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More Than a Game
Willie McGee
September 24, 2009
Interview by Michael Dequina



Willie McGee

WARNING!
...spoilers ahead...

MD = Michael Dequina; WM = Willie McGee



MD: Were you always a big basketball fan, and were you always interested in playing basketball?

WM: Oh yeah, always. I grew up in Chicago, so the Bulls were everything to me.

MD: During the big Bulls era.

WM: Yeah, during the first threepeat. During the second threepeat I was in Ohio; I moved in with my brother. Growing up I wanted to be just like my older brother; he had gotten a scholarship to play basketball in Akron, and he had made a great name for himself in the city of Chicago and won a state championship--I think the first school from the city to win it during that time in 12 years. He was my everything growing up, so I definitely wanted to be like him. And my father played basketball, and a basketball court was across the street where I grew up at, so that's all I knew.

MD: You played other sports, right? You also played football, correct?

WM: I ended up playing football when I got to high school.

MD: But the one sport you loved from when you were young was always basketball.

WM: The one sport was always basketball. I wanted to play football when I was younger, but I was always taller and bigger, and so they would have to put me up two grade levels due to my size. You have to make your weight limit, and if you don't make your weight limit, you have to go up to the next age bracket. In what would've been my first year, I was like ten to fifteen pounds over where I should've been for my age, so I would've had to move up. My brother really wasn't for that, and he was a basketball player, and we were always playing. So it was all basketball for me.

MD: At what age did you end up moving to Akron from Chicago?

WM: I moved to Akron when I was eight years old. Due to my mother and father having some addictions, my sister was taking care of me. She was my heart and she means everything to me, but during that time, she had two kids of her own. It was very trying for her to maintain my mother, trying to help her raise me as well as her two kids, and I had a younger brother. It was very difficult. I was no more than six or seven, and I was babysitting my two younger nieces and younger brother due to my mother's addictions and my sister having to work and provide for us.

MD: You ended up in Akron because your brother was going to school there.

WM: He had a scholarship to Akron U. He decided to help my mother and my sister out and have me come up for a summer when I was seven. I loved it; he introduced me to everything: took me to the mall for the first time; took me out to eat, to the movies, and stuff like that--just really taught me a lot of things. It was a great time, and it was real trying when I went back, and he had my mother and father's blessing and said I could move up there with him permanently. I give a lot of credit to him and his girlfriend at the time taking on an eight-year-old.

MD: It was a huge sacrifice.

WM: Yeah, huge.

MD: At what point did you join the unit with LeBron [James], Dru [Joyce III], and Sian [Cotton]?

WM: Actually, I played with LeBron in [youth basketball age bracket] 8 to 10; we played on the same team. We ended up beating Coach Dru and Little Dru in a championship game; we were 2 and 0 that year against them. When I went to junior high, I became pretty good and my skills came together, and I ended up playing with them in 7th grade for the first time. They had a solid team; they had already placed high in the AAU national tournament. So that following year they had big plans, and they needed a big guy to play alongside Sian. Bron was already his own, and Dru played very well and could shoot it. I came in and meshed with them real good; I had a good summer and my game really developed, and I loved traveling with them. [The next] summer we had a really good year. We won a couple of tournaments in Indiana and Columbus and then placed high in the Chicago tournament; it was just great. We ended up taking second in the AAU nationals that summer and lost to the Southern California All-Stars. During that time [we talked about] where we were going go to school, this and that. I was getting recruited by some local public high schools, but I definitely wanted to stay with them. I had a taste of winning with them, and they were on the same thing I was on, dedicated to the game. So at that point, Dru said he wanted to go to St. V., and that's where they said they wanted to go. The coach [there] found interest in me, and I wanted to be like my brother all my life, be a basketball player. I felt like I was well on my way: I was playing AAU level like my brother; I was going to a private Catholic school like him. So I jumped at the opportunity to go to St. V. with them.

MD: How was adjusting to St. Vincent-St. Mary? It was certainly a lot different than if you had gone to your local public school.

WM: It definitely was difficult. I guess it made it a little easier that I played football that year, and going to the school i knew all the football team as well as Dru, Sian, and Bron. But it was quite difficult because coming from Chicago I had a learning disability. I had to go to special ed when I moved [to Akron] because I was a year or two behind from the Chicago public school system. That was a fear of mine--I didn't want to go to St. V., it being a tough academic school, and not have an opportunity to play. But my brother said there's nothing I couldn't overcome, and if I worked at it, we'll get it done, and I'll still be eligible to play. And [St. V.] being an all-white school, keeping it honest, not knowing how we would be welcomed and be treated--initially it was a little nerve wracking. Then, just the adjustment from the public school to the private school and how strict they were. I remember the first day coming into school, fresh clothes on, this and that, and I thought I knew all the rules. The first teacher i see, I asked her where the room was at, and she just opened up with, "Tie your shoes and tuck your shirt in!" [laughs] I was like, "Oh-kay. So are you going to tell me where 213 is?" [laughs] So that was kind of shell-shocking, where the public school is more lax and comfortable; I was wondering if I'd be able to maintain that for four years. But after getting there, playing football and being there with friends, it was pretty comfortable. We were able to establish ourselves. We had people that were fans, and we had students who were jealous of the basketball team because we got this, got that; missed this, missed that.

