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Aaron McKie Is the Man for Every Moment in Philadelphia Basketball

Born and raised in Philly, McKie played for John Chaney at Temple and spent more than half of his NBA career with the Sixers. As he begins his first season as head coach of the Owls, he reflects on what the city has given him—and what he wants to give back to it.

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Aaron McKie still enjoys a good pickup game. He finds time one October morning between a team practice and his afternoon meetings to head to the basketball courts at Temple University’s McGonigle Hall, where he finds a familiar group of undergraduates hooping. He tries to make time to play at least once a week, but it’s getting harder these days. Temple’s season begins in less than two weeks, and McKie is preparing for his first season as the Owls’ head men’s basketball coach.

Standing near the sideline, McKie calls his own number and steps on to the court. Gone is the Caesar cut of his youth, replaced by a depilated dome and a grizzled goatee. The 47-year-old is more than two decades removed from his playing days at Temple under Hall of Fame coach John Chaney, and he retired from the NBA in 2007, but his game has aged well, and he’s not about to take it easy on his opponents.

McKie calls an isolation play and nets a midrange jumper, sticking his tongue out at the hapless undergraduate guarding him. At 6-foot-5, he’s a towering presence on the court, and while his movement has grown robotic, his instincts remain. He doesn’t miss a single jumper in an hour. He yells at his teammates for missing defensive assignments and protests when he doesn’t get to run the point. He shouts “HELL NAWLLL” when his opponents miss a shot. At one point, McKie steals a pass, crosses his defender over with a left-handed, behind-the-back dribble, drops another with an inside-out dribble, pushes the ball the length of the court, and draws in three defenders at the rim before finding a teammate open for a corner 3. He smiles, slaps his right hip, and gallops back down the court as if riding a bronco. “I still got it!” he says as he walks off the court. “Those good kids, man. That’s my crew, and I play with them all the time. But I be talking shit to them. Those motherfuckers ain’t beat me in a month!” he says with a laugh.

When he’s finished playing, McKie returns to his office and sinks into a chair. He’ll spend the rest of his day on recruiting calls and team meetings. He replaced Fran Dunphy as the Owls’ head coach this spring after five years as Dunphy’s assistant. Before returning to his alma mater, he spent six seasons as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers. McKie says he prefers the college game because it offers an opportunity to teach young men and set them on a course for the rest of their lives, just as Chaney and so many others did for him. “I try to teach the same way I was taught,” he says. “Love and dedication, commitment, all those different things … that was done for me. It’s the same thing that I try to do with these guys and get them to put life into perspective.”

McKie was raised in the streets surrounding Temple. He used to smile as he walked or drove past the university on North Broad Street, the cherry-and-white flags waving in the wind. He’s never really left Philadelphia. Growing up, he bounced between homes as he tried to make it out of the personal hell of his childhood. He dazzled at Simon Gratz High, learned under Chaney’s tutelage in college, and spent more than half of his 13-year NBA career with the Sixers, winning Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2000-01, when the team made it to the Finals.

It has been a long time since Philadelphians have seen consistent dominance from Temple, not since Chaney’s teams ignited the city in the 1980s and ’90s. The program hasn’t won a conference tournament championship since 2010, and the Owls haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2001. McKie is only the fourth Temple men’s basketball coach since 1973. Dunphy tells me McKie has a “goodness about him and a work ethic about him that will put him in a great position to have terrific teams.”

Many of McKie’s greatest triumphs have come in the city where he was born, raised, and now lives with his family. He wants to bring Temple back to its glory days using life lessons to mold a new era in Owls basketball. “He is North Philadelphia. He’s Philadelphia. I mean, he is the true Temple story,” says Patrick Kraft, Temple’s athletic director.

McKie wants to be an example for North Philly’s resilient black community. “I want to serve,” he says. When he played for the Sixers, he rented out the Liacouras Center, where the Owls play their home games, to hold Thanksgiving food drives for the homeless. Now he wants to show that someone from North Philadelphia can turn the Owls back into a winner. “I want them to see somebody that looks like them, that’s doing well, and to maybe inspire a few,” he says. Those efforts require a winning team. It won’t happen overnight, and it will not be made easier because he’s a former pro and a basketball legend in the city. He wants his team to “win from the neck up.” He’s certain of his mission, even if he has trouble believing that he’s gotten to this place.

“I used to dream it,” McKie says. “Even now, I just sit back like it’s a joke.”

Memphis v Temple
McKie as an assistant coach at Temple last season
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When McKie was a boy, he liked to race home from school, sprint through the front door of his house, and look up the number for the Sixers’ main office. “Hello,” he said when the operator answered. “Can I please speak to Dr. J?” Even though he never spoke with Julius Erving, he thought he had a line to the stars.

