Hoop Heritage: McGee like a machine on offense
BY STEVEN PIVOVAR
At the end of his Omaha North career, Mike McGee owned 12 Metro Conference records.Mike McGee never met a shot he couldn't make.
He also never faced an opponent he wanted to guard.
Probably no player from Nebraska ever put the ball in the basket with greater skill than the 6-foot-4 McGee did at Omaha North from 1974 through 1977.
"No one in Class A has ever come close to averaging what Mike did his senior year," former North coach Bob Murray said. "He could hit them from anywhere."
Playing before there was a 3-point shot, McGee racked up 1,596 points in high school, most coming during his junior and senior seasons. He went on to score 2,077 more at Michigan, setting the Big Ten record for offensive productivity, and 4,968 in nine seasons in the NBA.
No statistics exist on the number of points McGee allowed.
"The only problem I ever had with Mike," former Michigan coach Johnny Orr said, "was that I could never get him to guard anyone."
McGee's defensive deficiencies didn't scare away Orr. Nor did they keep some 200 other coaches from targeting McGee, making him one of the most recruited athletes in Nebraska high school history.
The attention would have been overwhelming had Murray not helped McGee
and parents Al and Mae set up guidelines that kept Mike off limits during his senior season at North. Once the season ended, Murray said, "the cars started lining up."
Mae McGee said it wasn't uncommon to have three or four coaches show up a night to visit her son. The phone calls would come at all hours.
"We'd get them after we had gone to bed," she said in 1977. "They would say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were asleep.' What did they think we would be doing at 1 o'clock in the morning, playing jacks out under the street light?"
The process wore on the low-key McGee.
"I know there were times when Mike would be coming home from school and see a car out in front of the house that he didn't recognize," Mae McGee said recently. "He would drive around the block until it was gone and it was safe to come home."
The offers weren't always, should we say, by the book, either. For example, one college coach trying to land McGee tracked down Murray as he walked out to the school parking lot.
"I'm driving this ol' '65 Chevy with no heater, and he said, 'Coach, looks like you could use a new car,'" Murray said. "The guy says, 'Bob, if you can get Mike down to our place, we'll make sure you'll be driving a new car next year."
Murray dismissed the recruiter, whom he declined to identify, telling him that's not how he operated.
"But that's the kind of things that were going on," Murray said.
Orr didn't offer anything illegal, not when he could enlist the services of an ex-president in the recruiting process. McGee's official recruiting visit to Ann Arbor coincided with an on-campus ceremony to honor former President Gerald Ford, a Michigan graduate born in Omaha. Orr introduced McGee and his mother to Ford at a reception.
"I told the president, 'This young man is from Omaha,'" Orr said. "Ford said, 'Omaha, that's where I'm from. I came to Michigan and I ended up becoming the president of the United States.' Mike's mom turned to me right there and said, 'He's coming.'"
Mae McGee laughed when asked about the visit. "Coach Orr is a great talker," she said.
But getting a chance to shake the hand of a former president did have an effect.
"That's a hand I didn't wash for a long time," she said.
McGee did end up committing to Michigan, picking the school over Minnesota and Creighton. The latter school became interested in McGee after Tom Brosnihan, then a Bluejay assistant, had visited North to talk to one of McGee's older teammates, center Dave Powell.
"I told 'Broz' that Dave was a very good player and prospect," Murray said. "But then I pointed to Mike and said, 'I got a sophomore over there that's even a better one (prospect).' It didn't take Broz long to realize that Mike was something different."
By that time, McGee's reputation as a player had long been established around North. John McGill, now the principal at Papillion Middle School, was a junior at North when McGee enrolled as a freshman.
"I can still remember the kids talking about this ninth-grader in P.E. class and the amazing things he was doing on the basketball court," McGill said. "Once you saw him, it was very, very obvious that this guy was really special."
McGill was a senior when McGee made the varsity squad. The Vikings had a solid team, and it took McGee some time to break into the lineup. He scored 60 points as a sophomore but made an impression on opponents.
Doug Woodard, now the coach at Bellevue West, was a senior at Omaha Burke when he first faced McGee.
"You could tell that he was going to be very different than the average or above-average player," Woodard said. "Even then, you could tell he was a guy that had as many gifts as any kid in this area."
