Jim McKean's winding path to WSU Hall of Fame

NEARLY HALF A century has passed since Jim McKean established himself as one of the greatest basketball players in Washington State history, but McKean always has been so much more than a basketball player. A college professor, a poet, an award-winning author, a survivor of the turbulent 1960s, even a drag racer (however briefly).

McKean has sampled just about all that life has to offer during his 67 years.

"Interesting or creative or odd, I don't know," McKean deadpans. "Pick your choice."

On Friday, a true oversight in WSU sports history will be corrected when McKean is inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame. Joining him in this year's class will be Bernard Jackson, Rien Long, Aaron Sele, Dan Bertola, Kim Welch, Whitney Evans, Ian Campbell, the 1997 football (1998 Rose Bowl) team, the 1965 World Series baseball team, and the 1937 world-record relay team.

Now semi-retired and teaching part-time at various universities and workshops, McKean is working on his fifth book. Three of the first four consisted of poems and the other, titled Home Stand – Growing Up in Sports, includes insights on his four years in crimson.

Oh, the memories McKean can share through his writing. Many revolve around his time at Washington State, where he remains first in career rebounds per game (11.0) and second in career points per game (18.3, just shy of Steve Puidokas' 18.6).

The 6-foot-9 McKean was nicknamed the "Jolly Green Giant" at WSU, but he was one of countless college players who came up short in more ways than one when he faced 7-1 UCLA great Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Alcindor, in fact, scored a career-high 61 points -- which is still tied for the Pac-12 Conference record -- against the Cougars in 1967. McKean fouled out of that game, so it's safe to say he surrendered no more than 30 or 40 of those points.

"Thanks for bringing that up!" jokes McKean, who wrote an essay about his date with infamy.


While Alcindor was at another level, McKean himself was far from ordinary. He was a first-team all-conference pick as a junior and senior, and a second-team choice as a sophomore. He averaged a double-double every year. Look magazine picked him a regional All-American in 1967 and '68.

When Marv Harshman retired in 1985 after 40 years as a head coach at PLU, WSU and UW, he chose McKean as one of the five biggest over-achievers of his career.

The Cougs finished fourth, second and third in the conference in McKean's three seasons, but in those days only the champion was afforded an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

"Jim should have been inducted into the hall of fame many years ago," says WSU athletic director Bill Moos. "That being said, I'm excited he is going to be on campus this weekend. We will have a chance to honor him ... and he will be enshrined forever."

McKean grew up in the Shoreline area in suburban Seattle before moving to Tacoma as a teenager and graduating from Wilson High. A longtime English professor at Iowa's Mount Mercy University, McKean spoke to Cougfan.com recently from his home in Iowa City.

Cougfan: What do you remember about your days at Washington State?

McKean: I am a Cougar 100 percent. It was a terrific time for me. The basketball, of course, was all encompassing. I was totally involved in basketball, but I made really good friends (on and off the court) who I still have. I loved the campus and living on campus. It was a great time for me. It was the 60s, which was an interesting time. The basketball kind of kept me centered and on task, which I'm eternally grateful for.

Cougfan: Fiery Jud Heathcote, who guided Michigan State and Magic Johnson to the NCAA basketball title in 1978-79, certainly had a reputation for keeping players "centered and on task." You played for Heathcote on WSU's 22-0 freshman team in 1964-65, Heathcote's first year in Pullman (during a period when the NCAA banned freshmen from varsity sports). One of the essays in "Home Stand" was about playing for Heathcote, right?

McKean: He would rangle on you and chew on you. You wondered if you were ever going to get this quite right, but he was always a really good teacher. We had a "ready, shoot" drill. I think every year I got to shoot better because of him.

Cougfan: You enjoyed great success with your turnaround, high-arcing shot, which was quite unusual. What did Heathcote think of that shot initially?