McKie was like so many other kids from Philly. He wanted to catch a touchdown pass for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl, knock a moon-shot grand slam for the Phillies to win the World Series, and hit a game-winning shot for the Sixers to win an NBA championship. He laid awake at night, smiling at the thought of becoming a Philly sports hero. His dreams were all he had because the rest of his world was shattering.

When McKie was 9 years old, his father, Woodrow, died of a heart attack. Soon after, his mother, Pearl, left McKie and his siblings in the care of his oldest sister, Jackie, in a small two-bedroom apartment with her two children. Jackie worked nights to provide for the family. McKie often went unattended.

“Life started to go south on me, with not having my parents around and I had no moral compass,” McKie says. He often thought, “What am I doing? What’s my purpose? Where am I going? Do I get educated? Do I play basketball? Do I go out on the street and hustle with some of my friends?”

He found his sanctuary at the Belfield Recreation Center, where he met Bill Ellerbee, a fixture at Belfield and the basketball coach at Simon Gratz. Ellerbee first heard about McKie from McKie’s older brother, Woody, who said his younger brother was born to play basketball. McKie spent most of his time at the rec center, and Ellerbee became a mentor. He was hard on McKie, making him sweep the gym floors, but McKie was never bitter. “It’s not easy,” Ellerbee tells me. “Think about it. You have to be a strong individual.” McKie didn’t trust too many people, but he trusted Ellerbee. He followed Ellerbee’s teachings: go to school, be on time, be first in everything.

“I wanted to be somebody,” McKie says. “Growing up, for me, I wanted to be a cop. I wanted to be a fireman. I wanted to be a mailman. And the reason why I wanted to be those things is because that’s what I saw every day.”

McKie transferred to Simon Gratz for his sophomore year. By that time, he had moved in with his aunt, Rose Key, who provided him with a more stable foundation. As McKie immersed himself in basketball, Aunt Rose made sure he stayed on top of his academics, embedding the morals and values he needed to be a functioning citizen in this world. Rose had no children of her own, so McKie got her full attention.

Aunt Rose would sit with McKie each night, his eyes heavy, and regale him with tales about McKie’s father, her brother. He felt like he had a home, and it gave him the motivation he didn’t previously have—starring in the NBA used to be a boyhood vision; now, he saw it as an opportunity to provide for those who laid the groundwork for him. “Man, if I could get to college and get educated, man, I could take care of my aunt,” he thought.

At Gratz, McKie was one of the best players in Philadelphia’s Public League. Playing alongside Rasheed Wallace, he averaged close to 19 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists in a 26-4 season in 1990, leading the school to its first conference championship in 51 years. He also excelled in baseball as a pitcher. His friends called him “Blue,” after Vida Blue, the six-time All-Star, MVP, and Cy Young winner. By 11th grade, Ellerbee remembers, McKie was garnering interest from the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros as an MLB draft prospect. The moniker would stick to his NBA days. His boys still call him “Blue” when asked about him.

But McKie’s passion was basketball, and he wanted to play at Temple. By the start of his senior year, however, Temple hadn’t offered him a scholarship. Chaney was familiar with McKie: He used to coach at Gratz, and Ellerbee, who was a math teacher when Chaney was at the school, kept the scorebook at games.

There was a problem: McKie needed to improve his grades. Chaney told him if he got a 2.0 GPA his senior year and a minimum score on the SAT, he’d give him a scholarship. McKie might have ended up at Coppin State University, but Chaney changed his mind after watching McKie excel at the Donofrio Tournament in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Mark Macon, a junior at the time who would go on to become Temple’s all-time leading scorer, was also in attendance. After watching McKie, he turned to a Temple assistant and said, “We need him.” Chaney invited McKie to campus the next day and gave him a scholarship.

“It’s funny. We laugh because you never know. If he had ended up at Coppin, this story wouldn’t be what it is,” says Monte Ross, McKie’s friend for 30 years. Thinking about it now brings a smile to his face. “It wouldn’t be a North Philly basketball love story.”

Coll. Basketball: W. Regionals. Closeup
McKie and John Chaney during a tournament game in 1993
Photo by Harley Soltes/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

McKie was ineligible to play his freshman season at Temple because of the NCAA’s Proposition 48, a now-defunct academic qualifying standard that required a minimum score on the SAT or ACT and at least a 2.0 GPA. The rule was racially biased. An Associated Press survey in 1988 found that the majority of college football recruits ruled ineligible by Prop 48 were black. Black football recruits accounted for 81 percent of ineligible athletes in 1986 and 90 percent in 1987. Data at the time from the McIntosh Commission on Fair Play in Student Athlete Admissions said that if Prop 48 had been in effect for the two years before its implementation, 47 percent of black athletes would’ve been denied full eligibility. Prop 48 became an example of how standardized testing impeded black student-athletes from trying to gain entry to the nation’s top schools. Chaney was an outspoken critic of the rule and penned articles in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times and appeared on Good Morning America to criticize it.

“Let’s not deny a kid an opportunity because of his economic background,” Chaney said, according to Donald Hunt’s history Chaney: Playing for a Legend. “It’s easy to educate kids who are academically talented and come from good families. But let’s give everybody a chance to go to college.”

McKie spent much of his first year at Temple alongside fellow freshman Eddie Jones, who was also ineligible due to Prop 48. Before class at the crack of dawn, McKie and Jones would sit at the top of the bleachers and watch their teammates practice, occasionally nodding off. Chaney would smile from the court when he’d look up and see his budding stars snoring. “Never missed a practice. Never was late to practice,” Chaney says. “That was the greatest thing of all. I mean, you’re talking about becoming athletes and becoming men. They would do it. I just wanted them as my sons.”

It was the most meaningful year of McKie’s time at Temple. He committed himself to academics, not only to make Chaney proud but to attempt to unravel the unfair perception of kids who were educated in city public schools.

“It gave me a chance to reflect,” McKie says. “I matured a lot, and it left me feeling like, ‘OK, once again in society they’re telling me no.’ First, I lose Momma. My mom is not around. My dad is not around. Now here we go with this academic thing. That’s another door being closed in my face. So I said, ‘I’m not going to allow [what happened] to myself to happen to any other kids, because I don’t want society to get the wrong perception of the people that come from where I come from. So I’ve got to work my tail off to make sure I graduate, to show them that I am capable of doing it.’

“I didn’t want them to put that stigma on young black kids,” he continues. Away from campus each week, McKie would go to nearby Benjamin Franklin High School to mentor students, listening to stories of ninth-graders who’d already been to jail, or kids who were recovering from the crack epidemic. He’s imparting that wisdom in his new job, and his players already recognize his impact.

“Obviously, you look at our team, a lot of us are African American males, so just being in this neighborhood with a lot of African Americans, just seeing people that look like us that had the same advantages and same opportunities as us, just being able to help them means a lot personally to me,” says J.P. Moorman II, a team captain.

After each practice, McKie’s players huddle around him atop the cherry Temple “T” in the middle of the court at McGonigle Hall. He tells them the same thing that Chaney and Ellerbee drilled into him. “Take care of the academic stuff. Be on time. And don’t waste nobody time.”

“We’re not just occupying the space in the classroom,” he says of his players. “We want to learn, because those guys are going to be me one day. They’re going to be coaching, they’re going to be a father, they’re going to be a husband. So, the information that I’m giving them, they will be able to give to their students, their kids, their team, whoever it is. You continue to pass that information down.”

McKie finished his Temple career as the sixth all-time leading scorer. He averaged 17.9 points per game in 92 appearances and started every game. His connection with Jones was spiritual—Jones’s high-flying ability, combined with McKie’s steady hand, made them a fan favorite. Posters of the famous “Fire and Slice” tag team sprung up around campus. McKie was the Atlantic 10’s Player of the Year in 1993, the same year the team made the Elite Eight. He was one of the only players on the floor whom Chaney ever listened to.

“I’ve had some [players] that I would regard as my son. And he certainly is. Just looking at him. Just looking at Aaron and what he’s achieved from somebody that I knew as a kid to a grown man,” Chaney says. “I have nothing but love for him. He’s something special.”

When the Portland Trail Blazers selected McKie with the 17th pick in the 1994 draft, his life had seemingly done a 180. He was no longer the boy from a broken home, considering a life of hustle on Philly’s hard streets, or sweeping floors for Ellerbee in a recreation center. He was still the same dreamer who called the Sixers asking for Dr. J. He’d reconnected with his mother, Pearl, who was with him on draft night. Graduating from Temple and making the NBA marked the culmination of everything he wanted. He had money to send home to Aunt Rose and anyone else who needed it. He had the degree he never thought he’d see. He’d finally become somebody.

One of the most meaningful relationships McKie made during his NBA career was with Allen Iverson, who remains one of his best friends. “Bubba Chuck” and “Blue” sat together on bus and plane rides, and McKie enjoyed going at it with Iverson in practice. “We roughed him up, and we took turns,” McKie says. They played PlayStation together during long stretches on the road when they weren’t taking in a movie or going out to eat. They both played football and baseball growing up. The biggest difference between them? Iverson was a Cowboys fan and McKie an Eagles fan.

BKN-HORNETS-76ERS-MCKIE-IVERSON-HUG
McKie and Iverson during a playoff game in 2000
Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images

On the team plane, Iverson, McKie, and others would gather at a table and play the card game booray. George Lynch, a starting forward on the team, would watch from afar as his teammates bragged about their winnings—everyone except McKie. “He always had that straight poker face, so you couldn’t tell if he was losing or bluffing,” Lynch says. They’d play cards from Philly to L.A. some nights. “I always put my money under my leg when I won, act like I’m getting killed,” McKie says. “I don’t say a word. Just let them say whatever they’re going to say. And I’m steady stuffing. I’m playing possum with them.”