McGee blossomed as a junior, averaging 24.9 points per game while earning All-Nebraska honors. That was only a prelude to what was to come in his senior season.
By the time the 1976-77 season ended, McGee owned 12 Metro Conference records. He still holds league records for points in a game (54), points in a season (916), scoring average (38.1) and points in two seasons (1,536). He repeated as an all-stater while also earning The World-Herald's 1977 high school athlete of the year award.
He finished his career as Class A's all-time scoring leader. Two players, Erick Strickland and Andre Woolridge, since have broken McGee's record, but each played four seasons.
"Mike McGee was a guy that any time he crossed the half-court line, he was in range," said Jim Honz, who played at Omaha Ryan and then at Creighton. "He's by far the best guy I played against in high school. I played against Larry Bird in college, but Mike, in his own right, was pretty good at that level, too."
What made McGee the player he was?
"He had the quickest first step of any guy I coached," said Murray, his coach at North. "And he did something that you don't see players today do. He followed his shot. He was a guy that could play any position on the court. It didn't make any difference to Mike if we asked him to bring the ball up or play inside. He could do it all."
McGill, his former teammate, said it was hard not to marvel at McGee's relentlessness.
"He had this aggressive attitude on the court that he wasn't going to be denied," McGill said. "He was quick, and he could shoot the ball. And when he missed, he was usually there to get the rebound.
"And Mike was fast. He could really run the floor."
McGee proved that to a couple of his professional teammates as a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. Another rookie, Kevin McKenna, remembers two of the team's veterans, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper, taunting McGee about how they were faster than he was on the court.
"Mike lined up and beat them both," said McKenna, the former Creighton star who now is the head coach at Indiana State. "That showed me how athletic he was. He wasn't a high-flying guy, but he was strong physically and could run all day. He reminded me of the Energizer Bunny."
McKenna learned first-hand that McGee's motor rarely shut down.
"We were both in a game during garbage time," McKenna said. "I got an offensive rebound, and I'm thinking this is my big chance to get a layup. All of a sudden, someone stripped me of the ball. I looked, and it was Mike. He stole the ball from me and laid it up himself."
It was that kind of aggressiveness that Michigan's Orr grew to love about McGee.
"I never coached a better offensive player," Orr said. "And the thing was, you never wanted to do anything to irritate Mike. If we were running a drill, and one of his teammates did something Mike didn't like, he would just go out and humiliate the guy. Yet Mike was a guy off the court that everyone loved. Everyone was Mike McGee's friend."
As it turned out, McGee might have been the best player Orr never saw play before he wound up becoming a Wolverine. A friend of Orr's had moved to this area and alerted the coach about some kid tearing things up in Omaha.
Orr eventually sent one of his assistant coaches to Omaha to watch McGee play. McGee scored 33 points â€” in the first half.
"I set up a visit after the season and came to visit Mike," Orr said. "I couldn't get him to talk about anything. Finally, I said, 'Mike, what are your goals?' He told me he wanted to be the all-time scoring leader in the Big Ten. I said, 'That's nice. Come to Michigan, and we'll help you do that.'
"Afterward, I told my assistant, 'We have a nut job here. This kid thinks he's going to be the all-time leading scorer in the Big Ten.' And . . . that's what he ended up doing."
McGee, who never did make it to the NCAA tournament as a Wolverine, went on to play for five NBA teams and was a member of two world championship teams with the Lakers. He averaged 10.2 points for the Lakers' 1985 champions. He also played professionally in the Philippines, then went on to coach in several Far Eastern countries. He currently is coaching in Singapore.
McGee rarely returns to Omaha. Attempts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful. He does keep in frequent touch with his parents and his sisters. His older sister, Sandra, recalls one of her brother's last visits.
"He had his passport out, and it was amazing to see all the places basketball has taken him," she said. "Basketball has given Mike so many opportunities, and he's made the most of them."
Not bad for a guy who couldn't play defense.
"People used to get on him for that, but that's not true," said Murray, his high school coach. "Mike could play defense. He could play good defense. It's just that I wasn't going to be yelling 'Sic 'em' on defense to a guy that's scoring 38 points a game.
"As a coach, you're lucky to get one kid like Mike to come along in your coaching career. I was the fortunate one in this. Mike was a good kid, he loved to play the game, and he wouldn't take a back seat to anyone that played before him or after him."