BALTIMORE — The utilitarian RAC Arena on the campus of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County is not the last place on earth where one would expect to find a former MVP of the McDonald’s High School All-Star Game who also was one of the top handful of players ever to pass through the Big Five. Not to mention it’s not exactly the last place to look for an old NBA lottery pick and finalist for the Wooden Award.
But it would probably rate in the top 10.
That’s nothing against UMBC or its bucolic campus located just a dozen or so miles south west of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s just that NBA veterans and all-time leader scorers for one of the most-storied college basketball program in the history of the sport tend not to get to too many America East Conference games. Nor do guys who were once said to be the second-coming of Oscar Robertson turn up in 3,000-seat basketball gyms dressed fashionably in a pastel shirt and a dark suit to work the sidelines as the head coach for the University of Binghamton.
Then again, Mark Macon has always been a little bit different.
Mark Macon. Yes that Mark Macon, the first high school All-American to sign on at Temple University where he immediately helped push the team to a No. 1 ranking for nearly all of the 1987-88 season, is the head coach for the Binghamton Bearcats. It’s the same guy who twice led John Chaney’s Owls to the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament in two memorable performances. In one of those games Macon’s 25-foot three-pointer dropped a centimeter away from sending Temple into the Final Four in a classic against North Carolina, and the other time… well, let’s just say Duke’s Billy King had a pretty good day.
Strangely, despite all of the great games and acclaim Macon had during his basketball career, he seems to be most remembered for the 1988 game against Duke where he went 6-for-29 with more air balls than made shots. In the history of bad performances in a big games Macon’s showing in his freshman season is one that will be difficult to duplicate. After all, how many coaches are going to allow a freshman to miss 23 shots in a game, let alone fire up 29 of them?
Maybe it’s that game that helped strip the remaining bit of hubris away from the young player (that he hadn’t already removed himself) and placed him on his course to be a coach and a teacher. After all, they say the greatest lessons are learned from failure.
“When I was at Temple I never dreamed that one day I would be a coach,” Macon said. “It might have been in the back of my mind, maybe, but I never imagined anything like this.”
Life can be funny that way for ex-ballplayers. Regardless, as the acting head coach for the University of Binghamton, Macon’s players were not even alive when their coach was the most electrifying freshman ever to hit Philadelphia.
“If they were, they had rattles,” Macon said.
Needless to say, the current bunch of Bearcats never heard Dick Vitale scream wild proclamations about how their coach was the best college player in the country, or saw his photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Chances are they never even heard of him until last year.
But then again Macon prefers it that way.
“They know what they Google,” Macon said. “That’s it. They don’t ask me about games or anything like that, but they know when I was drafted [by Denver with the No. 8 overall pick] and they make fun of me for the shorts that we wore.”
Chip off the old Owl
It takes about a minute from watching the action on the court to figure out who Macon’s coaching influence was. Then again, that’s way too obvious. Anyone who ever spent 30 seconds at Temple University in the late 1980s and early 1990s knew the connection Chaney and Macon had. As a player Macon often begged his coach to hold him more accountable than the rest of the players. In fact, there are stories about how the player even asked the coach to yell at him more. There’s another story about how the player told the coach he was disappointed that he wasn’t chastised more often.
Meanwhile, Chaney told anyone who would listen that he preferred Macon taking a bad shot over a teammate taking a good shot. That might explains those 23 misses in the ’88 regional finals, but it definitely sheds light on their relationship.
Even now Chaney’s voice is never far from the new coach’s own voice.
“I told him I wanted to be a sponge,” Macon said. “I wanted to learn everything he knew.”
Did he get it all?
“No, the master always keeps a few things for himself,” he said with a smile.
Still, it’s not the only voice he uses. Macon says he borrows bits and pieces from every coaches he ever had during his playing career and even a few he never got to work with, including Larry Brown, Hubie Brown and Bobby Knight. Those men were (and are) classic teachers, he says.
A chance meeting with Hubie Brown while in high school left a big impression, Macon says.
“When Hubie Brown was coaching the Knicks they used our school for practice. I got to watch him and Bernard King,” Macon said with a smile of the memory. “That was something I really learned a lot from.”
Not many high school kids would pick up more from a veteran basketball coach, especially when Bernard King was in the room, but that kind of explains how he has always looked at things.
However, as a coach Macon isn’t quite to the extremes as his mentor was. Sure, it was Chaney who dragged Macon into the coaching business in 2001 when he invited his favorite player to be one of his assistants. He stayed with Chaney at Temple until 2006 before moving onto Georgia State for a year before a new administration took over the athletic department. In 2007, ex-Georgetown assistant Kevin Broadus hired Macon to join him at Binghamton as his right-hand man at Binghamton, and it seemed to be running smoothly. Last season Broadus was named the America East coach of the year after he led the team to a 23-9 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Things were good. That is until all hell broke loose within the program last year.
