A few years ago, a coaching buddy, my son’s former club coach, asked me to work with his teenaged son to fix what he calls, “ Ugliest shot ever seen.”
I was humbled that a former pro player thought enough of my coaching ability to seek my input. His kid could dribble a ball left handed as well as right before he could tie his shoes. He became one of the best ball handling and passing point guards in Switzerland.
But somewhere along the way, some well-meaning instructor probably tried to teach him too early the cockamamie, off balance, fall away, game highlight shots of NBA players, who only mastered this move after practicing proper form for a billion hours.
Call me Old School, but fundamentals still matter especially when learning a new skill. I developed my shooting prowess because I learned the basics early on from Coach Dad, who passed down the protocol from his dad, Coach Mac.
Hour after hour, as dad rebounded my shots, he calmly repeated the same mantra, one-two step, load, lift, release, follow through.
I perfected my shooting form during endless practice until “eyes on the rim, elbow in, feet squared, body balanced, right foot forward, knees bent, wrist cocked, follow through” became branded into my muscle memory.
Kids never realize how much time it takes to learn a jump shot nor how much longer it takes to unlearn poor form once muscle memory takes over.
A jump shot is fine art.
Perfection takes practice.
But jump shot advice could apply to learning any new skill.
On your journey, step to meet the pass.
Whatever comes your way, don’t duck, rise to the challenge.
Read the defense and recognize obstacles blocking your way.
If you miss the goal, don’t give up, aim higher.
Never neglect to acknowledge the person who gave you the assist.
No one is alone in the game.
Dad was my lighthouse, guiding me ashore when lost in life’s stormy sea. He died on August 8, 2022 just nine days shy of his 91st birthday. Without him I drift bereft.
My dad and I shared a special bond made stronger through a love of sports and our fierce determination to overcome obstacles.
My athleticism was a genetic gift; my fighting spirit part of the McKinzie bloodline.
Growing up, I never appreciated his athletic talents. He never boasted about his own accolades, but was always the first to applaud others’ achievements.
As a college athlete at Northern Illinois State University, he was a 3 sport division I athlete and MVP in 2 major sports. He was inducted into the NIU hall of fame three times, as an individual player and as a team member in the 1951 football and baseball teams. He was part of the NIU Century Basketball Team and Decade “50’s” football team. As a coach, he was also inducted into the Sterling High School Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.
But he remained humble. His passion lay in helping others achieve their goals. He impacted countless young lives in his role as an educator, coach, and mentor.
He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, tolerance, humor and compassion for the underdog. He treated everyone equally regardless of class, age, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation or gender identity. He also advocated for women’s right to participate in sports in the infancy of Title IX.
Fondly remembered as ‘Papa Mac’ for leading his daughter Karen and her “Golden Girl” teammates to the first girls State Basketball Championship in 1977, he also guided the 1979 third place and 1980 Elite 8 girls state basketball teams.
And he coached me.
At a time when women’s sports was taboo, his guidance made me an outstanding pioneer basketball player — one of the 1st female athletic scholarship recipients at Illinois State University, professional players in the USA and American women to play in Europe.
In one of our last visits, we reminisced about the hours we spent shooting baskets. I re-enacted how he taught me to drop into 3 point football stance and run a v-slant pattern with my fingertips stretched to the sky, ready to catch his perfect spiral pass.
“You also taught me how to swing a baseball bat, serve a volleyball, swish a hook shot!”
“I betcha I taught you all the ball games,” dad said and chuckled.
“You also showed me how to balance a check book, change a flat tire, catch a fish, ride a bike, drive a car.”
“You were a good learner,” he told me.
“You were the best teacher.”
Just ask his former campers at Camp Neyati Wisconsin or the hundreds of students and athletes whose lives he touched in his 35 year teaching/coaching — basketball, football, baseball, track — career. He served as a pillar of the community, a brick in the foundation of Sterling High School.
My dad, a man of integrity, walked the talk. He saw the best in each of us and then coached it out of us.
How many of his former students and athletes went on to dedicate their lives to teaching and coaching?
Like my grandfather, and my father, when my playing career ended, I became an ambassador of the game. I guided athletes on the global arena teaching and coaching 33 yrs in Europe. I passed on not only dad’s basketball expertise, but also his philosophy of life.
In a ripple effect, my dad’s ethos — honesty, acceptance and fair play — echoed around the world when my former international players returned to their passport countries to advocate for social justice.
Dad, I wish I could play my guitar for you one last time.
“I can’t sing on key to save my life,” dad would say as he whistled along.
