INDIANAPOLIS — There was a time in Kevin Mackey’s life when he could walk the streets of Cleveland and collect nearly as much notice as any of the city’s high-profile athletes.
He didn’t have Bernie Kosar’s arm, Albert Belle’s power to all fields or Steve Kerr’s dead-eye jumper.
Still, Mackey had done the virtually unfeasible, turning a downtown academic institution into a respected, even feared, men’s basketball program by filling his roster with young men who could relate.
Players from the inner city, whether that city was Cleveland, New York or some other area where concrete and asphalt dominate. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds who felt totally at home with their new coach’s Bostonian accent and pedal-to-the-metal approach to all phases of the sport they loved.
Mackey coached seven seasons and 211 games at Cleveland State from 1983 to 1990, the most unforgettable being the Vikings’ 83-79 defeat of Bob Knight and Indiana in the first round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Ignited by lightning-quick freshman point guard Mouse McFadden and 6-foot-6 forward Clinton Smith, Cleveland State marched all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to David Robinson-led Navy 71-70.
Kevin Mackey could do no wrong. Not in northeastern Ohio. Winning 67 percent of your games and beating “The General” on college basketball’s ultimate stage meant being a rising star in the coaching ranks. Local media outlets were only half-kidding when referring to Mackey as the King of Cleveland.
But that’s the thing about kings. They can be unceremoniously removed from their throne.
In Mackey’s case, the agony and mortification associated with watching a once-promising future spiral down the drain were entirely self-inflicted, and he knows it. It’s a realism that ultimately cost Mackey his marriage and one he has lived with the past 22 years.
Noticeably thinner and slightly grayer than the Cleveland State version of himself, Mackey since 2002 has been employed as a scout for the Indiana Pacers. Among his job descriptions is to mine a territory that includes three of college basketball’s premier leagues (Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference and Atlantic 10), along with various smaller conferences in the same region.
Even at 66, Mackey’s passion for scouting a player who might some day wear the Pacers uniform is impressive. Name a college or pro arena in this country and it’s safe to assume Mackey, a self-described hoops junkie, has set foot inside at least once. Probably more. He’s been to all 50 states and traveled abroad, savoring every moment.
“Kevin just has a passion for basketball. He’s charismatic, and he knows the game,” said Pacers legend and recent Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Mel Daniels, a close friend. “Kevin takes it very seriously. It’s his life.
“He’s had some hard times, some major downs, but he’s done a great job resurrecting his life to become the person he is today.”
Rise and fall
Before Mackey’s 14th-seeded ball club sent shock waves throughout college basketball by knocking off Knight’s Hoosiers during what was Steve Alford’s junior season, about all most basketball observers knew of Cleveland State was that it was in Cleveland.
The Vikings, however, had quietly been building to that March evening inside Syracuse’s spacious Carrier Dome. The rugged Smith, who spent one season at Ohio State before transferring back to the city where he was born and raised, would be paired down low with 6-7 junior post Eric Mudd, while 6-4 junior Clinton Ransey, brother of former Buckeyes guard Kelvin Ransey, teamed with McFadden in the backcourt.
Mackey’s squad took the court against the Hoosiers having already won 27 games while averaging an NCAA-best 90.2 points. The contrasts were amusingly unavoidable, from IU’s trademark man-to-man defense and Cleveland State’s 40 minutes of full-court suffocation to Knight’s iconic standing paired against Mackey, a 39-year-old relative unknown.
“I was a young coach trying to find my way, and Bob was so nice and so complimentary to our program after the game. It was much, much appreciated. I’m a big Bob Knight fan,” Mackey said. “We broke down 15 films of Indiana before we played them.
“That’s how much respect we had for coach Knight and IU.”
Ransey responded with 27 points. The Vikings shot 59 percent from the floor. Cleveland State and its coach were anonymous no more.
Unfortunately, Mackey wasn’t equipped to handle celebrity. His decisions, at times blurred by a longstanding habit of chasing bourbon with beer in his off hours, gradually worsened.
The workaholic was an alcoholic, and vise versa.
“I went to work seven days a week, but the party didn’t start until after work,” Mackey recalled. “When you’re young and winning games, you foolishly think you’re bulletproof. You wind up realizing you’re very fortunate to be alive because addiction guarantees you one of two things, prison or death.”
Mackey avoided both, but not an eventual firing after the coach’s drinking binges began to include experimentation with cocaine. The man who had become the toast of Cleveland was toasted the night of July 13, 1990, when police pulled him over driving left of center. A urine sample revealed traces of cocaine, as Mackey had just come from a local crack house.
Cleveland State averaged 20 wins a season on Mackey’s watch. But time had run out. At least for him it had. The university that only a week earlier signed Mackey to a two-year, $300,000 contract let him go.
“Absolutely the toughest time of my life. It was 100 percent my fault. I had everything going for me, and I threw it all away with bad choices,” Mackey said. “One thing I’ve learned is that the problem is always in the mirror, and the answer is always in the mirror.”
