116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Melsahn Basabe's mother has had her fingernails painted in Iowa Hawkeyes colors, and has been wearing outfits with those colors to work.
For the last two weeks.
“Ever since the NIT started,” said Mom, whose name is Aloha Wilks. “As long as they've been winning, it's black-and-yellow every day.”
Iowa's men's basketball team found out it was playing in the NIT on March 17. In Glen Cove, N.Y., where Wilks and Basabe's sister, Nia, live, people wanted three Iowa wins for a 30-mile train trip to Manhattan's Penn Station, which Madison Square Garden sits atop. The NIT Final Four starts next Tuesday night in the Garden.
So Mom went all black-and-yellow. And the people in her pediatricians office, where she works as a biller, have had fun waiting to see what she would wear from day to day.
“I'm having a blast with this,” Wilks said, and she isn't alone.
“We're going to have tons of people there. My boss bought the entire office tickets. The whole town's excited about it. I am just beside myself right now.”
Her son, the junior starting power forward, is just as pumped up.
“I'm just so happy and so blessed,” Basabe said Friday. “This conference, we really don't play where I'm from.”
He gets six tickets for being a player in the tourney, but could have used 60. He said he'll have enough friends there to “fill half of this arena,” pointing to the seats in Carver-Hawkeye.
Plus, he'll be performing in the Garden, which he called “the mecca of basketball.”
“I've never played there,” he said. “I watched the Big East tournament there when I was 17.”
But Basabe has played a lot of ball in New York, in Queens and the Bronx and Harlem. When he was 14, he tried out for and joined the New York Gauchos. That is one of the nation's most-renowned AAU programs. It has helped all sorts of young players on their way to college and the NBA.
Gauchos Gym is just a mile from Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. There, Basabe said, “the basketball is “tough and gritty, and they teach us discipline and push us really hard. They just teach us to compete and be fearless, not be scared of anybody.
“It's a very serious program. We take it more serious than a lot of AAU teams. They've got 5-year-olds doing some drills we do in college.
“At any time, somebody's there. I can get the best training in the world. All I have to do is go in there and ask somebody to work me out.”
Dwayne Mitchell, the Gauchos' director of basketball operations, was one of Basabe's coaches. He said Basabe playing in the Garden is “Great, man. I'll be there.”
“He was great for us. He had a certain spirit and enthusiasm. He wanted to be good. He was great to have around, and I'm happy for the situation he's in now.”
Basabe lived in Queens before he and his mother and sister moved to Glen Cove when he was 12. “But I'm a city kid,” he said. “All my friends are from the city and I played all my ball in the city.”
He actually played high school ball at St. Mark's School, a prep school in Southborough, Mass. So he's lived away from home for a while now.
“You're never used to your child being gone,” Wilks said. “It's a huge sacrifice. The reward is him being able to contribute, being successful.”
It's not that she hasn't seen her son play in person. She's been out to Iowa “at least a dozen times. I've got a college friend who lives in Chicago, so I'll stay with her for a day or so, and then on to Iowa City. It's a pleasurable trip. You have to do it.”
But having a home game or maybe even two next week, that's the best.
“To catch the train to see him play at the Garden?” she said. “That's priceless. Totally priceless.”