Today I had the privilege of interviewing the lead Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach of University of British Columbia (UBC), Spencer McKay. He had a storied playing career, most recently being capped off by induction into the Basketball BC Hall of Fame, class of 2014. A five-time Canada West All-Star and three-time All-Canadian as a player at the University of Victoria from 1986-91, McKay remains the program's all-time leading scorer, averaging 18.4 points per game during his career. He played three seasons under legendary coach Ken Shields and two years for the late Guy Vetrie.
Following his time in the CIS, he went on to play 16 years abroad in Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico, and Taiwan. He also was a member of the Canadian national team for 10 years (1985-1995), highlighted by an appearance at the 1994 World Championships in Toronto in which Canada finished seventh.
McKay graduated from Victoria with a Bachelor of Education in 1991 and is currently working toward his Level 4 coaching certification at the National Coaching Institute in Victoria and continues to run his annual Nothin' But Net Basketball Camp in his hometown of Oliver, B.C.
He has an astounding level of knowledge and experience to share that will help any aspiring basketball player not only become the best player they can be, but also sustain their success!
PM: When reflecting on your highly decorated playing career what would you say is the most important intangible that allowed you to excel during your playing career?
SM: There are several intangibles necessary for any athlete wanting to play at a higher level, none more important than character. Every athlete will face adversity- from injuries to poor performances to fatigue to outer/inner pressure- an athlete’s ability to deal with all of these things in a way that does not interfere with performance or improvement is vital to success, particularly in the long term. I would also say that an athlete’s ability to hold him or herself accountable is also a trait of a successful athlete. Athletes who point fingers rarely make it to the next level. But if there was one trait that every guy I played with at the professional level shared, it was that they were all fierce competitors. You must hate losing more than you love winning.
PM: At UBC you recruit some of the most talented and skilled players in the country, what are the most important skills/tangibles you are looking for in a recruit?
Depends on the position really, but obviously athletic ability and size are two of the most important things we look at when recruiting any player. Certain skills and athletic abilities (like jumping and quickness) are coachable and we can help the athlete improve, but as the old saying goes, you can’t coach height. As far as skills go, that largely depends on the position, but the fundamentals of basketball at every position need to be at a very high level regardless of where he plays on the court. For example, all of our guards need to possess superior ball handling, passing, and shooting abilities. Not that our forwards or “bigs” don’t (and we work on this every day), but these skills need to be very solid in order for a guard to play on our team. We can usually forgive a 7-foot recruit who can’t execute a double crossover.
PM: Continuing on with recruiting, has there ever been a time when a recruit has done something that immediately made you lose interest in the recruit? If not, what is the biggest mistake a recruit can make during the process?
SM: I think every coach who has ever been involved in the recruiting process has experienced a “letdown”- whether it was something the recruit did (or didn’t do) on the court or off. Again, we are looking for players with a high degree of character, so if a recruit does something illegal or has consistent discipline issues at home or at school, we’re not interested. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often. But we have had a couple recruits come in and play with our guys and just not compete. We want ultra-competitive players, and if you don’t come in and show us how badly you want it, your days of being recruited by UBC are probably numbered. But I would have to say the biggest mistake a recruit can make is lying- whether it’s lying about your height or your grades or your stats, the truth will eventually come out. Be proactive, but above all, be honest.
PM: There seems to be this misnomer that once you get recruited and sign your letter of intent to your school of choice that all the hard work is done. Unfortunately, too many athletes learn the hard way that their spot on the team is not guaranteed for four years. In your experience have you noticed any patterns between the players that stick around and have a successful career vs. those that do not?
I think every university player should enter his freshman season and ask himself this: “How do I want to be remembered when my career is over?” Most guys (unless they flunk out), finish their university playing careers and graduate. Those who don’t either don’t love the game enough, can’t handle the enormous demands of being a student-athlete, or would rather party or play video games than study or go to the gym. Those players usually don’t last very long and are certainly not remembered (in a positive way) by coaches, teammates, fans, and alumni. We always tell recruits that we can’t promise playing time, but we do promise opportunity. Signing that letter of intent is the opportunity. It’s what the player does after that will determine how he is remembered.
PM: After an excellent university career you were able to sustain a high level of success at the professional and international level for a very long time, what allowed you to keep playing at such a high level? The average NBA career is roughly 3 years, but you were playing professional basketball for 16 years!
I think a few factors came into play here. I’ve actually thought about this question many times because it has been asked many times! In no particular order:
1. Genetics. I was lucky to have very strong joints, a good strong frame for basketball, and I am athletic and tall. All of those factors definitely helped;
2. Taking care of myself. Staying fit, strong, putting the right things into my body, etc., all played a factor in my longevity. I was always really paranoid about my fitness. I hated the idea of getting tired before my opponent and I took great pride in being able to outrun nearly anyone at the end of a game. A lot of injuries happen because guys are fatigued, particularly in training camp at the beginning of the season. You can’t start a season unfit or you stand a good chance of struggling with injuries all year.
3. Loving the game and loving to compete. A lot of guys I knew who retired “prematurely” either didn’t love the game as much as I did, or they lost the love of competing. It’s really hard to keep coming to the gym every day if you no longer have the love or that fire within.
4. Never stop trying to improve. I was still working on improving my jumpshot the morning of my last pro game in 2008. You can never be satisfied.
5. Luck. Although I took great care to ensure I was physically ready to play, I didn’t miss a practice ( in any sport, ever) until I was 26 years old. Nobody does that without at least a little luck.
PM: Lastly, for a young upcoming basketball star growing up in Vancouver what would you recommend they do to allow them the opportunity to potentially continue playing basketball at the university level?
SM: In my opinion, young athletes today are being encouraged to “specialize” in a sport way too early. They choose one sport at the age of 10 and don’t give themselves the opportunity to develop other skills that other sports offer that will actually help them as a basketball player. Guys who have played multiple sports are always more desirable than “one sport” guys. Volleyball, track, swimming, soccer, baseball and football- all good.
Young players these days also play way too many games in the summer (AAU for example) and don’t practice the fundamentals enough. Summers should be spent going to camps and playing pickup against the best competition you can find, not playing 75 games to get “exposure”. Many of these kids are sitting on the bench anyway, and would improve way quicker if they went to camps and worked on fundamentals. I think it’s great that there are opportunities to play basketball and that is never a bad thing- but often the fundamental skill work is tossed aside in favor of team practices that focus too heavily on tactics.
I grew up in a small town so I didn’t have immediate or easy access to a lot of really good players. A young player in Vancouver is really lucky because there are a lot of very good players in a relatively small geographical area. My advice to a young player living in Vancouver is to seek out the best players in the city- whether it’s at UBC, at Kits Beach, or one of the local high school gyms- and play against them. Get to know them. Ask them questions. Find out what you have to do to get better by playing against them and by talking to them. Last week I invited 2 grade 11 players come to one of our open runs. These guys are stars at their respective high schools but when they came to play with us, they got their eyes opened really quickly; they were no longer dominant- in fact they got their butts badly kicked- but that’s what they needed to experience first-hand in order to find out where they need to be. Although it was a tough day, both of those players couldn’t wait to come back. Those kinds of kids have an immediate advantage over the high school kids who only want to play against their peers.
Wow, there was such a plethora of insightful knowledge in this interview. The biggest takeaway from this discussion is to realize that who you are as a person is much more important than your athletic skills. Further, to be able to sustain athletic excellence you can not just be a one-trick pony. The best athletes have extensive athletic skills because the body requires a diverse set of movement experiences to optimize performance and remain healthy.
If you can’t sustain it, it’s not worth it.