BLOOMINGTON, Minn. | When Kansas' NCAA Tournament run ends, Walt and Kathy Aldrich will cancel their cable TV subscription.
Having extra channels to watch their son Cole play for the Jayhawks is one of the few remaining luxuries in the Aldrich household these days. Walt and Kathy are living proof of this suicidal American economy. Walt lost his job as a union sheet metal worker last year, and Kathy has watched the number of employees dwindle in half at her embroidery business. At least she still has a job.
All over the Twin Cities, you can see Walt's handiwork. In the 15 years he worked at the same shop, he helped build the Mall of America, the Target Center (home of the NBA's Timberwolves) and the Xcel Energy Center (home of the NHL's Wild). A true blue worker at his core, all he's ever asked from the world is a paycheck.
Now, the Aldriches have to watch every penny that comes in. They set the heat as low as possible throughout the cold Minnesota winter, and they can't afford to eat out anymore.
"We haven't gotten to weenie-water soup or anything," Walt jokes.
The mood in the Aldrich household is upbeat. That may have something to do with Cole, their 6-foot-11 son who was recently selected first-team All-Big 12. Today, Cole will bring his rapidly improving game to his parents' doorstep at the Metrodome. That's a blessing, because it would have been a stretch financially for Walt and Kathy to make any trip other than the 15-minute drive downtown.
During last year's NCAA Tournament, Walt was in the middle of an eight-month stretch with no work. The Aldriches missed the Omaha and Detroit regionals, but they did get to the Final Four with the help of a friend in Lawrence. It was there, in San Antonio, that Walt and Kathy's new world collided with Cole's. After all, who could think about tough times when hobnobbing with former KU coach Larry Brown?
"He said some nice things about the kid," Walt says.
At halftime of the North Carolina game, after Cole had begun his brutalization of national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, Brown saw Walt getting popcorn and grabbed him.
"Your kid is awesome!" Brown said. "He's just awesome!"
Moments like that make Walt and Kathy want to pinch themselves.
"Sometimes," Kathy says, "I wonder if he's even our kid."
Neither Walt nor Kathy went to college. They were brought up thinking about work and nothing else. Walt joined the Marines when he graduated high school and served three years. He went to construction school and later trade school for sheet metal and joined a union. Kathy has always spent her days at an embroidery machine.
What they never could have known, of course, is that their genes (Walt is 6 feet 2 and Kathy is 6 feet) would combine to create a future NBA center.
By the time Cole was in fourth grade, he was taller than his teacher. In middle school, he was so much taller than his classmates that he became the butt of jokes. They called him Jolly Green Giant and the like.
"There were a few times I had to call up the principal," Kathy says.
Eventually, Cole would finish middle school at a private school that went out of its way to provide a desk that would fit him. All of these signs pointed toward Cole spending a lot of time playing basketball. While Cole's older brother, Grant, would join the Marines like his father, it became obvious that Cole would have to use those virtues elsewhere.
So he worked like a Marine in the weight room at Bloomington's Jefferson High. He lived on the same schedule as a Marine, waking up early in the morning to get things done while his friends were still asleep.
"I think he gets that from me," Walt says.
And that's not all. Walt and Cole share the same goofy personality. Cole was the ringleader on the Jefferson team, devising plans to throw cold water on his teammates in the shower and do unsightly things to their lockers. Yet, when it was time to work, Cole was the first to know it.
"He was a special person because he was able to joke around even within a practice," says Jeremy Negen, an assistant coach at Jefferson. "He was able to be loosey-goosey and then, like a light switch, boom, we need to get this done."
Before long, Walt and Kathy's boy was being invited to play basketball in Germany, in New York's Rucker Park, in the McDonald's All-American game. He had already chosen to play in college at tradition-rich Kansas. Walt and Kathy had no idea what to make of the whole college deal.
"We didn't have knowledge of how you sign up or anything like that," Kathy says.
