It’s hard to sit on the bench in any sport. I know this from personal experience, though some time ago.
It’s especially hard in basketball, it seems to me. There are so few players — only five can play at any one time, and then there’s the tyranny of the clock: only 32 minutes to be parceled out in high school games, 40 in college.
At Middlebury College, two of the best players on this year’s talented team (5-0 so far, with two more home games this week), Kevin Kelleher and Ashton Coghlan, are sitting on the bench and haven’t played a minute this season.
Kelleher has no prospect of playing and Coghlan has only a vague hope. Both would love to be competing, but they are out with debilitating, chronic injuries.
One of the two senior captains this year, Kevin is a versatile player, tall and well built, 6-5, 215, with a nice long-distance shot, so valuable in today’s game.
We old-timers remember Kevin’s father, also Kevin, class of 1980 at Middlebury, who was one of the Panthers’ greatest players — he scored 1,498 points in his college career, third-most ever.
In his first two years, Kevin was a valuable substitute on highly successful Panther teams. He was counted on to contribute last year but a back injury precluded his play, so he sat on the bench in his civvies and cheered on his teammates in the best year in the school’s long hoop history.
Kevin has two herniated disks in his lower back, a condition that can only be corrected with surgery, which he said will not happen “anytime soon.” Surgery introduces risks “anytime you cut that close to the nerves,” and also carries the possibility of problems later in life. “Some days are better than others,” Kevin says. “I can work out, do low-impact stuff.”
Ashton, a junior, is blade thin and can snake to the hoop or score from the outside. As a frosh two years ago, he had a 31-point game (in 19 minutes) against Union, with eight three-point baskets. He also scored 19 points against Colby and 23 against Bates in league wins on the dreaded Maine road trip. His future in basketball at Middlebury seemed an exciting prospect.
But a hip injury compromised last year: He was seldom well enough to play. He tried everything from ace bandages to acupuncture. “I tried to play through it,” he says, “but it just got worse and worse. Mentally, it was really tough.”
This year he has yet to dress for a game, but at least has the satisfaction of a diagnosis: An MRI has shown he has a “hip impingement.” To fix it, he needs surgery which he will schedule this spring.
Ashton holds out hope for this year. Over the holiday break, he will get a cortisone shot to see if the pain can be reduced enough to allow him to play in January. But even he acknowledges that it’s a “long shot.”
Teammates now, Kevin and Ashton were rivals in high school in the Ivy League Prep School League in New York City. Kevin, from Queens, was the captain of the powerful Poly Prep team: “Our games were televised and couple thousand fans showed up.”
Ashton, from East Harlem, was a stalwart for Collegiate: “Kevin was the only guy I liked on that Poly team,” he says of his Middlebury teammate.
Both Kevin and Ashton have lives at Middlebury outside basketball, as they must. They represent the student-athlete at his best. Kevin, a Bio-Chemistry major carrying a 3.7 average, is applying to medical schools and hopes to attend Harvard, Columbia, or Cornell. At this point, he finds a future in orthopedics a possibility, or perhaps spinal medicine.
Ashton is also a high achiever with a GPA above 3.0. He is writing his junior thesis in his history major on “The Iran-Contra Affair: National Newspapers and Historical Memory.”
It’s clearly hard for these athletes to sit while others play. “I love the game,” says Kevin. “I’ve been playing it since I was five. It’s obviously disappointing, but I like the team aspect of the game. I’ve made a ton of friends, and learned a lot about leadership.”
Ashton affirms that, “Basketball is very important to me. There’s no way I’m going to give it up. There will always be some way for me to participate.
“Basketball is the closest thing to religion I have. I enjoy the game in a spiritual sense — it’s more meditative than anything else I do. The most satisfaction I get is to be in a gym by myself. I enjoy practice more than the games. I’ll find a way.”
If you want to see some good basketball, head over to the college gym Thursday night or Saturday. Both the men’s and women’s teams are playing. Give a small cheer too for these two young men on the bench in street clothes, who would like nothing more than to be out of the floor competing, but instead express their love of the game in their support of their teammates.