Bill McKee became the women’s basketball coach at Augsburg in the fall of 2011. This provided access to the Augsburg gym for McKee and his fellow basketball junkies.
“Bill and I were playing our one-on-one full-court game that we would play on occasion,” Dennis Fitzpatrick said. “Who shows up but Otts, just out of the hospital.”
Tom Otterdahl was “Otts” to all of his acquaintances, with other less-complimentary names aimed at him during the almost-daily basketball skirmishes.
“Otts was in bad shape that day,” Fitzpatrick said. “He wasn’t talking about it, but it looked like he had suffered a little stroke. He took a couple of outside shots, and they were 15 feet short. It was a heartbreaking sight.”
Except to McKee.
“We started playing our three-man game and Otts tossed up a weak shot on a drive,” Fitzpatrick said. “Billy goes up and just tattoos it, sends it back to midcourt.
“I said, ‘Why did you do that, Billy? You see what bad shape Otts is in.’ And Billy said, ‘You know as well as I do that, in two weeks, he’s going to be back to being the same jerk he’s always been on the court.’ ”
Tom Otterdahl did have the last laugh on McKee. He outlived him.
Billy died not long after his stage 4 kidney cancer was diagnosed in the summer of 2015. He was 62. Otts made it to this month. He died June 12 at age 72 because of a heart problems.
Three days earlier, Otterdahl had been playing in St. Paul’s notorious Noon Ball, this time in the St. Mark’s Grade School gym.
“He started the game by making a couple of outside shots,” Fitzpatrick said. “They probably weren’t threes, but we counted ’em that way. We knew Otts wasn’t feeling too well.”
Sympathy at Noon Ball? That was a contrast to a decades-long tradition.
For instance: John Hughes’ name in the magic business is “Hondo,” but in Noon Ball, he’s “Factor.”
And why is that? “If you have him on your team, you have to factor in that you’re already behind by four points,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick also has a Noon Ball nickname: “Ennis,” because there’s no D in this Dennis.
Otterdahl was the old man of Noon Ball, which is saying something, because the group as a whole is made up largely of hoops lifers from their mid-50s to their mid-60s.
The role of senior man in a basketball game defined Otterdahl’s career. He was in the Class of ’63 at Bloomington High and part of a tremendous basketball team that included Bobby Kelly and Ken Last.
The Bears made it through rugged Region 5 and went into the state tournament rated No. 1, but ran into Cloquet’s run-and-gun outfit and were ambushed by 82-67. Otterdahl was heard through the years lamenting that little guard, Dave (Mouse) Miesner, who rifled in 30 points for Cloquet.
Otterdahl enrolled at St. Cloud State, intending to play basketball, but he lasted only for a fall quarter. He started playing senior basketball for Les Novak’s All-Stars, met a guy in the concrete business and soon was running his own company.
He was lighting it up in senior leagues to the point that Ron Lievense, the coach at Normandale Community College, took an interest. Otterdahl was married with two sons when he enrolled at Normandale in 1971. He was an honorable mention JUCO All-America as a 28-year-old in 1973.
Otts stepped away from college for another year, then arrived at St. Thomas. Ed Cassidy was playing at Inver Hills Community College. They had a preseason scrimmage with the Tommies.
“Otts was hitting shots from all over,” Cassidy coach. “Our coach was Denny Keihn. He called timeout and said, ‘Can’t anybody guard that old guy? Somebody please guard the old guy.’ ”
Mike Blumberg was a younger kid from the same neighborhood in Bloomington. He was at Normandale with Otterdahl, and also at St. Thomas.
Tom Feely was the Tommies coach. Otterdahl had a strong belief in his own talent. He was upset with Feely for being shorted minutes in a game.
“We were on a trip and having a team meal,” Blumberg said. “The waiter was going around the table, getting beverage orders from the players. ‘Coke, 7-Up, whatever.’ Then, Otts says, ‘Whiskey 7.’ The table went silent. Feely just looked at him. Otts got his Whiskey 7.”
Fitzpatrick and McKee also were Tommies. They weren’t ready to give up playing hoops when college ended. And neither was Otterdahl. Fitzpatrick and Otterdahl recruited rival teams in senior leagues, and there was Noon Ball wherever a gym could be found, usually in St. Paul.
“We were playing a pickup game on a hot summer afternoon on an outdoor court on Selby Avenue,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t know how Otts found us, but up pulls the Corvette — always a Vette — and he gets out and starts playing, in his cowboy boots.
“Great guy off the court; never wrong in his life on the court. Otts took the first shot from the outside hash mark in every game he played. It was his trademark.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org