Farewell to my First Coach – My Dad, My Hero

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.

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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.

You left the best kind of legacy.

Your love lives on.

A Memorial Service will be hosted on Sunday, August 28th at the Schilling Funeral Home in Sterling (visitation11-2 PM and service 2 PM.)   In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made in his name to Jim & Lenore McKinzie Scholarship Fund care of Sterling-Rock Falls Community Trust, (Midland States Bank, 302 1st Ave, Sterling, Il 61081) to help a deserving student going into education or to the  Sterling Schools Foundation (510 East Miller Rd, Sterling, Il 61081 www.sterlingschoolsfoundation.org

Cards to Lenore McKinzie 1424 W. 21st St. 61081 Sterling, IL USA

Illinois Basketball Museum Commemorates Love of Game

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.Illinois Basketball

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 womIllinois Basketballen 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.

Find out more about how to help build Illinois Basketball Museum here.

Sterling Memories – Hometown Imprinted in Heart

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartNo matter how far we have moved away, those stellar Sterling memories of our hometown remain imprinted in our hearts forever.

We grew up in a blue collar town founded on the Rock River and fueled by the steel industry. From Hezekiah Brink’s simple log cabin built in 1834 in one of the most fertile areas on earth, the small farm community grew to a bustling metropolis, a bedrock of manufacturing and steel once nicknamed the Hardware Capital of the World. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Sterling expanded quickly with the founding of Northwestern Steel & Wire, Lawrence Brothers Hardware, and the Wahl Clipper Corporation.

Most of us kids raised in the 60s and 70s came from modest families. We grew strong raised on powdered milk, baked potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, and whatever else we could grow in our garden. Everybody’s mama knew how to make hamburger a hundred different ways. Baloney on day old Wonder Bread became a lunch staple.

We obeyed rules. We never skipped school. We rarely swore. The only thing we ever stole was third base in sandlot baseball. We attended church on Sunday, said please and thank you for every little thing, and politely requested to be excused from the table. We were never dismissed from dinner without finishing our milk and clearing our plates.

Newly invented black and white TVs became popular during that era, but the picture was so poor and choice of channels so limited that no one became a couch potato. Too many more interesting adventures awaited outside our windows. Back yards were for ball games; neighborhoods became parks where we explored. The only bullets we dodged were imaginary ones from our cowboy rifles. Playing outside was safe even after the street lights came on.

Like food and clothes, toys were limited too, so from an early age we learned to take turns and share. Riding a bicycle was a rite of passage. A driver’s permit a sacred privilege. As soon as we were old enough to push a lawnmower or babysit a toddler, we were earning our own money and learning to save our pennies.

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartThe highlight of our childhood was entering the halls of the Sterling High School, a red brick building that looks every bit as stately as an Ivy League School. The SHS sports facilities put small colleges to shame.

We were proud to fill our trophy cases with championships and cover our fieldhouse walls with conference banners. Although half of us were forbidden to play competitive sports pre Title IX, once that law passed in 1972 our school became one of the first to provide equal opportunities regardless of gender and race.

Between Westwood, Duis Center, the YMCA, Sinnissippi and a dozen other Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in Heartparks we learned to play early on. We never realized how spoiled we were in terms of public recreational centers. Today our high school sports facilities are so outstanding opponents kiddingly call us Sterling U. The recently renovated stadium looks stunning.

Traditionally we catered to our strong football teams of boys who now have the luxury of playing under the lights on astroturf. Back in my day we ran on a cinder track but today, local kids continue to break records on DuWayne Dietz all weather, royal blue running track. But no thrill was greater than watching those Golden Girls basketball players making history as Illinois 1st ever State Champions back in 1977. With the steel industry dying, the economy failing, the town struggling, that team united the community and inspired hope.

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartNow half a century later walking down the streets of my childhood, the single story ranch homes with one car garages look like match box houses.The soil has settled and the foundations appear to be sinking, the sidewalks shrinking. Trees, mere saplings during our youth, now form a canopy over the street.

After living abroad for nearly half a century, it is hard to imagine going back home. So many of us moved away for education, employment, love, and family, but we all look back fondly and agree Sterling was a good place to grow up. Our heartstrings remain strongly attached to our old hometown and a way of life where solid values were instilled and we knew right from wrong. Mainstreet remains the heart of America, and the memory of Sterling still beats strong in ours.

