Catching Up With….Kevin MackeyThis article was originally published in the January 2007 issue of Basketball Times
Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey has always looked for a certain kind of player: “the kid who was passed over, who is talented and maybe has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder—and terrific heart and terrific desire.” Mackey has recruited, coached and/or scouted such players for several decades now, first as a championship winning coach at Don Bosco high school in Boston, then as an assistant coach at Boston College in the early days of the Big East Conference and, most famously, as head coach at Cleveland State University.
Upsets are what makes March Madness special and in 1986 Mackey’s 14th seeded Cleveland State squad pulled off one that will never be forgotten, knocking off Bob Knight’s 3rd seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the first round, 83-79. Clinton Ransey led Cleveland State with 27 points, including 10 in the game’s final nine minutes. Eric Mudd, a 6-8 center, had 16 points and 18 rebounds. That Hoosiers team had All-American Steve Alford and, with the addition of Keith Smart the next year, won the 1987 NCAA Championship. Cleveland State received the final at-large bid in 1986, but the Vikings were hardly pushovers: they went 27-3 in the regular season and won the Association of Mid-Continent Universities championship. Mackey’s team played what he called the “run and stun,” pressing and trapping all over the court, a style later borrowed by Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian. Cleveland State ranked second in Division I in scoring in 1986 (90.2 ppg).
Mackey did a lot of preparation for the Indiana game: “I watched 15 tapes of Indiana; I was very familiar with Coach Knight’s style of play through hearing him speak at many coaches’ clinics and (by reading) all of the printed material (that outlined Knight’s strategic philosophies). I was a fan of his and I thought that his defense was the base for all the defenses that are used—by me and by everybody else. I was very familiar with all of that. I thought that I basically understood his thinking and I wanted to play 94 feet rather than play 18 feet and in. We did not want to put Alford at the foul line because he was a great free throw shooter. Watching the films, I felt that he tried to draw fouls. He would jump into the defender; he would try to get the defender off of his feet. We wanted to keep him in the low 20s rather than letting him get 30-plus. We accomplished that. The other thing is that Coach Knight put Alford down the court against the press to score the ball and we felt that if they were having problems getting the ball in and bringing it down the floor then they would have to bring him back because he could catch the ball against pressure and he could handle the ball a little against pressure, pass it or whatever—but then he wouldn’t be on the other end to score. That was the case; he had to come back down the floor because they turned the ball over the first couple times and they were having problems immediately against the pressure.”
Cleveland State next faced St. Joseph’s, whose star player was Maurice Martin, a 6-6 AP honorable mention All-American who was later taken with the 16th overall pick in the 1986 draft. Mackey remembers that his team was not impressed by Martin’s press clippings: “We had a player who thought that he was better than their All-American. Our guy’s name was Clinton Smith and he wanted to cover him; of course I let him do that. Clinton, I thought, completely outplayed (Martin).”
Mackey says, “St. Joseph’s struggled against our press. We played 10 guys in double figure minutes that year and that is one of the things that I am proudest of about that team. Very few teams do that and as a result we had fresh legs in there all the time coming at the other team. They had a difficult time tracking who was in the game and who wasn’t in the game and then of course I felt that our energy level was usually superior—we played harder longer, which is one of the keys to winning games, to getting in the left hand column.”
Cleveland State earned a trip to the Sweet Sixteen with a 75-69 win. Point guard Ken “Mouse” McFadden scored 23 points on 10-15 shooting from the field. McFadden came from the New York City projects—specifically, an area known as Alphabet City—but received little attention from the Big East schools. Mackey recruited McFadden, who painted houses in Cleveland to pay his bills while he completed his GED before playing for Cleveland State.