McKean: I really think I patterned that after a guy named Tom Whelan. He played at PLU (Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma). He was averaging, like, 25 or 26 points a game for PLU. He had a shot – I wrote about this in the book, too – I would have died for. Just beautiful. Way over the head, high, on a fadeaway. I would practice forever. I took that shot over to Washington State, and Jud had never seen it, and he wanted me to almost stick it in my drawer. But it worked. He helped me develop that shot.

Cougfan: What else can you tell us about playing for Heathcote and Marv Harshman, your varsity coach at WSU?

McKean: Jud, he's a really loyal guy. I had no doubt about his concern for us to be good ballplayers. I had no doubt whatsoever. Marv Harshman, too. How much this game meant to them. How important it was to them. How serious they were about this game. How much they wanted us to be part of this game and give it everything we had. I knew it meant that much to them, so I thought, "It's going to mean that much to me, too." After all, I was playing for them, you know. They "played" for me, too. I've got ego enough!

Cougfan: You weren't known for having great athleticism, but after your senior season, you became the first Cougar invited to try out for the U.S. national team in basketball. You were cut and never played pro ball (though drafted by the Sonics), so do you have any regrets?

McKean: I'm very proud of how well I did in basketball. In some ways, I wish I'd done better. I was ambitious for myself, but I reached a point where I knew that was about it. That was as far as I was going to go. I'm glad I could write something nice about the basketball experience … be articulate about what I went through, because it was a pretty special time for me. In fact, it meant everything to me. It still does in some ways.

Cougfan: Alcindor scored a good chunk of his 61 points after you fouled out early, but what can you recall about his performance?

McKean: I had a picture in Life magazine, 1967, a full-page picture of Lew stuffing it over me. I'm pretty proud to have my picture in Life magazine, but at the same time, I don't want to get my butt kicked! People would ask what's like to play against Lew Alcindor, so I finally wrote the essay about that.

Cougfan: What made Alcindor so special?

McKean: It wasn't that he was so much stronger. He was strong, it was just that he could get to places I couldn't get to. His vertical range and his horizontal range was just of my range. He was just playing at a level, in all meanings of the word, that I couldn't get to.

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Cougfan: You were such a great scorer, did you have any luck against Alcindor on offense?

McKean: I got him on moves a couple times. But what was interesting, once I did that, I couldn't do it again. He'd figured it out. He would read me. He's a very smart guy. If he fell for something once, he wasn't going to fall for it again. By the end of the game, I was just muted.

Cougfan: You're finally going to be inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame. What took 'em so long?

McKean: I have no idea. I think I got lost – I moved away to Iowa. I'm very proud of that (his pending induction), very pleased.

Cougfan: No doubt your wife and daughter are just glad you lived long enough to make it to the Hall of Fame, considering that you drove a big ol' Hudson in drag races in Puyallup one summer in high school. You wrote an essay about it. What thought process – or lack thereof – went into that decision?

McKean: A pretty stupid thing to do … (and) I broke the damn steering in the middle of one of those runs! It wasn't good. It was going straight at about 120 miles an hour, and my steering wheel was just going around in circles! That was the end for me. No more.

Cougfan: Well, we're just glad you made it to Washington State. You still try to catch up with old college buddies at a WSU football game every year, right?

McKean: Once a Cougar, always a Cougar. You bore the people around you with all the Cougar T-shirts and the Cougar hats and the Cougar gear. You drive everybody nuts.

Cougfan: Well, you deserve to brag about being a Cougar, particularly since you became a Pac-8 star despite being cut from your eighth-grade basketball team. How in the world did that happen?

McKean: The coach was Jack Johnson, who became a Pac-8 official … I was just brokenhearted. The thing is, in eighth grade, I was about 5-10 1-2. I was 6-4 the next year … I made the ninth-grade team. Johnson was the coach.

Cougfan: Did Johnson ever talk to you when you were playing for the Cougars?

McKean: He'd hand me the ball during the damn game against Stanford or something. He said, "I taught you everything you know!" I'd say back to him, "Yeah, but you cut me in the eighth grade!"

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