Sterling Salutes Illinois’ First Girls’ State Basketball Champs

Forty years ago, my little sisters made history and on April 4, 1977 newspaper headlines read “Sterling High Girls win first ever-state title over 7,000 greet Illinois number one basketball team.” Five years after Title IX passed into legislation mandating equal opportunities for girls in all publicly funded schools, a new generation was born. While our country was struggling with civil rights and gender equity issues a small town team united blacks, whites and Hispanics in one dream – a state championship.

If I close my eyes, I can still see Marche Harris pumping her fist in air after a break away lay up, Fran Smith with her wicked ‘fro soaring at the jump circle, Dawn Smith grabbing weak side boards, Jojo Leseman, running the court like a platoon captain in fast forward, freshman, Amy Eshelman gliding the baseline. And my sister, Karen McKinzie, standing at the line swishing another free throw. Harris, Smith, Leseman, Eshelman and McKinzie names that have marked SHS record books for years.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-7JPSXcr2s[/embedyt]

An odd trio of coaches, Jim McKinzie a retired boys coach, Sue Strong a GAA coordinator and Phil Smith the first African American teacher in the conference fought behind the front line to make sure female athletes were granted equal rights at SHS in those crucial years after Title IX. Before anyone dared to utter words like racism or sexism in public, they shaped a team far ahead of its time indifferent to gender or race. That group of unassuming girls enchanted an entire community. Part of the magic was their cohesiveness. No divas, no superstars, no drama queens, just selfless teammates who knew that they were stronger together than they could ever be alone.

It was too late for me. A 1975 SHS graduate, I became a Redbird and moved to Illinois State University where the first girls state tournament was held on my new home court. I watched with pride from the bleachers of Horton Field house as my little sisters made history under my father’s tutelage.

“What stands out most was how this team brought the community together,” he said reminiscing, “Nothing like it before or since. The Golden Girls were goodwill ambassadors for Sterling, a place no one heard of before was thrown in the limelight. When we returned as state champions, we were wined and dined like celebrities.”

Forty years ago, we had no clue that the old Golden “Girls” would bear daughters who would one day be recognized as Golden Warriors. All we cared about was finally being allowed to play the game we loved. Do the girls that play today know how lucky they are to compete on center court wearing fashion’s latest apparel? To prepare before games in weight rooms and repair afterwards in training rooms? To be immortalized in a state of the art Hall of Fame room?

Stop by the open house at Woodlawn Arts Academy on Friday April 7 from 4:00-7:00 to salute that first state championship team and their coaches. Tip your hat to those pioneers who grew up in flimsy, canvas shoes and one piece gym suits, who played ball when no one was looking or worse yet when people looked and laughed. Pay tribute to those women who gave their heart and soul to dreams that no one understood, dreams that became our daughters’ reality.

When you sink a jumper and drive the baseline young blood, hear our stories whispered from the rafters. Walk tall, be strong, be brave. Be proud of your past, Golden “Girl”. After years of battle, it’s an honor and a privilege to be called a Warrior.

A chapter of my memoir is about the 1977 state championship team.

In Memoriam – Illinois State University Redbirds

Redbird logoWhen you are recruited to play college basketball these days, the university welcomes you into the family. Though we never called it that during early infancy of the women’s game, we knew our college team had our back. A loyalty to Illinois State University basketball remains imprinted in my soul. Even though I did not personally know the victims of the tragic plane crash outside of Bloomington, my heart mourned for the lives lost – an ISU men’s basketball Associate Head Coach, Torrey Ward, a Deputy Director of Athletics, Aaron Leetch, and alumni Terry Stralow ’74 (co-owner of Pub II in Normal), Andy Butler ’96, and Jason Jones, M.S. ’93; and former student Scott Bittner.

All seven men who were on board the plane, including pilot Thomas Hileman, were “Redbird guys,” said Athletics Director Larry Lyons ’86.

How can I feel connected to a university of over 20,000 when I haven’t lived in the state or even the country for decades? The memories of the people at that place, where interstate 74, 59, and 39 intersect in the Corn Belt, left a lasting impression.

When I played in the late 70s, we had three women’s teams, a platoon of peeps to lean on in hard times. Coaches like Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, and Melinda Fischer invested so much in me, not only as a player but also as a person, and Schnied (Kathy Schniedwind) taped me up for every battle in Horton Fieldhouse. Nor will I forget the teammates like Slate, Von, Char, Guppy, Apple, Woody and others or those who followed after me to leave their own mark like Bethie, Bos, and Vickie.