MD: Joining an established team in St. V., was there any difficulty getting into that system compared to what you guys were used to playing?

WM: Not really. We had gained a pretty close bond with [then-]coach [Keith Dambrot], and he came to see us play [before we came to the school]. So he had a feel for us, and he said that if we come in and work hard, the best players are going to play, and we'll get an opportunity to play varsity. And after having a successful 8th grade summer in the AAU, our confidence was riding high, and we definitely felt we could come in and compete for time on a team that was already pretty good. Coach D. asked us the first day of practice, "Do we want to be good?" He was going to coach us like college players; the only thing he would be lax on is us getting there on time because we don't drive. But besides that, he's gonna hold us to a higher regard, and we're gonna win a state championship. We really believed in him, and he just did a great job with us. Coach D. took us to the next level teaching us the game and being mentally tough by treating us like college players.

MD: Coach Dru [Joyce II] then took over as head coach the following year, and I imagine it wasn't that huge of an adjustment since he had already coached you guys on your other teams when you were younger.

WM: Actually, it was a hard time when Coach D. left. Everybody was upset with him.

MD: Especially when you had such a winning record with the two state titles.

WM: Right. We won two in a row, then he decided he wanted to go somewhere else. At the time I respected it; I guess my brother opened my eyes up to it a lot sooner than the other guys did. So when he did leave, I understood it was a family decision, and this is what he wanted, and I kind of had seen it coming from what my brother was telling me. But the guys really took it hard; they really disliked him for a period of time over that. Coach Dru definitely eased the transition. We definitely were considering transferring if Coach Dru didn't get the job, not knowing who was going to come in. Coach Dru was just the man for the job: he already had our respect, and we knew he knew the game, and we were ready to win a championship.

MD: The big celebrity status also started that same year Coach Dru took over, and that must've been bizarre to experience in high school when one of your best friends is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

WM: Looking back on it, it definitely got nuts, but at the time we definitely thought we kept it in perspective. But stuff got wild after that. The crowds got bigger. People started following. We started going to different places. We got more recognition. I guess we tried to do our best, but we were just young and enjoying the time. We got way beside ourselves and started disrespecting the game. Consequently, that's why we ended up losing the state championship that year. I know Coach Dru takes a lot of blame for it, but he had a team that knew what they should've been doing but was just trying to take shortcuts to get there, and it ended up catching up with us in the championship game. But it was no fault of Coach Dru because any other coach would've lost it way earlier than he did. He did the best to keep us under control and focused. But you're talking to a core of four to five players who had won two state championships, and we really feel like we really already knew what it took to get there.

MD: And now you guys had all that national coverage on you, like you can do no wrong.

WM: Can do no wrong, and we're winning. But like Coach Dru said, we weren't winning the right way. I guess it was karma; it came back to beat us. In the film it shows--and I'd actually never seen this before or ever heard it before--Bron guaranteed a victory [in a news interview]. That's not LeBron at all. That's never been him, and I know some media asked a question just to get that up out of him, but that's never been LeBron's demeanor. But still, incidentally, he comes up the next day having spasms in his back. He can barely walk because his back is so tight, and he's one of the best athletes on the team. That's karma coming, biting us in the ass.

MD: How did the approach change the following year after losing the state championship game? What exactly was different with you players and Coach Dru?

WM: I got to give a lot of credit to Coach Dru. Coach Dru had us rededicate ourselves to the man upstairs, and he really let us know that you can't win a basketball game if you're not winning in the game of life. We were doing a lot of stuff off the court that wasn't right, and consequently it took a toll on us on the court. He had us respect the game. We became more of a unit; we had a common goal--yet still we all had a sour taste in our mouths. We knew we were better than our last game that we played. We had a lot to prove; a lot of people doubted us and doubted Coach Dru. So it kind of sent us back to when we were playing AAU, when we were facing some of the big cities, playing Hollywood teams, Florida teams, Atlanta teams: like, "Ohio? Where's Akron?" We were fighting to represent Ohio and Akron; in turn, we were fighting to represent ourselves and St. V., and to show that we're not done and can win another. We had a goal to win four straight championships after we won the first one, and now we couldn't win three more. We had a bad taste when we lost, so we had to leave with a positive taste in our mouths.

