Kevin McKenna Finds Success in Coaching

March 26, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks (24) is greeted by assistant coach Kevin McKenna as he comes off the court against Oklahoma Sooners during the second half of the West regional final of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
March 26, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks (24) is greeted by assistant coach Kevin McKenna as he comes off the court against Oklahoma Sooners during the second half of the West regional final of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports /

Much like with any profession that is reliant on physical ability, the lifespan of a professional athlete is one of the more limited in the world. With this in mind, many athletes are faced with big decisions to make regarding their career, sometimes before they even turn 30-years old.

This was the case for former New Jersey Nets guard Kevin McKenna. While many of his counterparts have floundered in their post-playing careers, McKenna has been able to thrive while helping develop the next generation of players.

Before he got into coaching however, the first big decision of his playing career came when he was a senior in high school. In an interview with Nothin’ But Nets, McKenna detailed the path that led him to Creighton University.

“My high school coach was friends with a coach from their staff and I had a great visit there, plus I thought that they had the best chance to go to NCAA Tournament. My second choice, Minnesota, got put on probation the day of my visit and were banned from the tournament for a couple of years, so that made the decision a bit easier,” said McKenna.

In signing with Creighton, McKenna joined a team that had gone 83-28 in the previous four seasons and had made the NCAA Tournament twice during that time. While he was just a freshman, he was able to play a valuable role on the team and helped them reach the tournament yet again.

By the time his senior year rolled around he was the focal point of the offense and once again led them to the tournament. Though they lost in the first round during both appearances, it was an unforgettable experience.

“The tournament was great, but also heartbreaking both years that we made it. We had leads in both games and lost at the end. It was great feeling to be able to be playing in those games, though.”

Creighton had success before he arrived, but McKenna’s four years with the school saw the last bit of sustained success that the program had until Dana Altman took over around 15 years later. Now one of the strongest mid-majors in the country, McKenna is proud of what the Bluejays have been able to establish.

“Creighton has a good basketball tradition. Omaha and the Creighton community really got behind the team and the new arena really enhanced the game atmosphere, for sure. Coach Altman won a lot of games and had some very good players over the years and the seats filled up to where it is today. Doug McDermott’s career was fun to watch and he may be CU’s best ever in college. “

With his career at Creighton in the books, McKenna began to move forward towards the next step of his playing career. As the NBA Draft rolled around, he was hopeful to hear his name called at some point. That time eventually came as the fourth round came around and the Los Angeles Lakers selected him.

“I was very excited and determined to see it through and work to have a chance to make the team. Fourth round picks usually don’t stick around long, but I was fortunate to be in shape and ready for the challenge of being a rookie fighting for a roster spot.”

Despite his draft position, McKenna managed to defy the odds and join a loaded Lakers roster that included Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. Though he wasn’t able to play all that much, the knowledge that he was able to soak in was invaluable.

“I learned a lot from those guys. Magic made it fun and lifted everybody up every day. Kareem was great because of his competitiveness and his superior ability and drive. Coop was an unbelievable athlete and defender. The team was really well rounded and played good all year, but really amped it up in the playoffs.”

The team was loaded with talent and with Pat Riley at the helm they were an unstoppable force. Finishing the regular season with 57 wins, the team swept the first two rounds of the playoffs and took home an NBA Championship after a six-game battle with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Though he was waived prior to the start of the following season, the experience of winning a championship was one that McKenna has been able to relive to this day. He didn’t let being waived interfere with his career either, as after a year in the Continental Basketball Association he found himself back in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and had the opportunity for substantial playing time.

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“That was a fun team to be on. We had a lot of first and second year players so it was kind of like being on a college team. We did not win many games and didn’t make the playoffs but we competed and got better. Herb Williams, Clark Kellogg, Jerry Sichting and Steve Stipanovich were excellent pros and great guys, and Indianapolis is a great hoops city.”

Though the team had struggled, McKenna had gone a long way in proving that he could produce at the NBA level. Even with that, the Pacers were still searching for a solution to their woes and shipped him off to the Houston Rockets for a future draft pick.

Prior to that trade, McKenna began to ponder a career overseas, but decided to give the NBA another chance, if only for the post-career benefits.

“I was actually in Italy when I got traded and decided to come back and try to make the team with the Rockets. I had played two years and thought I would try and get the third year for my pension, which was best advice I ever got from my agent.”

He wound up being waived by Houston, but he managed to catch on with the New Jersey Nets.

“After I was waived by the Rockets, I went home and spent time with my wife and new baby. In early December, the Nets called after they had a few guys go down with injuries and I stuck with them throughout the remainder of the season.”

He once again performed well, shooting over 45% from the field, but was on the move yet again, this time to the Washington Bullets. After a year there, he made his return to New Jersey.

“My whole career I really didn’t have the ‘choice’ to go where I wanted. I never really had any guarantees that I would be on team, so I always just tried to be a good teammate, work hard and contribute when I got the chance to play.”

After a season in which he scored over 7 points per game coming off of the bench, he stuck around with the Nets for another year. This ended up being one of the more hectic times of his career, as the team went through three head coaches on their way to a 19-win season.

“It wasn’t ideal for anybody but we dealt with it. All three coaches were guys that I liked and respected. Again, I was just trying to stay employed and play my best for whoever was in charge! We adapted to each coach and did what we could.”