In the Sweet Sixteen, Cleveland State faced Navy and David Robinson, who would later be selected as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Mackey says, “I felt that, obviously, he was an imposing player in terms of his physical tools—he was so big and so quick and he was active. He was one of the top players—if not the top player—in the country that year. We wanted to deny him the ball and keep him off of the boards. We didn’t have any one guy who could do that; it was going to be a team effort. That year we led the country in rebound margin. Even though we weren’t that big, we placed a great deal of emphasis on rebounding and beating the other team to the ball. We played them very tough. There was a controversial call at the end. Their last offensive play of the game was an out of bounds play. We thought David ran over our defender and they lobbed the ball up to him and he laid it in.”
Navy won 71-70 on Robinson’s last second shot; Robinson had 22 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocked shots. McFadden got off to a slow start, but finished with 16 points.
Success at Cleveland State Based on a Foundation Built in Boston
Mackey’s coaching career began at Don Bosco high school in Boston. “We won the state championship in 1976,” Mackey says. “We had three straight New England Class A Catholic basketball championships. We were a basketball power and we had terrific success.” Don Bosco was ranked as high as fourth in the nation by Basketball Weekly and the Boston Globe awarded Mackey coach of the year honors.
Mackey’s next stop was Boston College, where he proved to be a valuable recruiter, first for Tom Davis and then later for Gary Williams. Competing for prospects with Big East powers like Georgetown and Syracuse was not easy, but Mackey brought in several players who later made it to the NBA, including Michael Adams, John Bagley, John Garris and Jay Murphy; Mackey says simply, “They were the building blocks of the Boston College program.” Boston College went to three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights during Mackey’s time as an assistant coach there, winning two regular season Big East championships along the way.
When Mackey became the head coach at Cleveland State in 1983, the program was not only far from Boston geographically—the team was completely off of the map in terms of being a basketball power. Mackey had a blueprint in mind for changing that: “I felt very strongly that the type of kid that I was going to be looking for had fallen between the cracks, someone who was probably the wrong size for the position. There was a formula: someone who was the wrong size for the position, someone who went to the wrong high school, someone who went to the wrong summer camp—or no summer camp at all—and therefore was not rated as highly as he should have been by the scouting services. Someone who was hungry, quick and tough—that’s what we looked for.”
Mackey unleashed his “hungry, quick and tough” players in a “run and stun” style: “It was basically Tom Davis’ system that I used at Cleveland State,” Mackey explains. “I adapted it, of course, to suit the type of players that we had at Cleveland State, where we played a little bit more uptempo… I did it based on the diamond defense--1-2-1-1—most of the time. We would continually trap the ball, two on the ball, two in the passing lane, one back. We worked on it every day for an hour to two hours a day and we were very hard on our rotations. It was very demanding; the players were in great shape. Coaches told me that they wouldn’t schedule us because it was too difficult to prepare to play us—it took too long. I knew that we were on to something good. It was a good system to play…I always felt that we could win more games than we had any right to because it was a different style of play.”
Mackey adds, “The guys bought into it with their energy and their effort and they allowed us to push them and push them; I thought it gave us a terrific advantage because in our style we were better (than other teams). Part of the reason we were better is that no one else was doing what we were doing.”
A Quick Rise Followed by a Sudden Fall
The 1986 NCAA Tournament run was the highlight of Mackey’s tenure at Cleveland State but his Vikings were far from one year wonders—Mackey had a 142-69 record during his time at CSU. That success resulted in major upgrades for the Cleveland State program. Mackey recalls, “We had a little high school type facility; they built a 13,000 seat arena on campus. We didn’t have anywhere to house our players; they bought the Holiday Inn across the street from the school and renamed it Viking Hall. It changed everything at Cleveland State as far as having the tools to do well in basketball.” You could say that the Wolstein Center is the house that Kevin Mackey built—but he never got to coach there. Just days after Mackey signed a two-year contract extension in the summer of 1990, a substance abuse problem led to his arrest and subsequent firing. Mackey swiftly went from being a rising star to being a basketball pariah.