A long road back
Mackey, who had committed the double-barrel version of career suicide and wasn’t particularly fond of the plump, disheveled image staring back at him, chose to spend a total of three months in treatment centers, including the one in Houston run by former NBA star John Lucas.
Striking up a friendship with the two-time All-American guard from Maryland paid dividends on multiple fronts. Mackey hasn’t consumed a single alcoholic beverage or used cocaine since 1990 and through Lucas’s numerous basketball contacts landed a job as head coach of the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League.
The lower rungs of professional basketball humbled Mackey. The small gymnasiums, their stands dotted with hundreds of spectators desperate for some kind of inexpensive hoops fix, served as a paycheck and continual reminder of how Mackey had been banished from college’s Division I ranks.
Cleveland State didn’t want him back. No one else wanted him, either. It was this or nothing, the common denominator being that as the years wore on, Mackey’s minor-league teams continued to win. Portland (Md.) Mountain Cats. Atlantic City Seagulls. Trenton, N.J. Jacksonville, Fla. The Mansfield (Ohio) Hawks.
If only someone of relevance would take notice. A coach, owner, general manager or former player with actual NBA influence.
And then, one day, entirely out of the blue, someone did.
The phone call
Mackey had finished coaching another season in the USBL in 2002 when his phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded an awful lot like Larry Bird’s, but ... really?
“I felt it was one of my friends playing a trick on me. I said some things to him I shouldn’t have said. (Bird) was laughing. He got a kick out of it,” said Mackey, whose tenure as an assistant coach at Boston College (1977-83) under then-coach Tom Davis and later Gary Williams placed him in the same city as Bird during the first four seasons of the latter’s playing career with the Boston Celtics.
Bird remembered Mackey. Knew of his low points and how he had picked himself up, dusted himself off and worked feverishly trying to get back to the big time in some capacity. All while remaining sober.
At that time, Bird was part of an ownership group interested in placing an NBA expansion franchise in Charlotte after the Hornets moved to New Orleans following the 2001-02 season. He sought Mackey as a scout, the communication between the two men continuing even after the ownership bid proved unsuccessful.
“After the first call, we talked once or twice every month,” Mackey said. “Larry said it was just a matter of time when he was going to take over a team.”
On July 11, 2003, nearly 13 years to the day from Mackey’s humiliatingly steep fall from coaching grace, his phone rang. It was Bird, who had just been introduced as the Indiana Pacers’ new president of basketball operations.
“That was on a Friday. He called me and said, ‘I want you in Indianapolis Monday morning for a meeting with me and Donnie Walsh,’” said Mackey, who made it a point to fly into town Sunday. “The first thing I did after that was call my children. They were all excited. It was just terrific.”
The scouting life
The 2012-13 Pacers season represents Mackey’s 10th as one of the franchise’s scouts. He’ll freely admit it’s not a vocation suited for everyone given the annual flurry of airports, air time, rental cars, motel rooms and gymnasiums.
Among Indiana’s other scouts are Carl Nicks, 54, Bird’s teammate on the 1979 Indiana State University team that was runner-up in the NCAA Tournament; and former University of North Carolina forward and later head coach Matt Doherty, 50.
Therefore, even if the Pacers draft a player from Mackey’s region of expertise — see Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and 2012 first-round pick Miles Plumlee — he’s quick to mention it’s entirely a team effort.
“We’re suggestion guys, not decision guys. We’re a team,” Mackey said. “Players are like leaves on a tree. Every year there’s a new crop. It’s a process. It’s not carved in stone.
“The bottom line is that if you’re not very accurate, you’re not going to have a job.”
Mackey does, and it’s one he absolutely loves. With a few weeks of vacation time to kill this past summer, Mackey wound up spending 17 days in Las Vegas. Turns out Sin City was hosting LeBron James’ annual camp, the USA Select Team camp and a portion of the NBA’s summer league competition.
“I think I’ve been in a gym every day since I was 8 years old. Open the hood of a car and I’m lost. But put me in a gymnasium and I’m in my comfort zone,” Mackey said. “Part of being a good scout is having an open mind. Does that player have the physical tools? First, it’s does he pass the eye test, and then it’s how he interacts with his coaches and teammates.”
There are three ironclad rules Mackey lives by when scouting. They are, in no order of importance: (1) Arrive early. (2) Don’t be writing or texting when you should be watching. And (3) stay fresh. The third might even mean a quick nap ahead of time so that he is energized and excited about the basketball game being played in front of him.
Mackey maintains that inner fire wherever he goes, even at an age where he should be breaking in his senior citizen’s discount. However, stepping onto the court inside Cleveland State’s 13,000-seat Wolstein Center one winter day six years ago stirred up an entirely different set of emotions.
Cleveland State decided to bring back “The King,” “Mouse” and every other member of the 1986 team they could entice for a 20-year reunion.
“It was great. Just to be with all those guys again,” Mackey said. “That was a special team at a special time.”
One with a special coach, a fact not lost to Vikings fans in attendance that day.
To the astonishment of no one, Mackey received a standing ovation.
Once the King, always the King.