Simon Kaufman: A guard, a grandpa and the end of an era

Friday, December 11, 2015 - 3:25pm

Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half of the 2013 NCAA Championship Game.

Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half of the 2013 NCAA Championship Game. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

When Frank Brunski Jr. passed away on Sept. 1, 2012, he left behind a wife of 50 years, three children, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a legacy of hard work.

One of those grandchildren — Spike Albrecht — adopted that hard work ethic.

Frank was a lifelong Hoosier. He was born in Gary, Ind., in 1938 and stayed put in that area his whole life. For 43 years, he worked as a bricklayer in the steel mills of Indiana. You could count the number of days he missed work on one hand. He missed even fewer of his grandchildren’s sporting events.

“He was unbelievable,” Albrecht recalled. “He came to everything. He was the grandpa that was so supportive and bragged about me, thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. That’s how our relationship was. We got along great.”

Watching Grandpa Frank, Spike learned a thing or two about hard work. When Spike was a senior in high school, Frank came over and built a deck for his family’s pool.

Spike embodied that sense of hard work and determination. He went from having no college basketball offers after graduating high school to a full-ride scholarship to Michigan a year later, after playing one season in prep school.

When Grandpa Frank passed away the week before Albrecht started classes at Michigan, he kept quiet about it. It tore him up on the inside, but he had a college basketball career to begin — one most people never thought he would have.

“I never wanted people to feel sorry for me or anything like that,” Albrecht said. “But it was something that was just tough to deal with.”

That’s Spike. He doesn’t want to talk about himself. He doesn’t want your sympathy. He just wants to do his thing and go home.

So Friday — when he announced that due to injuries he would end his career with Michigan — he was out of his comfort zone. He was forced to talk about himself, his time at Michigan and his future.

Asked about his legacy, he paused.

“That’s a tough question. I don’t like talking about myself,” Albrecht said. “I think that I showed people you can’t ever let someone tell you what you can or can’t do. You know, my whole life I was told I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t strong enough, fast enough — things like that. But I never really let that faze me. And I always just tried to go out there and prove people wrong.”

For three and half years, that’s what he did at Michigan. He proved people wrong. His legacy won’t be in his stat line, it’ll be in everything you don’t see in the box score.

Forget the 17 points in the National Championship Game in 2012. Forget the postgame tweet to Kate Upton. Forget the acrobatic pass to Aubrey Dawkins against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament last year. Forget the 3s from deep, the circus passes and the gritty defense.

Remember this: With Michigan up 19 points in the second half against Houston Baptist last Saturday, Albrecht hit the deck in an attempt to get a loose-ball rebound. The ball went out of bounds and Albrecht slapped the floor with his right hand.

Michigan didn’t need that rebound — it went on to win, 82-57 — but Albrecht wanted it. So, with 12:10 left in the route of the Huskies, Albrecht laid out, new hips be damned. 

Remember this: During Michigan’s Final Four run his freshman year, he was simultaneously working on a group project for school. He never missed a meeting or an assignment. His group got an A.

Remember this: When he comes home from Michigan, he goes into his mom’s second-grade class and reads to her students. Spike Albrecht — Michigan basketball royalty — hangs out with second graders when he goes home.

And most importantly, remember this: Spike Albrecht cared. He cared when he hit the deck for loose balls, when he’d smile with a fan for a photo and when he went back home and sat in a second-grade classroom.

There was never an ego with Spike. He was never bigger than the game. And because of that, in Spike, we saw ourselves. He was the little engine that could, and with him on the court, anything was possible.

He left Michigan the same way he came into the program, with humility and gratitude.

After his press conference Friday, he got up from his seat, pushed his chair back in, shook a few hands and — as he walked out the door — said thank you to everyone.

With the help of a work ethic he learned from his grandpa, Spike Albrecht made his dream come true.

Grandpa Frank never got to see him play college basketball, but he would have been damn proud if he had.

Kaufman can be reached at sjkauf@umich.edu and on Twitter @sjkauf.

Spike Albrecht learned to work hard from his late grandfather, Frank Brunski Jr.

Spike Albrecht learned to work hard from his late grandfather, Frank Brunski Jr. Buy this photo
Photo Courtesy of the Albrecht family.