March Madness has a different feeling for former Cleveland State men's basketball coach Kevin Mackey than for others. While the rest of us revel in the excitement of the tournament and the notion that on any given night anyone can win, Mackey sees something else. His life has mimicked the tournament in the worst possible way -- one and you're done.
From Mackey's point of view, his ability to counsel players on how to handle possible temptations would be an asset. Who better than a man who has lost it all to teach what can happen when they succumb to these temptations?
In 1986, Mackey's No. 14 seeded Cleveland State team shocked the college basketball world by using their full-court trapping and pressing defense to defeat No. 3 Indiana Hoosiers, 83-79, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (The Vikings then beat No. 6 St. Joseph's before ultimately losing in the Sweet 16 to David Robinson and Navy by one point.)
After the game, Indiana coach Bob Knight said the Vikings were a well-coached team. And the "Wizard of Westwood" John Wooden noted that Cleveland State played basketball the way the game was supposed to be played.
Kevin Mackey was walking on clouds.
Four years later, Mackey fell from that cloud when he was arrested after leaving a crack house and was later fired from his job at Cleveland State.
Since then, he cleaned himself up and began living life one day at a time. Determined to stay in the basketball arena, Mackey has become a coaching journeyman, going from team to team in basketball's minor leagues, courting success almost everywhere he's been.
Currently he's coaching the Mansfield Hawks of the International Basketball Association, just an hour and a half away from where Cleveland State plays in a stadium that was built because of his success. And fittingly, the players he coaches are looking for a chance to show what they can do, just like him. (He has helped a few players reach the NBA, including the Dallas Mavericks' Adrian Griffin.)
From Mackey's point of view, his ability to counsel young players on how to handle possible temptations would be an asset. After all, who better than a man who's lost it all to lead by example and teach what can happen if they succumb to such temptations?
But hiring comes down to trust. And a program must first trust Mackey to stay sober. Typically when you interview for a job the first questions are warm, chatty and intended to make you feel comfortable: "How was your trip? What do you like to do?" But as a former addict, Mackey's first question might be to pee in a bottle.
His coaching ability speaks for itself: 144-67 through seven years at Cleveland State including two NIT berths as well as the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Mackey has also been a successful coach in the minor leagues for the past 12 years, winning USBL coach of the year honors in 1999 and three consecutive USBL championships. NBA scouts often call him to ask about players, but never to offer him a job.
Second chances are hard to come by in life. And no matter where he goes, Mackey continues to face two opponents everyday -- the fight to stay sober and the fight for a second chance to coach in the college ranks.
Every college coach dreams of the chance to cut down the nets and celebrate a National Championship. Kevin Mackey has had those dreams before. And now, all he's looking for is a chance to dream them again.