You may not have had a musical bone in your body, dad, but your life was a rhapsody. Your spirit united the chorus of humanity.
You were a gifted artist.
Whether teaching city boys to appreciate nature at Camp Neyati, counseling teens on the playing fields and in the classrooms, painting landscapes for loved ones, or writing a letters of encouragement, your work comforted us all.
A hug from you could lift a soul for a lifetime.
As I reflect back on how hard it was to stand after my accidents, I hear your voice inspiring me to walk again. Whenever I hike the Swiss mountains or wander Wisconsin’s Northwoods, I remember you.
Every breath I take, every step I make, every word I speak, every kindness I share, I think of you.
Your light shines eternally as we offer our guidance to the next generation while whistling your song in our hearts.
As a girl, I was stuck on the sideline, watching boy’s basketball games, hoping that the ball would roll out of bounds so I could throw it back into play. I never fathomed girls would be allowed on center court one day.
50 years ago on June 23, 1972, Title IX passed. The federal civil rights law prohibited sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding.
It opened doors to places I never knew existed.
Pillars of ISU Melinda Fischer, Linda Herman, Jill Hutchison
Illinois State University's legendary coaches, Linda Herman (30 plus years as esteemed volleyball coach and administrator) and Jill Hutchison (28 years at the helm of women’s basketball and also a successful international level coach) among others, played a major role in Title IX’s passage and assured its implementation for female athletes.
In 1976, I was one of the first females to be awarded an athletic scholarship to ISU. Back then, I didn’t even know what a scholarship was. No one realized the profound impact Title IX would have on our lives.
Today young female athletes grow up dreaming of being recruited and receiving athletic scholarships and all its perks just like their male counterparts.
During my visit back to the ISU campus for the first time in decades, I was blown away by the accommodations for female Redbird athletes including the opportunity to prepare in the state of the art Jill Hutchison Women’s Basketball Locker Room and play in Redbird Arena, 10, 200 seat capacity.
Many athletes of the current generation never heard of Title IX nor appreciate how we got here. ISU reminded us of the sacrifices in our journey by honoring the pioneers who paved the way
Linda and Jill opened the event by narrating a video of outlining the development of women’s collegiate sport back from the days when women sewed their own uniforms and drove campus station wagons cross country to compete until present times.
We heard firsthand how Title IX shaped the lives of ISU alumni like basketball star Cathy Boswell, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, to Jaci McCormick, a Native American player from the Nez Perce Reservation. Jaci went on to co found Rise Above, an organization that uses basketball to promote wellness on reservations.
Speakers also included Melinda Fischer, a former 3 sport athlete, basketball and softball coach with the winningest record at ISU and in the Missouri Valley Conference and Angie Taylor, who after a record-setting career in track and field became an illustrious international and collegiate coach. She also developed programs for Nigerian track and field teams.
Still others on the panel shared how they took the foundation and philosophy built at ISU and passed it on as coaches and administrators.
I was humbled and honored to be invited to speak and the share the stage with these legends. Most of you who follow my column know my story.
Basketball took me from ISU, to the women’s first pro league (WBL), to France, Germany and Switzerland. In the late 70s, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) failed, but we helped give birth to the WNBA in 1996.
After my American pro team went bankrupt, I flew to Paris as one of the 1st American women in European Basketball League, playing first in France and then in Germany.
When my player’s career ended instantly in a car accident abroad, I became a teacher and coach at international schools. For the next 3 decades I served as an ambassador of the game in Europe, guiding athletes from around the globe, first in France, then in Switzerland.
“No person in the United States shall,
on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in,
be denied the benefits of, or be subjected
to discrimination under any education program
or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Many of the players I coached pursued higher degrees before returning to their homelands to fight for social justice.
When I was a kid, women were banned from the playing fields. I didn’t know any female doctors, lawyers or CEOs.
We fought for the right to play ball and paved the way for our high-flying daughters today.
My own daughter, who I coached in Switzerland, came to USA where she played in a DIII Final 4 for UWSP, studied 11 years and reached her dream to become a pediatrician.
If I pursued a career unheard of for women, moved abroad and rewrote my script after my dream collapsed in an accident, it is because of you, my pioneer dad, who believed in me every step of the way.
I inherited the McKinzie iron will, a drive to pursue lofty ideals in spite of obstacles.
In the controversial years of Title IX’s infancy, when girls and ball games were non compatible entities, your adamant belief in women’s right to participate in sports would empower all your daughters. Especially me.
