Gene McMahon and Fred Foster are hoop guys. Gentlemanly gym rats to the utmost. They fell in love with the game a long time ago lured in by the high school hardwood and pulsating energy generated by forever young dreamers on frosty winter nights in steamy basketball arenas.
Yeah, basketball grabbed these guys a long time ago, for McMahon in the 1940s and Foster in the fabulous `50s, and never let go. So these winter nights are colder than normal. Basketball placates the soul like a crackling fire on blizzardy night when the world is awash in white. And right now the soul is a bit empty.
McMahon, 92, and Foster, 83, pine away for the winter and Thomaston High girls basketball. Oh, they hate the cold weather but they love the warm gym and a Golden Bear night. Game night is their night like it used to be for everybody when Tuesday and Friday nights in the gym owned the town.
Game night this season has been for nobody a good part of the time and only recently for the very few and it doesn’t include McMahon or Foster. Covid-19 took care of that. Some schools began the season allowing no people at all while some demanded blood lines for entrance. Translation – mom or dad or both. Their kids long grown, neither qualifies. Where you passion and heart wants to be doesn’t matter.
What were eagerly anticipated nights have become long, cold empty nights. How bad is it? “He’s just miserable,” says Fred’s brother, Bob.
“I told (Northwestern coach) Fred Williams let my father in and he’ll become a Northwestern fan,” said Thomaston High coach Bob McMahon.
McMahon is a legendary Thomaston figure, born and bred with a lifetime involvement in his community. You name it he seems to have done it. First Selectman for more than a decade, soda shop owner and a lifelong passion for sports.
Little League President, former hoopster, baseball and softball player. Father of some pretty outstanding athletes, sons Paul, Denny Tommy and Bob. He’s never been far from the game, any game. His attachment to the Golden Bear girls? How about the big guy on the bench, the coach.
McMahon has watched his son take Thomaston to unprecedented heights over the last decade plus. The Bears have won state championships, league championships and earned statewide respect. He’ll tell you he’s pretty proud – “I think he knows what he is doing, he does a pretty good job,” he says of Bob with the town’s most famous and imitated drawl not to mention a mischievous twinkle in the eye.”
In a normal season McMahon sits on the sidelines at practice often during the week. When game time rolls around he is in a chair across from the team bench in his stylish PJ pants watch Bob and his Bears take care of business.
He has become a part of the program and his presence has been appreciated and noticed by the girls he loves so much to watch.
McMahon doesn’t drive anymore and he moves with the aid of a walker so the nights out are a treat lost. The inability to attend is further exasperating because he isn’t a tech guy. While the games are being live-streamed he doesn’t have a computer or phone capability to take advantage. So he’s out.
He follows the Bears through Bob and lifelong family friend, his good pal and one of the Bears’ assistant coaches Bill Ryan and whatever is in the paper. But it isn’t the same. He’s lost a season and a darn good one. Hearing and reading about isn’t quite the same as seeing it live and in color. Plus McMahon is a people person. Talking to the cat wears on him.
This is a guy who along with his late friend Harry Innes would drive halfway around the state to watch a good game back in the day. He is a familiar face to mostly everybody. This season he has no game and no time with his Golden Bear girls.
The 6-foot-4 or so Foster is a spry 83 and more mobile than McMahon. He drives and on his feet it can be said he moves well for a big man. A man of varied interests, he is a former marine and state policeman. He cooks a mean meal and loves a good drum corps.
But his winter has been a Thomaston High girls basketball season. For decades it has been his time. He lives for it, thrives on it, dies with it. He knows the players and most of the parents. The team’s ups and downs are his ups and downs. He follows them in summer and fall leagues and just can’t get enough.
Like McMahon he is often at practice, the highpoint of his day. He threatens to give the coach advice. Sunday breakfasts at his home diner, Patti’s Place, is a review of the team’s weak and future prospects.
He’s a diehard plain and simple. He has hoped fervently that some fans would be allowed in the gym at some point. It hasn’t happened. Like McMahon he hasn’t accessed the livestream. So he spends his night watching any college women’s game he can find. He loves UConn and just a good game.
But more than anything he misses his Bears. Doubly difficult for both McMahon and Foster has been their inability to share in a championship season.
For many it has been long season. For Foster and McMahon it has been no season. No gym, no game, no connection, no fun. A cold winter.