Elite Eight team shares bond with current squad

Tim Klobuchar

Words like “we” and “our” slipped into Jim Shikenjanski’s vocabulary while talking about the Gophers basketball team, as in, “We were quite a bit better than some of the teams we played.”
It didn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary — Shikenjanski played for Minnesota from 1987 to 1990 — only he was talking about this year’s Gophers.
Until this season, the 1990 team, on which Shikenjanski was the starting center, was the Gophers team that caused the biggest stir in the Twin Cities in recent memory. Minnesota advanced to the Southeast Region Final that year, losing to Georgia Tech 93-91. It’s the deepest a Gophers team ever travelled in the NCAA tournament.
Shikenjanski’s confusion between first- and third-person pronouns was one clue how attached he still is to the program. Another is that he still makes the occasional road trip to Gophers away games. This year he drove from his Minneapolis home to Wisconsin and Iowa.
“They’re great towns to go out in,” he said.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” joked Kevin Lynch, a former teammate who is taking classes at the University after a journeyman professional career. “He’s kind of a soak.”
If Shikenjanski had a chance for a rebuttal, he might have a hard time defending his alleged libations since he also works for the Stroh’s Brewing Company.
Shikenjanski probably has the most college-like life of anyone from the 1990 squad, which might make him look even more faithful to the program than the rest of his teammates. But virtually every member of the team except for Willie Burton still lives in the metro area, and most take more than a passing interest in how the program is doing.
Former players talk regularly with Clem Haskins, who has coached Minnesota since 1986. One of the lesser-known is Connell Lewis, a reserve guard on the 1990 team. Lewis attended practice every day last season as a graduate assistant while finishing seminary school.
Since opening his non-denominational ministry in Uptown Minneapolis in January, though, Lewis hasn’t had as much time. He still goes to practice once or twice a week, often just to watch, and knows the team quite well. He gives periodic pep talks, telling players what they need to do in order to be even more successful than his team.
“I tell them they have to stay very focused,” Lewis said. “You can’t have any distractions. You can’t let off-court things drag you down. That’s the key when you don’t have the experience.”
Lewis knows what he’s talking about when he mentions lack of experience. Minnesota was horrible during his and Shikenjanski’s first two years, compiling a 4-30 record in the Big Ten, so a Sweet 16 appearance in 1989 shocked nearly everybody. A year later, the Gophers’ tournament performance after a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten provided indelible memories.
“It still seems like yesterday,” Shikenjanski said. “There was so much hype. We were the talk of the town because it was such a big deal. This is the sporting event this time of year.”
The journey of that group through the years from dejection to jubilation helped forge special bonds that remain today. Lynch, Shikenjanski, and former teammates Richard Coffey, Rob Metcalf and Bob Martin still play in rec leagues together. The close proximity of all the players to each other also allows for get-togethers once in a while.
“This became a home for us,” Lewis said. “After we grew so close, it was tough to leave.”
Lynch said he senses a similar closeness on this year’s team that was present in 1990.
“Everybody got along pretty well,” Lynch said. “I heard things after I left (in 1991) that players were a little more selfish. You’ve got to care about each other and pull for each other. That’s what I sense this year.”
As for th inevitable talent comparisons, the 1990 players mention how much tougher the Big Ten is now, but still say the Gophers have an excellent shot to go farther than they did.
That 1990 team carved a special niche in Minnesota basketball history. The 1997 Gophers are the first team since then that has a realistic chance to do the same. No one will be pulling harder for them than the 1990 players. Their place in history will still be secure, but that isn’t the most important thing, anyway.
Because, whether they make their livings by selling suds or saving souls, they’ll still be close — both to the school and each other. In one sense, those distances can’t be measured.