The first thing that Mackey did after his fall from grace in Cleveland was go to Houston, where John Lucas had a rehab center. Lucas, a former NBA number one overall pick who never reached his full potential as a player due to substance abuse, had rebuilt his life and made it a mission to help other people to rebuild theirs. Mackey recalls, “John was terrific and we bonded immediately through basketball and through the fact that he had had a substance abuse problem. He was terrific with me, showed me the way, showed me what he did. He had a great program. After I was down there a certain amount of time he asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I didn’t think that I would be able to be involved in basketball anymore because I didn’t think that anybody would hire me. He said that he thought that he could get me a job if I was willing to work at it and to be away from the limelight. I said that that was fine, that was what I wanted to do.”
Lucas helped Mackey to get a job coaching minor league basketball. That was the beginning of a 13 year odyssey during which Mackey coached in a veritable alphabet soup of leagues in addition to coaching in Argentina, Canada and Korea. Mackey consistently proved that he could not only find talented players but also put together winning teams. He won four championships, including three straight USBL titles. He was twice named Coach of the Year in that league and is one of the coaches on the 20th Anniversary All-USBL Team. Mackey coached 35 players who eventually made it to the NBA, including several names that most NBA fans would recognize: Darrell Armstrong, Michael Curry and Adrian Griffin, who played on the Dallas Mavericks team that made it to the 2006 NBA Finals.
One stop in Mackey’s tour of the minor leagues stands out: “I had a wonderful situation and good ownership when I was in Atlantic City. We won three championships in a row in the USBL. That was a great run, with a lot of good players and a good organization.”
A Second Chance at the Big Time for a Basketball Lifer
Mackey made the most of his time in the minor leagues but he longed to get a job in the NBA. His wish came true in 2003, when Larry Bird became President of the Indiana Pacers. Mackey was the first person who Bird hired. Mackey says, “I’m very grateful to Larry Bird for giving me the opportunity to be a scout in the NBA for the Pacers. It’s a great organization and I’m having a lot of fun.”
What does Mackey enjoy most about being a scout? “Every night going to the arena there is a chance that you are going to see something that you didn’t expect to see. There might be a young man who is off the radar who is going to show you something and outplay one of the big name guys, one of the All-Americans—that type of thing; I really enjoy that. That makes it worthwhile. Every once in a while you see that. Sometimes, it’s a couple of years apart, but you see it. That is one thing that I really look forward to—some night, somewhere, there will be a player who is off the radar who can flat out play.”
Mackey’s sentences are filled with colorful expressions: “He has hands like feet” or “I can find guys like that under a bridge.” These “Mackeyisms” date back to his years as a coach. “I think that part of it comes from when you are working with young people—or whoever you are working with—you want to be able to get their attention. If you can’t get their attention then you have a problem, even if you are right about the point you are trying to get across. Another thing is that you want to be able say something that people are going to remember, something that might make them smile a little bit. So, along the way you develop that.”
In addition to his vivid descriptions, Mackey, like many scouts, uses a certain shorthand when he scouts games in person: “When you are making notes, writing is important, but watching is more important. You watch first, write second; don’t be writing while they are playing or you will be missing a good game. I think that sometimes some people are writing when they should be watching. When you do write, you use your own little morse code or basketball code or whatever—all kinds of abbreviations. Sometimes I’ll write ‘cnsc3’—catch and shoot corner three. Or, ‘drdrndi’—drive, draw and dish. That type of thing, make it quick—‘2dr17footj’—two dribbles, 17 foot jump shot.”
Things have turned out well for Mackey but it is only natural to wonder what might have happened if his college coaching career had lasted longer. Mackey, though, does not believe in dwelling on that: “I think that regret can be a cancer. I’d rather do a good job with today. We had a great run—it was too short--at Cleveland State and that was a great, wonderful part of my career. College-age coaching was a wonderful opportunity and we had terrific success.”
When Mackey talks about basketball, his passion for the game is obvious. He is an excellent scout but he thinks and expresses himself like a coach. Would he want to return to the bench again? “Yeah. I miss coaching and should the opportunity arise I would give it serious consideration. Absolutely.”
posted by David Friedman @ 8:25 PM