA? You’re not dealing with the gigantic NBA contracts, I think that’s a big reason why. Egos and guys have their posses and they kind of insulate themselves from people just because of the money that they make. You can make good money in Europe, but I don’t know why it’s like that. Just the schedule too, we played twice a day in Europe and we played twice a day and that never happened really, when I was playing in college or the NBA. So you’re just together a lot. You show up and workout in the morning and then you come back and practice later in the day and that was pretty typical. The egos weren’t quite as big of a factor in Europe and everybody for the most part, I got along with all my teammates really well, whereas in the NBA, you just weren’t close a lot of times.
What were the other big differences in playing overseas? You’ve got the cultural part to it. And another thing I enjoyed about Europe is was I was a history major and my focus in college was modern European history so being in Spain and in Germany and then traveling around to other countries while I was over there was awesome. You can read about the roman Coliseum in a book or something or watch a video on it and that’s great but when you can actually stand inside it and actually be there and touch it, that’s amazing. When I was playing in Germany, we had a game in Tel Aviv, Israel, so we were there for a couple of days and I went to Jerusalem and to actually walk around a historical place like Jerusalem is pretty amazing. So I got a kick out of that, just being around all the history and the culture, that was a lot of fun for me.
Did you go straight into broadcasting after you retired from playing? I came back home in 2000. I had about a year to go to finish at the U with a history degree, so 2000 and 2001, I was back in school just finishing up my degree, and then in 2001, Ray Christensen who did Gopher basketball on the radio retired after about 45 or 50 years and so then I talked to WCCO and I got that job. And broadcasting had been something I’d actually thought a lot about back when I was in college and then once I got into playing professionally, everything sort of got pushed to the back burner. So it was something I’d thought about before and then that job just happened to open up. And I did seven years of Gopher basketball.
Do you follow the current team pretty well? I’m a big fan of Gopher basketball and a big fan of Tubby, and a lot of these guys on the team are Minnesota kids and I used to broadcast the state high school league state tournaments on TV so I saw a lot of these kids play in high school: Rodney Williams, (Trevor) Mbakwe, Joe Coleman, Chris Halvorsen, all those Minnesota kids that played in the state tournament. I saw most of them. Like I said, I’m a big high school sports fan, so it’s been fun to watch the development of this team from high school to college.
(Elliott) Elliason, when I first saw him in the summer, a couple of summers ago, I saw him run and I just thought I wasn’t sure if he was ever going to be able to play in the Big Ten. The way I evaluate players, especially big guys, I watch them run. And if they run smoothly, they’re probably a pretty good athlete. But he just stumbled around, kind of uncoordinated and weak and I just didn’t know if he was going to fit into this. I have to admit, I wasn’t very impressed with him. But I saw him at the Virginia Tech game and the kid has got some limitations, but he’s got a little fire to him, you know? He’s out there yapping at the refs and Clem used to call guys dead heads. He’s say some guys have no playing personality, they just are out there, they don’t say anything, they don’t show any energy or any life and a lot of big guys are like that. They’re just kind of mellow, kind of dead heads. And he seems like to me – he’s talking to the refs, he’s animated, he’s got a little playing personality – and for a big 7-foor guy like that, that will take you a long way.
For a big guy, it’s different from a 6-foot point guard to a 7-foot center. Point guards, you have to do everything but big guys, if you just play with energy, block some shots, take up some space, get some garbage points, get your eight points, seven boards and two blocks, that’s a good night’s work for a kid like that I think.