He had managed to carve out a it of a role as a bench player, but an injury that he had suffered before the season had put a damper on his career and following a later comeback attempt, he made the decision to retire.

“In training camp I partially tore my Achilles during my last year in New Jersey and I came back after a few months of rehab but never got back to 100%. I tried out with the Bulls in ’88-89 season but could not physically play to hang in there. Trying to guard Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and others was hard enough with a good Achilles!”

Just 30 years old, McKenna had to make a decision about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He had a very strong attachment to the game of basketball and though he wasn’t able to play any longer, he wanted to remain involved in some facet.

Opportunity came knocking when Flip Saunders gave him a call and offered him a position with the team that he was currently working for, a move that helped him make the first step on his new career path.

“Flip Saunders, a great coach and a strong influence on me and my eventual coaching philosophy, hired me as an assistant coach with the La Crosse Catbirds of the CBA. I was working at Chicago Board of Trade and didn’t really like my job, so I felt that it was a great opportunity. We won the championship and it gave me the opportunity to move on to the Sioux Falls Skyforce in a head coaching position.”

After just one year in a coaching position, McKenna was thrown into the fire and had to deal with all of the different responsibilities that come with leading a team. Though he may have been a bit green at first, the time he spent in Sioux Falls helped mold him into the coach he has become today.

“I probably didn’t have enough coaching experience to be ready for that job and another issue was that some of the players on the team were my age and I had even played against some of them. It wasn’t deal, but I gained a ton of experience in the three years that I was there.”

His next move was to the NBA, but not as a coach. The Washington Bullets, a team he had played for less than a decade before, brought him on as a scout, a position that allowed him to see the game from all sorts of different angles.

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After a year there however, the itch to return to coaching was too strong to ignore. While McKenna was with the Bullets, his alma mater had fallen on some tough times. Struggling through another single-digit win season, the university decided that they needed to make a change.

Out went Rich Johnson and in came Dana Altman, who reached out to McKenna about joining his staff. With his desire to return to coaching and the chance to return to where he had starred in college, McKenna jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a great opportunity. I picked up my Master’s in Counseling Education, helped turn around a program that meant a lot to me and we had a lot of fun being back in Omaha.”

After seven wins with the program in which Altman and McKenna had turned the Bluejays into a consistent 20-plus game winner, he chose to leave the university for a chance to venture out on his own as a head coach.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to travel very far, as the University of Nebraska-Omaha reached out and offered him a position. After four years with the school in which he went 89-33 and won two conference championships, McKenna decided to return to the Division 1 level and re-joined Creighton on Altman’s bench.

This run did not last as long as the first, as after two years he took another head coaching position, this time with Indiana State University. Much like during his time at Nebraska-Omaha, McKenna had the program on the right track and even reached the College Basketball Invitational tournament at the conclusion of his third season.

Although he had enjoyed his time with the Sycamores the appeal of the West Coast, particularly the University of Oregon, was too strong to turn down and he joined Altman once again, who had just been hired as head coach of the program.

“We had the program going in the right direction at Indiana State, but really more than anything I was interested in Oregon because I thought we could win at the highest level and do it consistently. Another factor was I had been in the MVC as a player and coach for 16 years and I was excited about going to a different conference and living on the West Coast.”

McKenna’s prediction about the Ducks being competitive at the national level wound up being spot on, as the team has won at least 21 games in each of the six seasons they’ve been at the school, including 31 and an Elite Eight appearance this past year.

“Coach Altman has done a great job day-in and day-out guiding our program from our first year here. We have made the NCAA Tournament four straight years and have won at least one game each year. This past season we won the Pac-12 Conference and had a school-record 31 wins and we have some great kids coming back next year.”

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  • While he is currently focused on the task at hand, there is still a chance that McKenna could make the jump to being a head coach once more. With the experience that he’s developed and the success that he’s built at each of his stops, the opportunity will certainly be there if he’s interested.

    “I’m not sure what it would take to get me to accept a head coaching role because I’m really happy here. In our business you just never know, but I just finished my 26th year of coaching and it’s still exciting and challenging whether I’m a head coach or an assistant.”

    For someone who retired at the age of 30, Kevin McKenna has managed to have quite an impact on future generations over the last 25 years. With the success that he’s experienced as a coach, this career is one that isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

    Quick Questions

    Who was your favorite player growing up?
    I grew up in Chicago and my favorite player was Jerry Sloan. He played so hard and did everything he could to win. Not a super athlete, but man he would compete! His Utah teams were a reflection of him in my opinion.

    If you could go back and tell yourself something as a player that you’ve learned as a coach, what would it be?
    I would probably tell me to spend more time in the weight room, eat better, train a little differently (smarter) than when I played.

    What do you think should be the rule regarding the jump to the NBA?
    That is a very tough call because lots of kids aren’t ready for the NBA physically or mentally, but they have super talent/upside and I do believe in the American dream. They should be allowed to play in the NBA when they want. Probably not best for everyone and not a popular opinion, but that’s how I feel.

    What is something that often goes overlooked by basketball fans when they’re watching the game?
    The NBA game is so much faster and the players are so good. Everything is sped up ten times compared to the college game. The biggest thing that most people don’t notice though, is the talk/communication on the court by pros; they help each other out so much. Unless you sit court side or close to court, you don’t see it.

    Who makes up your all-time starting lineup?
    PG: Magic Johnson
    SG: Michael Jordan
    SF: Larry Bird
    PF: Tim Duncan
    C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar