Eugene Lumpkin went to work for North Central Airlines at Chicago’s Midway Airport in 1959. That winter, the Northwestern Wildcats won three straight Big Ten road games at the end of the season:
Feb. 8 at Minnesota, 66-64; Feb. 13 at Michigan, 83-75; and Feb. 27 at Purdue, 68-66.
“I have to admit, I wasn’t paying much attention to Northwestern basketball at the time,” Lumpkin said.
Eugene’s job with North Central moved him to the Twin Cities “later in the ’60s.” He lost his job in the merger with Northwest. He’s been driving a Park ‘n Go van at the airport for almost two decades.
“I’m what you would call a ‘free spirit,’ ” Eugene said. “You can usually find me at Canterbury playing the ponies on weekends. And in my day, I played some pool … at the Lincoln Rec, at Cassius’ bar. Yeah, there was some cash involved.”
Eugene passed on the simulcast races at Canterbury on this Saturday. That’s because the Northwestern basketball team was at Williams Arena, and more than five decades later, he was extremely interested.
Eugene’s grandson Sanjay Lumpkin is a freshman starter for the Wildcats. Sanjay is also former NFLer Sean Lumpkin’s son and former NBAer Jim Petersen’s stepson.
A half-hour before tipoff, Eugene was talking about his grandson, the rest of his family and tossing in a bit of philosophy. One of his convictions was this:
“Life is about belief in the people around you.”
Around 3 p.m., the validity had been demonstrated by the Wildcats. They were leaping around the raised floor in celebration after surviving with a 55-54 victory over the Gophers.
There was a bit extra pizzazz in the celebration since this gave Northwestern its first three-game road winning streak in the Big Ten since 1960.
“We were aware going in that it had been 54 years since Northwestern won three in a row on the road [in the Big Ten],” Sanjay Lumpkin said. “We’ve been a different team since we started 0-and-3 in the Big Ten. We had a meeting and talked about what kind of team we wanted to be. We wanted to play defense and take care of the ball.”
That was the exact formula on Saturday: Solid defense and nine turnovers against the Gophers’ game-long pressure.
At the end, DeAndre Mathieu missed on a drive, and Mo Walker missed on a follow-up, and Northwestern was in fourth place in the Big Ten at 5-5.
Sanjay has had to go through a considerable transition as a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman for the Wildcats. He took his share of shots as a standout at Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Now, he’s a collegiate equivalent of Corey Brewer:
Take on a dangerous opponent while also giving help on defense. Track down rebounds and loose basketballs. Get your shots on layups or last-option jumpers.
“With Drew [Crawford] and Tre [Demps], with their talent and their experience, we’re going to rely on them,” Sanjay said. “And I’ll try to fill the role that gives us the best chance to win.”
The Gophers lost at Nebraska last Sunday despite Malik Smith making eight three-pointers. It was a cinch the Wildcats wouldn’t win a low-scoring game — the trademark of their recent success — if Smith came out drilling threes.
Lumpkin had the Smith assignment at the start. Smith’s first couple of attempts were rushed by a fraction, both missed, and Minnesota’s mad bomber was in a funk.
Later, Gophers coach Richard Pitino would trace Smith’s terrible day on threes — 0-for-7 to start, 1-for-9 total — on shooting without his usual confidence. If so, Lumpkin’s early defense put Smith in that frame of mind.
“I love Sanjay; he’s a freshman and he’s the heart and soul of our team, as far as toughness and energy,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “He’s always in the action. He’s our best defender. He’s always on the boards. This was a huge day for him [emotionally], coming back home.”
It was a huge day for Eugene, too, watching his grandson win a game in Williams Arena.
“Hard on my knees, banging into the seat in front of me, but it was worth it,” the 6-4 grandfather said. “Sanjay’s such a great young man. An A student all through school, you know. He’s always made his family proud.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • firstname.lastname@example.org