Fifty years ago, dads teaching daughters jump shots were anomalies. Fathers discouraged daughters from playing ball games society deemed unladylike.
Yet, you fought for equal rights and shaped values in the athletes you mentored during your 33-year career at Sterling High School where you earned the affectionate title of Papa Mac while racking up Illinois’ 1st ever girls state basketball championship title, a 3rd place finish and an Elite Eight appearance. But what made you proudest was seeing how your athletic “daughters” grew up to contribute to society as principals, teachers and leading members of their communities.
No one felt your influence more greatly than me. When my slender frame took a beating on basketball courts at ever elite levels, you never said, “You’re too small to go pro.” Instead you helped develop my potential. When my American pro team folded, I stated, “I’m going to France to play.”
“What if you get hurt?” You tried your darnest to dissuade me. Then after the shock subsided, you offered your support and returned to the gym to rebound.
When I announced, “I’m engaged to a Frenchman,” you were the first to accept a foreigner into the family and remained my most faithful correspondent, sending manila envelopes to Europe. Rather than disowning me, you sacrificed time and money to make 18 trips across the Atlantic to be part of your gandchildren’s lives.
Though you never visited Scotland, the home of your fore-bearers, it is as if clan bloodlines transcended generations. Like your father and forefathers, you became a leader of men and women. You taught us a code of honor, respect for our fellowman, and fierce loyalty toward family.
Our resilient constitution, strength of character, love of nature, and reverence for honest work may have been virtues passed on from our ancestry, but we developed them by modeling your behavior in a life where you treated everyone equal.
As the head of our McKinzie clan, you set the finest example of what it means to be an honorable leader, a strong chief, and a benevolent father.
I grew up during an era when athletic girls felt shunned without role models. You encouraged me to be myself even when it meant being different and pursuing a career usually sought by men.
It was not easy being a modern day daughter, marrying a Frenchman and raising children abroad. Nor was it easy to be an up-to-date dad, whose dedicated coaching developed the talent that took his daughter away.
I was a selfish, smart-aleck kid; you were too overprotective. You grew up under the “work ethic” when it was a man’s world, only, yet you learned to accept a modern, do-it-herself daughter who lived by the “experience ethic.”
You leaned right; I left. Too much alike in temperament and too different in ideologies to always get along, yet our differences, spurred growth. I loved you enough to let you be a blundering father. You let me be a belligerent daughter. Through headstrong outbursts, we learned to compromise, to live modern dreams without losing old-fashioned values.
You were not a perfect dad, nor I, a perfect daughter. But our love was.
You taught me to shoot a jump shot, swim a lake, drive a car, balance a checkbook, but the greatest lesson I learned from you was “never give up!”
Thirty-five years ago, that fighting spirit helped me recover from a career ending, near fatal car accident 4,000 miles away from home. More recently that same resiliency helped me survive a life altering fall that resulted in a broken cheek bone, eye socket, jaw, nose and skull that led to a 5 hour brain surgery and over a year of rehabilitation. With no end in sight.
I may never play my guitar, type a blog post or swim again pain free.
Everyday as I struggled in physical therapy to squeeze my hand, raise my left arm, and walk without stumbling I think of you and repeat the mantra you ingrained through hours of practice spent correcting my jump shot, “Keep fighting!”
Every night when I called you reminded me,“I am proud of you sweetie.”
And you ended every conversation with these words,
“I think of you everyday and love you more each minute.”
Basketball symbolizes Illinois as much as sweet corn, the red bird and Abe Lincoln.
Generations of farm kids grew up shooting at hoops nailed above barn doors. City kids learned resiliency playing street ball on concrete courts in the ‘hood. Thousands of student athletes remember cheering and charging across the hardwood inspired by the American national anthem at tip off.
The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) wants to commemorate this history by building our own museum along the famous route 66 in Pontiac, but it will take a team effort to get the foundation laid.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvqld8Vu5wI[/embedyt]
Illinois’ stars could easily fill the galleries from shot blocking, hook shooting legendary pioneer George Mikan to Doug Collins, former Illinois State University star, NBA player and coach, to Michael Jordan’s stellar Chicago Bulls era. Female standouts such as Olympians Charlotte Lewis (1976), gold medalists Cathy Boswell (1984) and WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks superstar Candace Parker (2008, 2012) also deserve a spot.
My family holds a tiny piece of the legend. My grandpa, “Coach Mac,” a 7x hall of famer, led his Northern Illinois University teams to three Little 19/IIAC crowns in the 1940s. My dad, Jim McKinzie, a NIU Hall of Fame athlete was named on the All-Decade Team and All-Century Team for his contributions as a guard in the 1950s.
