Ask any Cleveland State fan over the age of 35 ... heck, any Northeast Ohio sports fan ... any college basketball fan what they think of when they think of Cleveland State basketball, and the answer is virtually instantaneous: the 1986 upset of Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. It's almost an afterthought to remember that CSU won their next game over St. Joseph's as well en route to a Sweet Sixteen appearance and eventual loss to David Robinson's Navy team. There's no real need to recount what happened in that game: it is one of the seminal images of the NCAA Tournament, along with the tiny Hampton coach (Steve Merfeld) being lifted by one of his players, waving his limbs like a flipped turtle, Fred Brown passing the ball to James Worthy (who was not his teammate), or Christian Laettner sinking Kentucky.
The coach of that team was Kevin Mackey, known for installing his "run-and-stun" system and recruiting athletic players who had been passed over by bigger programs. There are a couple of excellent recent interviews with Coach Mackey, notably at the CSU Cauldron and a reprint of a Basketball Times interview: I recommend both because they go into a lot of detail about Mackey's original teams. I didn't figure that I would be able to duplicate those efforts, because:
The idea to interview Coach Mackey was natural: there has been only one other Cleveland State team to make the NCAA Tournament, and it was wildly successful. However, in doing the cursory research, I found the aforementioned interviews which pretty much blanket the coverage of that team, and I have no desire to get into the years that immediately followed. The obvious starting point, then, is to talk about the Vikings' thrilling three-point win over Butler, and I start by setting the stage with this note.
In retrospect, asking Kevin Mackey if he knew about the result was extraordinarily dumb. Mackey works for the INDIANA Pacers, the state Butler calls HOME, the state in which the game was PLAYED, featuring the school for which Mackey obviously still feels a great affinity, and watching college basketball is Kevin Mackey's JOB. In the annals of Great Interviewing, this feels a bit like asking Doug Williams how long he has been a black quarterback. (I understand this story is somewhat apochryphal, but this does not make me feel more competent.)
Kevin Mackey speaks deliberately with the practiced cadence of a professional who knows his interviewer is trying to listen and write at the same time. He still has the same New England accent Cleveland State fans remember, and he is unfailingly gracious and respectful. However, he can't help but veritably snort at the subtext that the Horizon League championship game required a set-up.
(Now, my notes from this interview are flat-out embarrassing. My handwriting is atrocious, and includes two-word summaries of entire sentences. Any quote I attribute to Coach Mackey is going to be generously paraphrased: Mackey was clear and articulate throughout the interview, and any misquotes are due to sheer interviewer butchery and not malice. But boy, are they paraphrased.)
"It was a great win for the team, the school, and the coach," Mackey probably said. "They really had a good season, beating Syracuse on the road, and this is a great thing for the team. To win that game on Butler's home floor was really something."
It bears mentioning that according to Ken Pomeroy's college basketball ratings, Cleveland State's non-conference strength of schedule was 25th in the nation. Butler's was 42nd, for reference; powers like Connecticut and Pittsburgh clock in at a brisk 187th and 140th respectively. Obviously, the Syracuse game was a big part of that. Of course, Mackey knew this off the top of his head; I had forgotten it entirely. One of us is very good at his job.
I mentioned that CSU had come close a couple of times with a pair of 2-point losses to Butler, and Mackey interrupted, "Well, that's what it comes down to, really: the difference is that you need that one more point. That's what they were able to do this time, and I'm really happy for the coach and the players. The game was hard-fought, but the kids were tough and competetive, and really paid the price they needed to to win that game."
It is obvious over the course of the interview that Mackey really thinks the world of Gary Waters. Not only does he praise "the coach" a number of times over the course of the interview, but he off-handedly mentions that Waters has "been there before," so he not only knows Cleveland State but Waters' history as well.
I asked what characteristics the current squad shared with his 1986 team. "Well, again, they're tough kids, mentally and physically, and obviously very competetive," Mackey replied. "They're obviously well-coached, and willing to do what they're told." As I read over the notes, there is a subtext here: Mackey sees many many many many college basketball players over the course of the season, and can innately tell when a player is a guy who embraces coaching instruction. I imagine this is probably of some importance in his job.
These themes come up again when I ask what it takes for a lower-seeded mid-major to throw a scare into a high seed: toughness, competetiveness, and listening to the coach are the first three things Mackey mentions. The fourth is sort of interrelated: the willingness to "play every possession." A low seed doesn't have the luxury of coasting.
Mackey elaborates on the essense of the mid-major: "See, a mid-major team has guys who are the wrong size for the position, guys who were passed over by the big programs, who go against the ‘book.' But they really want to play, and they have something to prove. A lot of these guys, they get hooked up with these advisors and such, guys who know nothing about basketball, filling their heads with a lot of nonsense. It's good for these players to get to the right place."