McKie always fostered an atmosphere of camaraderie on the teams he played for. He was a calming presence, and he always had a plan. They’re qualities he’s brought to his new job. When people ask how he’s going to recruit, he points to a whiteboard in his office with a numbered list of his priorities:

1. Family
2. Chemistry
3. Academics

He’s building his program with a nod to the men who made him. He empowers his team. He wants to bring out the fire dormant in their bellies. It’s a Chaney principle, a defining characteristic from the days when Temple was a tournament mainstay and basketball bully. At practices, his guards talk shit to each other. If they aren’t, their coaches are talking shit in their ears after plays, hyping them up to keep the courts competitive. It’s the Philly Way, more or less a greeting, or a bridge to a subsequent friendship. “That’s what we like,” McKie says with a smile at the end of a recent practice. “That’s what we like to do.”

Junior guard Nate Pierre-Louis has known McKie since he was a sophomore in high school. McKie recruited the New Jersey native harder than anyone, and Pierre-Louis says he turned to McKie for advice even before he committed to Temple. “I look at him as an uncle in my personal opinion. He’s an O.G. in this game.”

Memphis v Temple
Nate Pierre-Louis and McKie during a game last season
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

That relationship with his players is what helped McKie get the top job. Last year, McKie and Kraft, Temple’s athletic director, discussed a succession plan for when Dunphy stepped down. Kraft would pick McKie’s brain. Where did he see recruiting going? What would their new playing style be? He studied McKie off the court, and saw a coach who was engaged with kids whether he was recruiting them to Temple or not. The summer before the 2018-19 season, Kraft and McKie had a long chat about whether he was committed to modernizing Temple’s program, and whether he could handle the grind of coaching college ball.

One day after practice, McKie takes me to the Liacouras Center. In recent years it’s looked like a dilapidated arena. The locker rooms and training facilities have recently been renovated to lure recruits, part of an investment effort to make the program more competitive. “We got all the toys!” McKie says. He taps a shiny sound system on a wooden wall and Young Dolph and Key Glock’s hit “Black Loccs” blares into the room. “I told you, dog!” he says, slapping my hand as we bounce on the carpet.

Players say they notice the difference in McKie’s approach. They pressure the ball for 94 feet now, an idea McKie convinced Dunphy to implement last season, and they’re playing faster than ever. Players describe how secure they feel with McKie, knowing he doesn’t have to be here. He’s a millionaire. He doesn’t need to coach, but they feel he does so because there’s a real care for them as players and men. McKie wants the team to increase its community service efforts to make sure Temple is giving back to North Philly. Many members of McKie’s coaching staff grew up in the neighborhood where the university is located.

In practices, McKie exerts a specific cool. But when he sees something that sets him off, the gym gets loud. When he doesn’t like how a pick-and-roll is run, he grabs the ball and runs the play himself. If he’s unhappy with a player’s defensive posture, he squats into the stance and shuffles his feet to show what he expects to see. When a player does well, he’s the biggest cheerleader in the gym, applauding a fancy finish with the enthusiasm of a boy watching a pickup game from behind a chain-link fence. His North Philly cadence commands the room. He jokes that one day he might bend too low and rip his suit during a game, “but you can’t control the passion,” he says. “It’s just in me.”

After practice, I walk with McKie to get breakfast at Champ’s Diner on the corner of 16th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Aunties with skin the color of sweet potato pie stop him for selfies, tugging him close and grinning wide with their girls. Waiters dap him and salute him from afar. People greet him, brimming at his success and his story. On a corner in his new kingdom sits a self-made North Philadelphia story.

McKie was born to these streets. They fractured his family when he was a boy and robbed him of a traditional childhood. He contemplated hustling like a few of his friends. It took family and mentors to steer him away from the city’s underbelly. They saw a better life for him. North Philly almost hurt him, yet he sits here humbled by it. He leans back in his chair. He breathes in deeply.

“My heart bleeds for this city,” McKie says. “When I drive down these streets, I think about this every day. Nobody’s gonna give these people a chance, and we deserve it. It’s an unfair playing field, and I’m in a position of power to help others, to inspire others. I wanna give North Philly something to believe in again.”

One of his dreams is already complete. McKie has a blueprint for Temple that matches his ambition. Regardless of how the team performs this season, he’s achieved his lifelong goals. The somebody he always wanted to be sits across from me, legs folded, an ebony pillar of power with the desire to turn North Philadelphia’s university back into a basketball behemoth.

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