David McKinley is seated in his normal spot on the Ohio bench, near the middle. His Ohio Bobcats lead the Eastern Michigan Eagles by 21 points with under three minutes to play. He senses what is about to happen as elated Bobcat fans funnel to the Convocation Center aisles. Concerned about muscle tightness, he begins to stretch his legs. The game may be over for the fans, but for “D-Mac,” the game is just beginning.
From this seat on the bench, McKinley has witnessed 92 Bobcat victories, two MAC Tournament wins and three victories in NCAA Tournament games. This doesn’t include the dozens of games he saw at the Convo as a child, where he sat just a few rows back. His father, an Ohio University alum, took him to see the likes of Gary Trent, Brandon Hunter, and Steve Esterkamp. Watching from the stands, little D-Mac had no idea that he would apart of some of the most successful teams in program history.
Coach Jim Christian takes his eye off the action on the court for just a second. He peers down the bench and nods to McKinley as if to say “get ready.” For only the 13th time this season, he sheds his warm-up top, revealing an unusually crisp, white jersey bearing a green number 4. The O-Zone stirs. “D-Mac is coming in!” some fans whisper as McKinley makes his way to the scorers table.
Fellow walk-on Nick Goff takes his cue from McKinley and begins to get loose. The two guards have grown used to each other’s company.
“We’re together mostly everything basketball related,” said Goff, a red shirt junior from Columbus. “It’s one of those connections… we know what we’re laughing at, other people might not get it.”
As McKinley tightens the laces of his Nikes, he wonders if his fiancée, Kelsey Warren, is watching. He knows she was there before the game.
“She always tries to get here really early so she can see me warm up, because that might be the most action I see on game day,” said McKinley. “She’s been great. She’s always been there.”
In fact, if she hadn’t been there, D-Mac may not be waiting to check into the game.
After losing to eventual champion Northland and stars Jared Sullinger and Trey Burke in the state playoffs, Dublin Scioto’s David McKinley thought his basketball career was over. He lacked the size and speed to make it at a big time program, and his only scholarship offers came from Division III schools. Though McKinley ranked third all-time in school history in three-point shooting, he thought it was time to put his focus elsewhere.
“Coming out of high school, I probably would have pictured myself being a baseball player,” said McKinley. “I was actually thinking about trying out or walking on to the baseball team.”
That is, until he got some unexpected help.
Warren’s sister, a graduate assistant on the soccer team, sent an email to the head basketball coach at the time, John Groce. Groce’s team was in desperate need of a walk-on guard after a transfer, offered McKinley an extended tryout.
“I didn’t even know she was doing that,” McKinley said of his future sister-in-law’s email. “I was really fortunate.”
What followed was what McKinley calls “probably the toughest time” for him in college. He had to adjust to college courses and learn to live on his own, all while enduring basketball workouts every weekday.
“It wasn’t necessarily basketball, just being away from home,” said McKinley. “Once I was part of the team, I never thought about quitting.”
Nick Kellogg picks up his third personal foul. McKinley’s heart jumps a bit with the whistle. It’s a shooting foul, so he’ll have to wait for another minute or so to check in. But what’s another minute when you’ve already waited 38?
McKinley glances back at Christian, who gives him a reassuring nod.
“He’s so focused in on what we do in practice that you never worry about him,” said Christian on his expectations. “He’s got a really good basketball mind. Mainly, I just want him to have fun.”
McKinley would tell you he hasn’t had more fun than he did in the 2011-2012 season. While he failed to score a point the entire season, Ohio advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they would reach the Sweet 16. His favorite memory from that season? A 64-63 victory over Akron in the MAC Championship game. “The NCAA tournament is cool, but winning the MAC Championship you really feel like you really accomplished something, “ he says.
But after the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, the Bobcats were left without their head coach. Groce took the head coaching position at Illinois a few weeks after the final game.
“We didn’t want him to leave. He was a great coach; he was good to all of us,” said McKinley. “We understand it’s a business, no one can blame him for leaving.”
But with a new head coach comes a new system. McKinley wondered if his spot on the team would still be there in the fall.
“Even before Coach Christian was hired, I was wondering if this new coach going to make me try out again. Thankfully, he didn’t,” he said. “He’s done a great job with the transition.
Eastern Michigan’s Jalen Ross makes both his free throws. The buzzer sounds, D-Mac crosses the green sideline and on to the wood grain court. He’s no longer stiff. Adrenaline is taking over.
Star point guard D.J. Cooper now takes the role of David McKinley on the bench. They may be teammates, but it’s not uncommon for them to line up across from each other in practice.
“I have to bring it every day in practice,” says McKinley. “If I’m not bringing my best or playing my hardest, I would be doing a disservice to my team by not giving them a good look.”
Through his junior year, McKinley spent every practice attempting to guard the best point guard to ever play at Ohio University. It may sound like a thankless job, but McKinley did it well enough to earn the respect of his teammates.
“He leads by example,” says forward Reggie Keely. “He’s here an hour before practice. He’s here letting the guys know he’s 100% bought in.”
Keely isn’t the only one. The rest of his teammates voted D-Mac captain before the season began. And as for Cooper, he’s on his way to breaking Ohio records for assists and steals due in part to the effort McKinley put in during practice.
“I like to think I always gave him a good look, and made him work in practice,” he said.
David McKinley is feeling no fear as Ohio sets up its offense. He stands at the right elbow extended, 25 feet from the basket. The ball may be on the complete opposite side of the court, but D-Mac can already see the play developing. He knows the rock is coming to him.
A double-teamed Stevie Taylor swings it from the left corner to Goff at the edge of the mid-court logo. No Eastern Michigan player concerns himself with McKinley. A 5’10” white guy standing 5 feet beyond the three-point arc? Why bother?
Goff doesn’t think twice. His pass goes right to D-Mac. D-Mac doesn’t think twice, either.
He’s done this hundreds of thousands of times. But it all began at shooting camp in Dublin, Ohio. His high school coach Tony
Bisutti went through the mechanics so many times that they became just that. Mechanical. Bend the knees, guide the ball, release
at the top of the jump, and follow through, the exact same way every time.
As soon as the leather leaves his fingertips, the entire building knows where it’s going: Back of the rim, right where a shooter wants it.
Everyone on the Ohio bench holds up three fingers as the Convocation Center shakes. Out of the corner of his eye, D-Mac can see his reflection in the crowd. A giant poster of his face waves wildly in the student section. This makes all of his hard work in practice worth it.
They say numbers never lie. The stat sheet will tell you David McKinley has hit five of the seven shots he’s taken this season.
“I’ve actually only missed one. They had me 0-1 against Kent, and I didn’t get in.”
So goes the life of a walk-on.