(I get the impression that Kevin Mackey is not a fan of agents and advisors.)
"When we played Indiana, I must have had 15 tapes of Indiana games, and we watched them all before we even started practicing," Mackey continues. "Being a mid-major can still be an advantage in that regard, in that you have more material of them than they have of you, and because they can take you lightly. Oh, I know the coach is saying, ‘These guys are for real, you gotta take ‘em seriously,' but the players are like ‘Yes, coach,' because that's what the coach wants to hear. They're still human beings, 19 and 20 at that, and they can hear all that and still not act on it. There's only so much you can do as a coach to overcome that."
"You know, I was listening to sports talk radio here in Indiana, and every call was about how ready Cleveland State was to play that game (against Butler). They had nothing but complimentary things to say about Cleveland State. The coach has really made them (CSU) into a more serious program."
It occurs to me that as wonderful an image as Merfeld's flipped-turtle dance remains, there is a reason that Kevin Mackey was not his forerunner: Coach Mackey may not have expected to beat Indiana in that game, but it did not shock him, either. It may have taken an excellent game to win, but he knew his team was prepared to give him just that.
I ask about the current state of college basketball, and Coach Mackey only half-agrees with my lay assessment that the game is a lot different. "No, the mid-majors don't get the kids that are the one-and-out guys, the guys who are looking to go to school just to go pro, but they have kids who take advantage of the opportunity and get a little more senior leadership. I think Cleveland State had some of that." (He's right: of CSU's five leading scorers, three (Bullock, Jackson, and Tandy) are seniors. I was unaware of this. Again, one of the two of us is observant and professional.)
"Fans of major programs don't really know how good some of these mid-majors are," Mackey points out. And although this is undoubtedly true, it points out a subtext I pick up throughout the interview: Mackey is not just a guy who scouts talent for an NBA team, he's a guy who still identifies with the program he built. More than once he calls Cleveland State an "excellent school," meaning academically as well as in basketball, and he really exudes sincerity when speaking of the virtues of the mid-major program.
I ask Mackey what he's doing now, whether his duties include doing NBA advance scouting. "No, I'm purely a college guy, that's what Larry Bird hired me for," he says. "In fact, in a little bit here I'm getting on a plane to Atlanta for the ACC Tournament, and then a couple days later I'll be in Tampa for the SEC Tournament."
And this starts the really magical part of the interview, the part that Real Interviewers must really get excited by: I mention that I went to Virginia, and that although I was there for Ralph Sampson's senior year, it wasn't until the year after he left that Virginia went to the Final Four with a group of guys that really more resembled a mid-major. Mackey's tone brightens noticeably.
"You mention Ralph, yeah, you know, when I was with Boston College, we played Ralph and we were beating them. I was Gary Williams' assistant, and we were handling them, had the lead. That was when Michael Adams was the big star there. And then Ralph fouled out, and I figured we could close them out. But then Michael went crazy and just handed Virginia the game. I mean, just handed it to them. I was about to strangle Adams after the game, I mean, we had that game and he just gave it away singlehandedly. And I told Gary, ‘I'm gonna kill that guy,' and Gary pulls me aside and says, ‘Please, Kevin, you've got your next job lined up, you're goin' to Cleveland State, I gotta coach Michael two more years. I need him.' We won 25 games that year, went to the Sweet Sixteen, and Michael Adams probably won 22 of those games for us. But at the time, I tell ya, I wanted to just take his head off. But Gary, he knew he needed Michael and talked me down. Then he got his ring later, and that was great for him.'
In that one passage, I could feel something shift: no longer was I talking to Kevin Mackey, Piece of Cleveland State History, or even Kevin Mackey, Indiana Pacers Scout, but rather the Kevin Mackey whom Larry Bird once described as a "basketball junkie." Here was a guy who it felt like you could sit down with in an airport terminal or restaurant counter and he could basically talk about college basketball passionately and expressively until your flight left or your coffee was stone cold.
We did talk briefly about Danny Granger, a Pacers All-Star who Mackey helped scout. "He had all the physical tools, the skill set, but also the internal drive. He always wanted to get better," Mackey said. "When you're drafting, you're looking at the best player, but also the best fit. You have to balance the two. With Danny, we got lucky that it was the same guy."
He also relishes working with Larry Bird, a guy whose career his family followed religiously as Celtics fans. "Larry Bird knows all about basketball, and he really listens. He'll ask you what you think, and he'll listen to what you have to say. It's great working with a guy like that."
As I thank Coach Mackey for his time and leave him to prepare for the ACC Tournament, I can't help but think that somewhere out there, two athletic directors are considering who they want to coach their college basketball team next season. The name "Kevin Mackey" will be brought up to each, and one of them will dismiss him immediately, out of hand.
The stupid one.