Rinka's journey ends in Fame

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Photo provided by Kenyon College athletics

By Gordon Mann, D3hoops.com

As the son of a high school teacher and baseball coach near Milwaukee, John Rinka learned early how to build his life around school and sports.

In the mid 1960s Rinka was a star player at Shorewood High School near Milwaukee where he scored a conference-leading 26 points per game. When he wasn’t playing and practicing for the varsity team, he took his talents to Milwaukee’s inner city playgrounds where he learned to play a more physical, aggressive, fearless brand of basketball.  

Rinka honed his skills with hours of practice, relentless personal shooting drills and an eye on a scholarship to nearby Marquette. The University had just landed a new coach named Al McGuire who came to Milwaukee in 1964 after seven years at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. McGuire was just beginning what ended up as a 13-year career at Marquette that included 296 wins and a national championship.

But it didn’t include John Rinka. McGuire looked at the five-foot-nine guard and decided to pass on him because of his size. Years later Rinka’s size is still one of the first things that people mention about him as a basketball player. 

"He thought I was too small and I got a little upset by that," Rinka recalls. "I kind of took that as a call to action that I was going to prove him wrong." 

With Marquette out of the picture, Rinka turned his attention to life and college outside Wisconsin. He heard about a small school in central Ohio called Kenyon College. A high school classmate was headed to the school in Gambier, Ohio and told the College's head basketball coach Bob Harrison about Rinka. Harrison had come to Kenyon to start a coaching career after winning multiple NBA championships on the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers.

After visiting the school, Rinka decided to head to Kenyon. "I loved Coach Harrison and they had a good team coming back," Rinka says. "So I went with a chip on my shoulder, a love to play basketball and a willingness to practice continuously, and all I did at Kenyon was study and practice basketball."

 The Small College Basketball  Hall of Fame is based in  Evansville, Indiana. You can learn  more about it and its innaugural  class at its website: www.smallcollegebasketball.com

Rinka technically was not a Division III basketball player because Division III didn’t exist when he played at Kenyon. From 1957 to 1973 the NCAA had two divisions – the University Division and the College Division, which were precursors to Division I and Division II respectively. Kenyon was part of the College Division as a member of the Ohio Athletic Conference.

Nevertheless, there were elements of Rinka's experience at Kenyon that should sound very familiar to today's Division III athletes. Kenyon did not offer athletic scholarships in the late 1960s. Students like Rinka received grants-in-aid based on need, not basketball ability. And while basketball was an important part of Rinka's experience, so were the academics. "The most I got out of everything was a great education," Rinka says of his experience.

Of course, parts of Rinka's experience in the late 1960s were very different from today's college basketball landscape.

At that point racial integration was still very new to college basketball. It wasn’t until 1962 that a University Division (now Division I) team started five black players in a game. In 1966, a few months before Rinka enrolled at Kenyon, underdog Texas Western College started five black players and upset favorite Kentucky to win the national championship. Long before AAU and travel teams, Rinka had gained a unique basketball education when he stepped outside the confines of his mostly white high school to play basketball on the inner city courts of Milwaukee.

Second, while Rinka was a great outside shooter, he wasn’t lured into doing so by the three point line. The three-point shot wasn’t consistently integrated into the game until 1986 so prolific scorers generally had to get their points two at a time. That didn’t stop Rinka from putting up eye-popping numbers.

In his freshman season Rinka averaged 24.4 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 86 percent shooting from the foul line. As a sophomore Rinka scored 31.8 points per game. Along with teammate John Dunlop – a duo that Sports Illustrated cleverly dubbed the Little Johns in 1967 -- Rinka led the Lords to a 23-5 record, which is the second-best mark in 100-plus years of Kenyon basketball. Kenyon missed an appearance in the 1968 College Division Tournament when it lost to Baldwin Wallace in the OAC playoffs.

Between Rinka’s sophomore and junior seasons, Kenyon changed coaches. Bob Harrison left for the head coaching job at Harvard and Bob Brannum took his place. Instead of following Harrison to the Ivy League, Rinka stayed in Ohio. Kenyon’s record fell back to .500 but Rinka didn’t miss a beat. He averaged 33.9 points per game as a junior and then an astounding 41.0 points per game as a senior in 1969-1970, the eighth highest single season total in NCAA history. His 3,251 career points place him ninth overall. 

At that point, Rinka’s skill and success were impossible to overlook, regardless of his size. s a rising junior, he was invited to the US Olympic trials where he competed against NBA Hall of Famers Calvin Murphy and Pete Maravich. After his senior season he received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation’s best college basketball player under six feet tall. In 1970 he was selected in the seventh round of the NBA draft by his hometown Milwaukee Bucks. He instead decided to try out for the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association.

“I didn't want to play at home. Personally I like to move on. I'm a curious person. I like to try new things," Rinka explains. He also notes that the ABA had a three-point line, offered him more money and gave him a better chance at a meaningful professional playing career.

That career ended when the Stars made him their last cut before the 1970-71 ABA season began. Rinka came away from Kenyon with more than a case full of trophies. He was an English major with minors in French and History, and an Academic All-American, whose curious mind found plenty to explore on the liberal arts college campus.

"The whole basketball thing for me, the whole journey was a personal thing. I wanted to prove something to myself that I could be the best at something. Once that happened, I wasn't interested in making basketball my life, especially coming out of Kenyon.

I wanted to do other things. I taught and coached, but I was really more interested in the teaching part than the coaching part. I loved English. I loved working with kids."

Rinka decided to follow in the footsteps of his father who was a teacher and high school coach near Milwaukee. Rinka eventually found his way to North Carolina where he taught English and coached basketball.

"I didn't want to be a prisoner of basketball. It sounds funny because being a prisoner of basketball sounds like an oxymoron. But professional players are prisoners of their sport. I was coaching college basketball for five years before I made the switch [to teaching]. I decided I didn't want to be a prisoner of basketball...I wanted to do more."

Rinka is still passionate about teaching and basketball. Speaking from his home in North Carolina, he's fluent in the history of racial integration in college basketball, mentions his experience as a protestor in college during the Vietnam War and suggests a couple books worth reading. 

His voice mail box greets you with a playful message that he may have missed your call because he’s out doing something, or maybe he’s just taking a nap. He's teaching nights at a local community college, getting married in two weeks and going to Portugal early next year. He’s enjoying life to its fullest because basketball brought him to Kenyon, where he had unforgettable experiences on the court and a life-shaping education off of it.

He’s also looking forward to being inducted into the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame. He’ll be part of the inaugural class alongside NBA royalty Phil Jackson, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe. Rinka had a similar experience in 2006 when he was one of the first people inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame with Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and Bobby Knight.

Looking back, there were several points where Rinka’s journey could have taken a different turn. What if he had gone to Milwaukee instead of Utah after the NBA draft? What if he had gone to Marquette instead of Kenyon after high school? What if Al McGuire didn’t pass on the five-foot-nine scoring dynamo from nearby Shorewood?

Rinka is enthusiastic and genuine in saying he has no regrets about where his journey has taken him. Years after he finished his playing career, one of his Kenyon teammates met Al McGuire at a public speaking event and asked him if he remembered John Rinka. 

"McGuire from the podium acknowledged that I was the biggest recruiting mistake he ever made. But, I have to tell you, it was the best gift he could've given me."