Back from rock bottom

Three in the morning, in the mountains of Argentina, basketball's banished soul suddenly felt destined to die. In the back of the bus, where coaches and players slept on mats, sometimes watching the drivers drinking. Kevin Mackey had just awoken to see the driver dozing, the bus drifting left, and an 18-wheel truck speeding toward them on a collision course.

"I'm going to pay for all my sins, right here and now," Mackey remembered thinking to himself, a flash before the driver tipped the wheel to the right and spared their lives.

Mackey had survived again. He would live to make it to one more distant gymnasium, one more game, one more mile post on what had turned into the road map to basketball oblivion.

"It all looks a lot better in the rear-view mirror," Mackey said.

He was talking on the telephone inside his Conseco Fieldhouse office in Indianapolis, the Pacers' newest scout, signed, sealed and resurrected by the vision and heart of Larry Bird. For so long, the images in the rear-view mirror have haunted Mackey, the sordid scenes out of triumph and tragedy that never stopped chasing him.

From beating Bobby Knight on his way to the Sweet 16 of the 1986 NCAA Tournament as commuter school Cleveland State's irascible coach, to staggering out of a crack house with a junkie high four years later live on the 6 o'clock news, Mackey had turned into the all-time coaching cartoon character.

Only, he had endured it in living color, all of it, and Mackey had been transformed from the pudgy, lovable underdog to the coaching pariah nobody dared touch. Thirteen years ago, his journey started in the tiny gyms and shag-carpet motel rooms of the bush leagues, bouncing from minor league stops in Mansfield, Ohio, to Atlantic City, N.J., Argentina to South Korea. And always, winning championships, discovering players and staying sober along the way.

So, he waited. He wondered. Around basketball, coaches were given second and third chances, but never him. He did his time, served his penance but the NBA wouldn't touch him -- never mind the college game. And when it seemed to Mackey that he was serving a life sentence for his sins, the telephone finally rang a year ago, a voice moving him to his core.

"This is Larry Bird."

This had to be a prank. A cruel joke. Larry Bird? Even his Mackey's days as the recruiter for Boston College, discovering John Bagley and Michael Adams for Tom Davis, he had never crossed paths with Bird.

"I told him, 'You do sound like him,' " Mackey said. "I had just seen the Boston Market commercial on television."

So, who was this?

Well, it was Larry Bird, the voice said.

"Kevin, what's it going to take?" Bird responded. Finally, Bird told him to take a down his number and call him back.

He did. And it was Bird, plotting a course of action for his ill-fated ownership cause for the NBA's Charlotte expansion franchise. Bird made it clear to Mackey: He knew his story. And he could move past it, as long as Mackey could. He wanted to give him a job. In the year since, they talked one or twice a month, and when Bird returned with the Pacers, he stayed true to his word.

Now, Mackey is talking fast on the telephone inside his Conseco Fieldhouse office, talking about a long, hard road, about faith and forgiveness, about nine days at a Marriott in San Juan -- a Marriott! -- for the Olympic qualifying championship this summer.

"Some nights it would go through my mind about whether I would ever get this chance," Mackey said, "but I loved what I was doing and I was grateful for what the minor leagues provided me. We had a lot of success -- four outright championships, two division championships, 35 guys who played in the NBA. I saw a level of basketball the college coaches knew nothing about. I know how talented and hungry those guys there are, and that should be a strength for me now."

As much as anything, this is an inspired hiring by Bird. He told Mackey that the Pacers would never be afraid to "go against the grain," and this hiring is the ultimate proof. Truth be told, who will be hungrier than him? Who knows the bushes like Mackey? The ultimate insider, Bird, and the ultimate outsider, Mackey, have a great deal more in common than people might believe.

They're gym rats. They're lifers. And they were always willing to out-work everyone.

"Some days," Mackey said, "I would wake up and wonder, what town am I in? What league? What gym am I going to? It was like some kind of magical, mystery tour. But like I always tell players: 'Fellas, it takes just one guy who's in power to believe in you, to pull the trigger.' And that's what happened with Larry."

"And God, I never thought in a million years that Larry Bird would be the man to bring me to the NBA."

In the time they've spent together in Indianapolis, Mackey has marveled over the way basketball's most faithful fans reach out to the Pacers' new president, the way the legend out of French Lick reaches back. Something else happens, too. They remember Kevin Mackey. They remember '86, and Mackey and those fearless Cleveland State Vikings taking it to Knight and the Hoosiers.

"It's amazing, people still come up to me about that game here," Mackey said. "No one had ever heard of our program then. We played a different style, the whole run-and-stun thing. We had hungry kids that nobody wanted."

"That's what I'm looking for now. I've always believed there are guys out there who slipped through the cracks, who are hiding in plain sight, who just haven't been diagnosed correctly."

From here to basketball eternity, Kevin Mackey is leaving for the road to find them, a long, hard road to the brink and back, finally out of the cold and back into the game's warm embrace.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.