Poetry in motion he wasn’t. At least not on the basketball court, even though 6’ 9” Jim McKean, his fadeaway jump shot, and his rebounding (he still holds the single-game Far West Classic rebounding record of 27, set against Princeton in 1967) were anchors of the rebirth of Washington State University men’s hoops in the mid-’60s.
“He didn’t have real good feet and was not a great athlete,” Marv Harshman, WSU’s head coach at the time, said a couple of weeks before the start of this year’s NCAA tournament. But that wasn’t the whole story.
“He had great hands, and he played with his head,” Harshman said. “He understood what he could accomplish. He was the ultimate team player.”
In his new book, Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports, Jim McKean (’68, ’74 M.A.) weaves together a series of essays about growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the late ’50s and early ’60s, coming to terms with his father and his family, and playing basketball at WSU, where his sensitive soul began to feel the cultural and political changes that swept across the U.S., including the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement.
“It was a powerful time for us,” McKean told me by phone from his home in Iowa.
His writing becomes the poetry he lacked as a player. He leaves us with messages that are variously heart-warming and challenging.
“What I tried to do in my book is address sports in each essay, make each autobiographical or memoir-like, and arrange them in a loose chronology,” McKean noted.
Usually our best sports books are by writers or journalists who have never experienced athletic competition at a high level. McKean is different. He played for a team that, during the years of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor—later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—was second only to the Bruins in what was then the Pac-Eight conference.
In 1966 McKean and his Cougar teammates defeated the Bruins and USC on the same weekend. That didn’t happen again until Dick Bennett and his players turned the trick in 2004.
In 1964, Marv Harshman, “sipping coffee from a china cup [McKean’s] mother reserved for holidays, [and] a plate of cookies balanced on his knee,” recruited McKean to come to Pullman.
There McKean met Jud Heathcote, the new freshman coach that Harshman had recruited the same year. In the chapter, “Playing for Jud,” previously included in the distinguished volume of Best American Sports Writing for 2003, McKean describes the way Jud taught his charges how to play Division I basketball.
McKean was a late bloomer and had much to learn. “Jud got him as a freshman,” Harshman said. “He learned more as a freshman from Jud than he had in all of high school.”
The “Jud” chapter makes it clear how Heathcote later achieved success, including an NCAA championship, at Michigan State, where, curiously enough, McKean’s book is published. College basketball fans anywhere will find that chapter alone worth the purchase of the book.
“Jim’s got to be the tallest poet in the world,” Heathcote said by phone from Spokane, where he now lives.
I should stop here to point out that I grew up in Pullman and matriculated at WSU the same year as McKean did. Heathcote was my golf and tennis teacher in those long-ago days when coaches actually were teaching members of the faculty. I also knew Jud in my role as a reporter for the old Pullman Herald and as sportscaster for KWSC, as it used to be called, where I called two of the games McKean discusses in this book. One was a re-creation, during which I sat in the studio in the bowels of Arts Hall, pretending I was in Los Angeles watching a game in which Alcindor scored 61 points, 28 of them in the last four and a half minutes, long after McKean had fouled out.
McKean has so successfully caught Heathcote in operation that, as I read, I found pictures forming in my mind, complete with the rhythm of Jud’s speech and body that McKean has captured.
In writing this book, McKean was helped by the scrapbooks of his career kept over the years by his late father. Those scrapbooks provided the facts of McKean’s career, of course, but they provided much more than that. They stimulated McKean’s mind to recall the sights and sounds of his life—how, for example, from the locker room to the old Bohler Gymnasium court, the team had to go upstairs by the old swimming pool, and then through the crowded smoky hallways outside the gym.
Members of the WSU English faculty stimulated McKean’s interest in writing, especially in poetry. He credited Profs. Howard McCord and Herb Arntson particularly, but also recalled John Ehrstine and John Elwood, the chair of the English department in which McKean majored.
He started out teaching at Columbia Basin College, while continuing to play amateur basketball, including regular games against inmates in the penitentiary, where he also tried to help would-be writers. He considered a coaching career, but decided against it, because he would have had to devote himself totally to it at the expense of writing.“I was surprised when he quit coaching to concentrate on his teaching,” Heathcote said.
After he left the Pacific Northwest, McKean earned a master’s degree in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, as well as a Ph.D. at the same institution. He still lives in Iowa City, but he teaches at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids.
McKean says he’d like to put the lie to the idea that athletes can’t be good poets.
“The skills—focus, concentration, and intensity—are the same,” he said. “For athletes they have to be external; poetry has to be internal.”
Stephen Dunn, a key player on what was perhaps Hofstra University’s best basketball team ever (it compiled a 25-1 record), won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, McKean noted.
Toward the end of the book, McKean goes back in time and space to revisit the athletic accomplishments of his aunt, Olive McKean, a swimmer who won a bronze medal for the United States in the 1936 Olympics and who later married a University of Washington football star.
McKean takes along a video documentary by the controversial German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl about the Berlin Olympics to show his aunt and uncle. The years fall away as they watch, and Jim sees his aunt at the peak of her athletic career and records stories he had never heard before.
He introduces another video that his Cougar teammate Ray Stein sent him. The video is a 1967 WSU-UCLA game film, which McKean watches with his daughter. For McKean, too, the years fall away. His daughter sees him the way he was, not the way he remembers he was.
Unlike most sports-related books, this is a book that can be read multiple times and in multiple ways. Each time you’ll find different messages. Read it slow for its poetry, or read it fast for its prose. Read it at one sitting to absorb its overarching themes, or read it one chapter at a time to enjoy its story-telling qualities.
If you were a student at WSU in the 1960s, you should read this book. If your parents were students at WSU in the 1960s, you should read this book to understand the time they lived in. If you’re a sports fan, you should read this book.
If you’re not included in those categories, read it anyway.