When I was growing up, girls were shunned from sports, but with athleticism as a birthright, I fought to be allowed in the game. In the infancy of Title IX, I blazed a my own trail as the first athletic scholarship recipient to Illinois State before playing professionally in the first Women’s Basketball League (WBL) then for teams in France and Germany.
My hometown, Sterling, also played a significant role. My dad co-coached the Sterling High School team that included my younger sister, which went 21-0 and won the first IHSA state girls cage title (1976-77) hosted by Illinois State.
Three generations and four family members have been inducted into IBCA Hall of Fame – my grandfather, Ralph McKinzie, as a coach (1976), my dad and sister, Karen, as part of the championship team (2004) and me as a player (2005).
The list of Illinois’ basketball greats goes on from players, to officials, to coaching dynasties from Toluca High School’s Chuck Rolinski and Ray Meyer’s 42-year stint (1942-1984) at DePaul University to extraordinary fans like Sister Jean (Jean Delores Schmidt). The 98-year-old nun, a beloved member of the Loyola basketball community, who exemplifies our lasting bonds with favorite teams.
But no one in the state has done more for the game than Jill Hutchison. In a legacy spanning 28 seasons as Illinois State University’s head basketball coach, Hutchison was co founder and first president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
To appreciate her impact, we must remember how far we have come. Hutchison’s master thesis proved that a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running the fast break. This led to a change in rules – instead of a six-player half court game to the full court five-player game.
As tournament director for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), she helped establish the regions and the qualifying process for the first national tournament in 1971-1972, which was nearly identical to the regions used in the NCAA today.
At ISU, a powerhouse of women including Hutchison advocated for women even before the 1972 Title IX enactment mandated equal opportunities in academics and athletics.
“Cultural change is slow, slower than you ever want it to be. And that’s what Title IX was—a cultural change, not just for athletics. Females…crossing the gender barrier, that was huge,” Hutchison said.
So often, the pioneers’ accomplishments are overlooked because history is not always recorded as it is being made, especially when the people in power are against the change. A museum could correct this oversight.
Like so many hailing from the Land of Lincoln, a love of basketball reflects my heritage.
Illinois basketball not only influenced me, it also shaped American history.
Fittingly, last Saturday, Illinois State University named their women’s basketball locker room in Jill Hutchison’s honor. I felt privileged to play for Jill in the 70’s during the early infancy of Title IX, back in the day before we even had a girls’ locker room. We used to change in a bathroom or borrow the men’s locker room before our games in Horton Field House.
If I had my way, ISU would also put her name on the floor of Redbird Arena. After all, Hutchison led the way making changes in legislation at the national level mandating a woman’s right to be on that court.
That same Saturday, a legend in Wisconsin, UW-Stevens Point coach Shirley Egner notched her 300th win in the tough Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as her team defeated UW-Eau Claire. It was Egner’s 800th game as UWSP coach where she holds an amazing 546-253 record.
Unbeknownst to both us, I would have played against Egner when ISU played at UW-La Crosse. Three decades later Egner coached our daughter, born and raised in Europe, to a DIII Final Four in 2004.
Meanwhile at my old high school, Sterling – home of the first ever state championship girls’ team – Coach Taylor (Carbaugh) Jackson, a former standout player guides her team to a 19-4 record and 10th place 3A state ranking. Five sisters from the Borum and Gould families – the same girls who also starred on Sterling’s first state volleyball championship 2018 – help lead the way again.
And on that same day far, far away, we won our tournament at the International School of Geneva competing against teams from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland.
Around the globe, girls are playing ball driving the baseline, shooting the jumper, taking the charge and learning through sports to be tougher, stronger, and braver.
And yes, the granny of the game is still coaching.
At our tournament, the Basel coach heard other coaches talking about my history, and the younger woman approached me.
“I loved playing high school and college ball in New Jersey,” she said. “I just want to thank you for paving the way.”
As we shook hands, I felt a surreal connection to generations across time.
It was a humbling moment.
This February, as we applaud the accomplishments of female leaders in all sports – not only basketball – be sure to remember the real victory is the right to play.
An opportunity that may be taken for granted, but should never be forgotten.
The plaque on Jill Hutchison’s Women’s Basketball locker room reminds us,
“To play the game is great, to win the game is greater, to love the game is greatest.”
And capping off the celebration, never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that one day a Super Bowl advertisement would feature girls playing football to encourage girls to get in the game. Check it out!