In addition to teammates, five friends called “the family” rented a townhouse together. We pulled all nighters to prepare for finals, wet our whistle at the ol’ Pub II watering hole and scarfed down Avanti’s pizzas.

Whenever I am back in the Chicago ‘burbs, we reunite. Our “cousins” another cohort of ISU alumni meet up annually. My ol’roomies from Dunn Barton Hall still wish me happy birthday every year.

Back then I had my own sorority – a gym full of sisters – including my own biological ones, also ISU grads. During my senior year my middle sister shared our house; my baby sister shared my Redbird locker.

When the news about that the fatal return flight from the Final Four celebration in Indianapolis reached Switzerland, I felt sick to my stomach.

After every tragedy we are reminded how fleeting life is. Our paths may only cross once, but the impact we have on others is everlasting.Redbird forever

In light of that, I wanted to give a shout out to my ISU family to thank you for your support, for keeping the ties across the miles, for having my back.

Everyone is vulnerable. Every. One. Every. Day. Always.

To those folks in the Bloomington-Normal area and the ISU community who grieve for their lost loved ones, I offer my deepest sympathy. It is not enough. No, I never met you, but I know where you come from and what you represent.

Your loss is a loss for all Redbirds.

We are family.

 

Family, School, Town Combine to Create Distinguished Alumni

Image 7_copyIf you have the fortune to live in the world’s richest and arguably most beautiful country and can open your door to a stunning view of the Alps, why would you ever miss an industrial, farm town on the Rock River in the flatlands of Illinois. But I do.

Creating a sense of community in Geneva, international hub of the world, is the like building the foundation of the Taj Mahal in quicksand. The nature of the typical expatriate is transient; due to job relocation, everyone you meet eventually moves on. Though my friends include people from around the globe, few call Switzerland home and plan to retire here.Geneva

Sterling, Illinois offered more stable roots. Yet, other than lying in the richest soil in the USA, my hometown didn’t have much of a calling card. Sterling is not so much about the place; it’s about the people.

Next Saturday, May 10, some of those people will be inducted into the Sterling High School Distinguished Alumni Class of 2014. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors former graduates for their outstanding contribution to society. It is a tribute to a small town, to public education and to a community that teaches its own to pay it forward in their fields.

Some of the award recipients I never knew as individuals, but I knew their people. I don’t remember meeting Ruth Cooperrider, but I remember her family.

Every member of David Schrader’s family graduated from SHS and though I never knew him, his sisters and my sisters’ lives intertwined every step of our school years.

This year the award also goes to three inductees that I am proud to call friends. In each case, their families, too, have been a stalwart part of the community and, like me, they dedicated their lives to looking out for the underdog.

Carol Fitzgerald ‘68, CEO of the YWCA of the Sauk Valley since 1985, advocates for the national YMCA’s mission “empowering women and eliminating racism.” Her siblings all attended SHS and her mom, Dian, was a beloved English teacher at the high school.

Amy Eshleman ‘80, was my surrogate little sister in basketball and a member of the SHS 1st state championship team in 1977. She became the Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library and helped develop the resource sharing partnerships for the 79 public libraries in Chicago. The Eshleman family was a pillar in the community.

Image 4_copyPhil Smith ‘67 and his family rose above the evil legacy of Jim Crow. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, he turned the other cheek and gave back to the community becoming the first African American coach in the conference. At SHS he inspired hundreds of athletes –including me- to believe in themselves. His loyalty to SHS is parallel to none. Like he always said, “I bleed Blue and Gold.”

During the turbulent 50s, 60s and 70s, at a time of civil unrest, gender inequity and social injustice, our community gave us stability. Through our families, our schools and athletic teams, we learned to work hard, demand excellence, advocate for equality, and give back to society. No matter if we moved to the opposite coast like David in California, or Ruth across the state border line, or regardless if we remained in the local area, like Amy in the greater Chicago land or Carol and Phil in the Sauk Valley Region, we carried the lessons from our community into our careers.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there on May 10th to shake their hands in person, but today I’m giving a special nod from abroad to our distinguished SHS alumni, to my hometown, and to the families that laid the foundation of our lives. Rock solid, Sterling.Sterling H.S. photos July 2011 029_copy

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