OTL story of Kevin Mackey is poignant reminder for ESPN’s Dwayne Bray

Senior Coordinating Producer Dwayne Bray’s feature story on former college basketball coach Kevin Mackey airs this Sunday on Outside the Lines (ESPN, 9 a.m. ET). (Here is a trailer for the feature.) For Front Row, Bray shares his personal connection to Mackey and the sad coincidence that brought the story full circle for him. Bray will further discuss the story on Sunday’s OTL and will also discuss the piece after it airs on this weekend’s The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap on ESPN Radio (check local listings).

People love happy endings.

It’s far too soon to say that the Kevin Mackey story has such an ending. Mackey is the Pacers scout who once was blackballed from the top echelons of basketball, namely the NBA and the NCAA. In his first head coaching job, he led the Cleveland State Vikings to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1986. Then, he got the Vikings placed on probation and banned from the NCAA Tournament because NCAA investigators concluded that he obstructed its investigation into Mackey’s recruitment of Manute Bol, who was in Cleveland trying to play for Cleveland State and Mackey long before he was an NBA shot-blocking sensation.

The Bol situation pales in comparison to the trouble Mackey found himself in on July 13, 1990. He was in a crack house, smoking rocks of cocaine. He was arrested after leaving the house on Edmonton Avenue in Cleveland. After that, no one in basketball would touch him for 13 years, until Larry bird finally hired him as a Pacers scout in 2003.

Long before I came to ESPN, I was an Afro-wearing student journalist at Cleveland State. I officially arrived on campus the same day as Kevin Mackey in the fall of 1983. I covered him for four years.

I always wanted to tell his story because it was fascinating and, in my opinion, under-reported. I had relatives in Cleveland from our gritty east-side neighborhood who had warned me that the coach liked the night life in the ‘hood. It turns out that others had heard the same rumors in the 1980s and even asked Mackey about them, but he’d just say those were the streets where he was finding the best players. One player on the Vikings grew up down the street from where Mackey was busted.

So, after not seeing Mackey for about 27 years, I dialed him up last June. I had covered Mackey back in the day for the Cleveland State student newspapers, the Vindicator (the African-American paper) and the Cauldron (the mainstream paper). I invited myself over to Indy to meet the former coach of my alma mater. We ate at St. Elmo’s on Sept. 17. He and I reminisced for two and a half hours.

Over the next six months, I’d interview him more than a dozen times in Cleveland and Indianapolis in person and on the phone, including three times with multiple high-definition cameras pointed dead on him. I followed him to a coaching clinic in Cuyahoga Heights outside of Cleveland. I rode with him as he drove around the city. Along with producer Michael Sciallo, I accompanied him to a Pacers game. Those are the interviews you’ll see in the piece we did for ESPN and Sunday’s Outside the Lines (9 a.m. ET, ESPN).

I was also able to interview, on and off camera, more than a half dozen of his ex-players, including a walk-on, Marty Sweeney, who is a Cleveland city councilman. Walk-ons seemed to know everything about a team because they can take nothing for granted.

Other interviews were done with his son, Brian (a former Harvard teammate of Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan), ex-Navy center David Robinson, Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, Sgt. Thomas Shoulders (the cop who arrested him) and Jan Muczyk (the administrator who gave him his walking papers form Cleveland State.) Ex-players I talked to included guards Shawn Hood and Ken “Mouse” McFadden and forward Clinton Smith.

This story was interesting because I had attended Cleveland State and was there when the Vikings went to the Sweet 16. Other than that, it was not much different from the thousands of other stories I had worked on in my 25-year media career.

Until February 24.

That morning, at 6 a.m., I was awakened by a call from my 28-year-old son Dwayne Jr., who lives outside of Houston. He said my mother, his grandmother Queenie Mae Bray-Sparks, was having trouble breathing and was rushed to the emergency room at Memorial Hermann Hospital on Gessner Avenue in Houston.

Why did my mother’s illness have anything to do with Mackey? Like Mackey, my mother was a recovering addict.

I flew to Texas the next day and spent the next three weeks at her bedside, first in the intensive-care unit and then in the hospice unit. Her liver and kidneys were fast failing, pneumonia was choking her lungs and she was hooked up to a ventilator. The doctors and nurses at this Hermann hospital kept me sane. Doctors at another Hermann had sent her home a few days before this episode.

On March 4, my mother celebrated her 20th birthday being clean and sober, while unconscious in ICU with her son sitting by her side, occasionally writing text for the ESPN story of another recovering addict, Mackey. He is 68. Queenie was 63 when she died March 14 or, as one of my bosses put it, “far too young” to die.

Days later, as my aunt Dorothy Brimage and I moved some of my mother’s belongings in a U-Haul on a 22-hour drive from Houston to our hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, I got this text from Mackey: “God rest your mother’s soul. I know you made her happy and very proud.”

Mackey probably knows some of my mother’s struggles better than me. He walked the dark side of those Cleveland streets, the same ones my mother used to frequent before relocating to Houston 30 years ago, so I wouldn’t see her struggle with addiction.

In the end, in ICU, I met several people who my mother supported during her own 20 years of sobriety, former addicts who used her guidance to stay clean and sober. As sad as it is to lose your relatively young and beautiful mother, the fact that she helped others overcome addiction in Houston – the same city where Mackey says he got cleaned up with the assistance of former NBA player John Lucas – made me feel a little better. Her story is a happy ending only if you think it’s not how far you fall down. It’s how you get up and try to help others. It’s what she did, and it’s what Mackey says he does.

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  • Cunegonde

    Cunegonde sweet story. RIP, Queenie. BTW, she must have been about 14 when Dwayne was born.

  • Cleveland Tommy

    Thank you Kevin Mackey…I had the time of my life…when you were here…