According to reports, Serbian player Miladin Kovacevic is accused of beating another student into a coma in July of 2008. Published reports say he posted bail and left the country. Four months after that, another player, Malik Alvin, was accused of stealing a box of condoms from an area Wal-Mart and assaulting a woman as he tried to flee the scene.
Last March, a woman working for the university alleged “egregious acts of sexual misconduct” against two athletic administration officials. That was followed by the Sept. 2009 charge against player Emanuel Mayben for distribution and possession of cocaine. That one was the proverbial last straw as six players were kicked off the team, athletic director Joel Thirer was forced to resign, and just before practice was to start for the year, Broadus was put on paid leave.
That’s how Macon got his first head coaching gig and was handed a team with none of its top scorers back from the 23-9 club and only seven scholarship players. He also has a Division III transfer, a couple of walk-ons, two kids from Canada, one from Paris, France, and another Ankara,
Certainly Macon doesn’t have the same problems as someone like John Calipari has at Kentucky.
Needless to say that’s not the ideal situation to break into, but Macon’s team is 9-13 with a 4-3 record in the conference after the 80-63 victory over UMBC. All things considered, that’s not too bad.
No, Macon doesn’t have that booming voice that Chaney used more as a weapon than a motivating tactic, but he doesn’t need it. Instead, he wears a perpetual scowl during the game and keeps the jacket to his suit buttoned up unlike his rumpled mentor.
Afterwards, with a victory wrapped up, Macon discusses personal philosophy — some wrapped in Chaney-isms — and teaching methods. He says he always thought he’d be a teacher, though not completely because of his degree from Temple in education. Chaney often did the same thing, too, only more colorfully.
However, during a radio interview with the crew from Binghamton, Macon was overheard using the axiom, “Speed kills…” When told that the source of that quote was pretty easy to figure out, all Macon could do was smile broadly.
“The master,” he said. “I got that one from the master.”
That was before he launched into an adage about crossing the street with cars whizzing by at 75-mph, complete with head-scratchers involving principles of time, space and distance.
Then there was the one that makes one’s head hurt.
“I tell them about making their present their future,” he said. “Before, we were in the locker room talking about the game and then we went out and won. By the time we got back to the locker room we had made out present our future.”
In other words, I tell him, it’s like the saying that there is no such thing as tomorrow because when it gets here, it’s today.
“Exactly,” he said. “But that’s only if you wake up.”
Too many distractions
He also carries a bit of an aloofness that Chaney never had. During timeouts Macon usually lets assistant Marc Hsu instruct the team on the bench while he huddles with top assistant Don Anderson on the floor. He also has repeatedly turned down numerous media requests from reporters from his hometown of Saginaw, Mich., Detroit (where he spent a few seasons with the Pistons), and Philadelphia.
That’s because Macon says he doesn’t want to be the only voice his kids hear.
“They hear things from a lot of voices, and mine is just that of another teacher,” he said, alluding that he doesn’t want to hammer his players with too much from just him.
Still, there are other reasons, perhaps, but some close observers of the Binghamton team have wondered if Macon was really interested in any of it at all.
Nope, they just don’t know Macon.
Even as a teenager jumping into the world of big-time college basketball, Macon often distanced himself from what he felt were distractions. After all, it was because of Macon that Chaney instituted his policy of forbidding the press to talk to his underclassmen and at Binghamton, Macon took the policy a step further. For the press that covers the team, Macon allows only his two captains, Moussa Camara (from Paris), and Chretien Lukusa (from Toronto), to talk to the media.
It’s just too much of a distraction, the coach says.
“When I took over [Broadus] told me to keep it simple,” he explained. “when we started the breaks were on, but out there now I want to go 120-mph. We’re getting there.”
That’s Macon in a nutshell — he works to avoid distractions. As a teenager during his first year at Temple, Macon decided that anything other than studying and basketball were a waste of time so he effectively eliminated normal collegiate pursuits from his life. Instead, he collected homilies and adages, wrote letters to his family and friends and maintained as much as an ascetic life as possible for a famous athlete in North Philadelphia.
As Chaney said in 1990 interview with Sports Illustrated, “Mark is common. He never leaves the earth.”
“I never heard that before. I like that,” Macon said when re-read the quote. “That means I’m rooted — I’m grounded. … I am no different than anyone else, but I am as great as I want to be.”
Two decades later and it’s still the same.