Two determined stars meet

Coppin's McKee overcame daunting obstacles off the court

March 05, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,

If desire and determination were bankable commodities, Tywain McKee would already be on easy street. From the first moment he bounced a basketball as a toddler, he could imagine doing little else.

Speed bumps have slowed McKee down, but couldn't stop him. Detours ended not in dead ends, but remarkable success.

McKee, a fifth-year senior, plays his final game at Coppin Center tonight against Morgan State in what could also be the final men's game in the 22-year-old gym. (The Eagles are scheduled to move into a new arena sometime next season.) He is going out just as he came in, still hungry, still driven, still looking to refine his game.

"Anything Tywain puts his mind to, he focuses on until he masters it," said his mother, Elicia McKee.

Passed over by Temple as a nonqualifier out of high school, the Philadelphia native became the all-time leading scorer in Coppin State's illustrious basketball history. Last season, he took Coppin to an improbable Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title - and an NCAA tournament berth - by beating the top three seeds over four nights.

McKee masks his mother's fiery passion under his father's calm exterior. When Norfolk State had Coppin on the ropes in the second half of last year's MEAC semifinals, tears filled his eyes during a timeout and he told teammate Julian Conyers, "We're not going to lose."

They didn't, and with the clock running down in the championship game the next night, McKee banked in a floater that beat Morgan, 62-60. In those two games, McKee willed the Eagles to victory with a total of 59 points. He was easily the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Some 22 years before that, Elicia McKee was playing recreation basketball when she was seven months' pregnant with Tywain, such was her passion for the game. At 15 in South Philadelphia, she was the only girl in pickup games at the playground against older boys. They called her "Baby Magic."

They shared that passion, and they shared pain. McKee's father was shot to death when McKee was an infant. His mother battled, and overcame, drug dependency and depression.

McKee was around 4 when Elicia did drugs. He was 15 and rarely saw her while she held a job as a dockworker in Wilmington, Del. The worst part came when she lost the job and struggled to make ends meet. Tywain and his younger brother, Robert Jai'Shawn, eventually moved in with their grandmother, Helen McKee.

"It wasn't like I was gone," Elicia McKee, 41, says now. "I wasn't stable. I [rented] a room and instead of having the boys with me in the room, I sent them to their grandmother. ... It was more financial. I was very depressed. It was devastating."

She recovered and took the boys back after a few months. McKee played through his pain.

"When Mom wasn't there, I would just go and play basketball, so it wouldn't be like I was missing time with her," he said.

Of her drug experience, McKee said: "She's a real strong person to overcome something like that. Most people wouldn't have."

McKee sat out his first year at Coppin. Coach Fang Mitchell saw in him a good kid, a caring kid, but a kid who had scars from growing up in an unstable environment.

"I could see some problems there," Mitchell said. "Our job was to do what we could to stabilize his situation. We worked with him. He's definitely a special kid. He needed to know people cared. He just needed to trust. When you come out of the inner city, you can trust just so many people."

Mitchell became part mentor, part coach, part father figure. He coaxed the best out of McKee and directed that inner fire. A 6-foot-2, 182-pound point guard, McKee averaged 15.4 points as a redshirt freshman, 17.4 as a sophomore and 16.6 last season. This year, he's averaging 18.4 points with 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

He passed Reggie Isaac - who attended the same Philadelphia high school, Bartram, as McKee - to become the school's all-time scorer in January. He has since set Coppin records for career free throws made (495) and steals (245). With 2,102 career points, he ranks fourth among all-time scorers among Baltimore universities and colleges, 97 behind Loyola's Jim Lacy.

More than that, McKee established himself as the team's leader in last year's tournament run.

"He's always the guy that pushes people to get the best out of their game," senior Brian Chesnut said. "He always has this unlimited energy, an unbelievable motor that keeps going and going and never quits."

McKee's grandmother, Helen, helped instill some of that work ethic and a sense of modesty.

"Tywain is so disciplined in his work and serious in what he's done," she said. "I'm extremely proud of him. I always taught him no matter how good you are, stay humble, never get a big head, never think you're all that. I said put God first and everything will work out for you."

Amazingly, it has.

McKee covets a professional career and works tirelessly to get a foot in the NBA. Mitchell says some NBA coaches have called him inquiring about McKee.

"With Ty, don't underestimate him," Mitchell warned. "His determination is unbelievable. That's something he has wanted. All he wants is an opportunity, and I think we can get him that."

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