Cole loved Kansas from the moment he stepped on campus the first time as a ninth-grader. KU wasn't even recruiting him yet, but Aldrich's AAU coach, Steve Heiden, had a connection to KU basketball secretary Tami Hoffman. She set up a tour of the campus for Aldrich and Heiden, and they saw a game in Allen Fieldhouse. The game just happened to be Bill Self's first as head coach.
Aldrich was sold on KU, and no school ever came close. Now that he's in Lawrence for good, he's continuing to find that balance of work and play he learned back home in Bloomington.
Last summer, knowing that he was going to have the carry the load for KU inside, Aldrich came home for a few weeks to work with Mike McCollow, a former college and NBA assistant coach. Jefferson coach Jeff Evens recalls one of their workout sessions.
"It was a hot, hot day, and Cole picked up a garbage can and put it in the middle of the floor," Evens says. "I thought, 'This must be used for some drill.' Well, he (vomited) in there twice, spitting up junk. He pushed himself to the limit. Mike commented, 'He's going to be an NBA player.' "
McCollow may not have had the same reaction if he saw Aldrich this past fall. Aldrich's friend from Jefferson, Ellis Libby, was visiting him in Lawrence, and they were about to go to a party. Libby was not all that shocked when Aldrich put on a gorilla mask and headed out the door.
"This 7-foot gorilla walks into the room, this random house, and they're like 'Who is it?' " Libby says. "He rips off his mask, and everybody just goes crazy. They all wanted pictures with him."
Now, everybody wants a piece of Cole Aldrich. Just ask Walt, who spends his days volunteering at the local fire department or talking to sports agents. Too often, Kathy feels, agents are calling their home trying to find a way into Cole's good graces. While Kathy is able to hang up on them, Walt is just too friendly.
"They're like telemarketers," Walt says. "They don't take no for an answer."
The Aldriches, despite their dire situation, are not easy prey for agents.
"I had one guy call me up at Christmas, and he says, 'I think we should probably get a relationship going,' " Kathy says. "I'm thinking, 'Why would I want to get a relationship going with you?' I wasn't real nice to him."
Kathy told Cole the story.
"Well," Cole says, "you'd have a relationship going with him until the minute you signed the papers, and then he'd dump ya."
That Midwestern practicality comes from this place, from his parents who aren't looking for handouts in a humbling time. Walt Aldrich has been fighting fires for $5 a pop, and, sure enough, his radio goes off signaling a fire on a recent afternoon. Within a minute, Walt is breezing out the front door and hopping in his pickup truck. All while wearing a Kansas sweatshirt and hat.
"It seems like when the economy is bad, there's more fires," Kathy says.
The economy can be blamed for a lot of things, but Walt and Kathy are adamant that it will not affect Cole's decision about whether to go early to the NBA or return to KU for his junior season.
Walt went out of his way to have a conversation with Cole about it.
"I told him straight out, 'We'll make it one way or another,''' Walt says. " 'Nothing to worry about.' ''
"I told him he should stay in college," Kathy says. "You can't ever get your college days back. Be a kid, enjoy your youth ..."
Walt cuts her off.
"Enjoy getting your tooth knocked out and your nose broken," Walt cracks.
Walt, of course, is referring to some of the blows Cole has been dealt during his first season as a starter. People have been amazed at Cole's tolerance for pain, but that's probably because they don't know Walt.
"My dad has been a construction worker all of his life," Cole says. "I remember he's gotten bashed with big things from working in construction. He's come home with a big cut on his hand and been like, 'I got slashed by a little piece of sheet metal. It'll be fine.' I think that's kind of where I get my toughness from."
Cole said he's following his parents' orders and not factoring their financial situation into his NBA decision. He doesn't spend much time worrying about his parents because he knows better.
"It kind of gets you down a little bit," Cole says, "but my parents are strong people. They're really strong. They've been through tremendous things together, and I have the great confidence that my dad and both my parents will get back on their feet."