BOSTON BALLER: In 1986, Somerville native Kevin Mackey pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history. Then he was arrested outside a Cleveland crack house. He has since rebounded and now is a top scout for the Indiana Pacers and team president Larry Bird.
When March Madness tips off tonight, Kevin Mackey will be in the stands taking notes. As a professional-basketball scout, he's looking for tomorrow's NBA stars. Twenty-four years ago, Mackey was on the sidelines of the NCAA tournament, coaching the Cleveland State Vikings, who pulled off one of the most memorable upsets in the tournament's history, knocking off perennial power Indiana and coach Bob Knight. Four years later, though, Mackey was out of basketball, a casualty of alcohol and drugs. After rebuilding his life and toiling in the obscurity of basketball's minor leagues, Mackey again scaled the summit of big-time sports.
Mackey's journey started in Somerville, where he was a regular in playground pick-up games. After a South Shore summer-league contest and a run-in with a future NBA star, he knew that his future was as a coach, not as a player. "I played against the great Jimmy Walker," recalls Mackey, now 63, in his thick Boston accent. "I was 19, 20 years old. I went back to my room. I was crying. I couldn't cover him. It was like I wasn't even there."
After playing at small-time college Saint Anselm's in New Hampshire, Mackey landed the head coaching position at Cathedral High School in Boston, where monetary compensation wasn't necessarily part of the equation. "I remember the priest," says Mackey. "He was the athletic director. He says, 'I'm not sure that we can pay you on a regular basis.' I said, 'Father, that's okay. I want the job.'?"
When he wasn't teaching junior high, he won championships. Boston's Don Bosco High School brought Mackey on to build a powerhouse. Ranked as high as fourth in the country, Don Bosco attracted the attention of college scouts, prompting Mackey to consider a move up to the next level. "I started to look at the college thing," he remembers, "and said, 'I want to do that.' ?"
As an assistant at Boston College, Mackey earned a reputation as a top-notch recruiter, finding overlooked gems. Case in point: Michael Adams, a diminutive point guard from Hartford, who did not receive a single Division-1 college-scholarship offer — until Mackey got his eyes on him. "No one gave him a chance," says Mackey. "They said he was too small and too wild. When I saw him, I started to sweat. I got goose bumps." Adams was a slam dunk. Following a successful career in Chestnut Hill, he went on to play 11 years in the NBA.
After being passed over for the Boston College head-coach position, Mackey took the top job at Cleveland State in 1983 and immediately hit the recruiting trail. "I had a formula," says Mackey. "I went after guys who had fallen through the cracks, who weren't on the radar, wrong size for the position — hungry, aggressive kids with chips on their shoulders, something to prove."