MD: It was all about refocusing on what your purpose was, which was playing the game.

WM: Right. Play the game and play the game the right way.

MD: Your specific role in the team changed that senior year, coming off of the bench.

WM: Yeah, playing with Bron, you need a shooter with him, and my game hadn't developed to where it needed to be; I was playing catch up after an injury. Knowing the game, I knew that's what the team needed, so I didn't have a problem with coming off the bench even though my friends were in the starting lineup, and we had played so many years together doing well. I knew what was best for the team, and I did what I needed to do to contribute. I didn't have any anything against Coach Dru or the players. I understood where I was at with my game.

MD: What was the nature of your injury, and when did you suffer it?

WM: Actually, it happened freshman year playing football, playing tight end. A pass was thrown behind me, and I reached back and my shoulder came out, without getting hit or anything. After that i tried to rehab it, and I dislocated it again during a JV game midway through the season. I think i missed like 3 or 4 games, maybe like a month. I came back and finished the season, and then I ended up dislocating it my first game of the AAU season after my freshman year. At that point i was told I needed to have surgery, that the rehabilitation wasn't working. So I missed [playing basketball] all my whole freshman summer going into sophomore year, and then I missed all of football season rehabbing. From that point on it was just playing catch up and trying to fight the mental issues of wanting to play and trying to fight through it, fighting myself and not wanting to injure it again. I was doing everything I could to just get back in shape and play the game I love.

MD: What were your favorite memories of your time at St. V.?

WM: That freshman state championship was amazing; that a huge time for me. It was a great time, fighting back from the injury and then coming in and being able to contribute in the state semifinal game and winning it. Then senior year, winning a national champtionship and coming back from a loss in junior year and winning those two games without Bron, that was huge for us. That senior year was amazing, with all the trips and stuff like that. I'll probably say senior year was most meaningful with Romeo [Travis] being a huge part of the family and fighting through all the adversity and people not wanting us to win. Senior year was probably the best time.

MD: During high school you were already branching out into things off the court.

WM: Yes, definitely. A family friend always stressed to me being a student athlete, emphasis on student first; you can't have one with out the other. I really stayed focused on that. I never wanted to be a "jock" or anything like that, and it really went a long way to motivate me to stay on top of my grades and to be able to have an opportunity to go to college. So I always wanted to stay on top of my grades.

MD: Where did you end up going to college?

WM: Fairmont State University. LeBron said he would pay for me to go to Howard if I wanted to. But my mom told me God puts you in a position to win. He put Fairmont in my life for a reason, and that's what I earned, and I wanted to see it through and see how it would go for me. I thanked [LeBron], but I turned down the offer. [Fairmont] would be best for my family even though they wanted me to go to where I wanted to and then be able to work it out. But Fairmont State was a full ride, and it was just hard to turn down.

MD: And you played football at Fairmont.

WM: Yes, I played football there, quarterback. We were average at best. It was a tough situation coming from a great high school program where coaches loved and cared about you to a college situation where it was more business and feeling that pressure to win. My heart never really got into it after my third year.

MD: What was your degree?

WM: Bachelor of science in information systems. Now I'm in grad school at the University of Akron getting my degree in physical education and sports science.

MD: Is coaching something you do want to pursue in the future?

WM: I do. Coach Dru gave me the opportunity to coach [the St. V. freshman team] last year. I had a fun time; I can see myself coaching. I'm trying to see what the college level is like right now; I took the grad assistant job at the University of Akron.

MD: Looking back on this tour leading up to the film's release, what's been the best stop for you?

WM: It was special to go to Chicago first to bring everything roundabout. Chicago played a huge influence in my life from a young age, and it's really documented in the film where i came from. Being able to come back and have my family able to view the film was huge. The Akron screening was special, and the California trip is probably the most fun.

MD: So you're enjoying all the Hollywood stuff. [laughs]

WM: Yes, definitely am. [laughs] It's a great time, my first time out here since high school. It's making more memories.

MD: Speaking of memories, what do you hope that viewers will take the film, especially the youth?

WM: The value of friendship--what true friends can do for you and mean to you in your life: people you can lean on, people you can talk to and confide in. Also, coming from difficult backgrounds, it's still possible to be successful and do well in your life. You don't have to have any limits or set any limits to yourself just because you may come from a background that's not storybook or publicized. If you work hard, you can still achieve your dreams.


More Interviews:
Coach Dru Joyce II
Sian Cotton
Dru Joyce III
Romeo Travis
Kristopher Belman & Brian Joe
Harvey Mason Jr.

Willie McGee

Special thanks to Willie McGee



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More Than a Game
The Review
Coach Dru Joyce II interview
Sian Cotton interview
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Romeo Travis interview
Kristopher Belman & Brian Joe interview
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