Twenty-years later, Aaron McKie is returning to the sidelines of Temple University as an assistant coach under Fran Dunphy this season. His goal is to guide the Owls back to prominence after a dreadful 9-22 record last season. As a player, McKie finished his three-year career tied for sixth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,650 points. He helped lead the Owls to an Elite Eight appearance in 1993 and found great success on the professional level with the Sixers – winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2001 in their only trip to the NBA finals this century. McKie took some time to answer questions about his new role, as well as what he’s learned as a Philadelphia basketball lifer.
What’s it like to be back coaching at Temple – the Alma Mater you call your own and the program which you helped build?
It’s great. I don’t think words can describe it. It’s a place where I really grew up at. Ever since I was kid – I’d say 10 or 11 years old – I was playing basketball down at McGonigle Hall in the future stars AAU program, high school and Sonny Hill leagues until I moved on to the collegiate level at Temple. It’s a tremendous opportunity for me to work with Fran Dunphy and try to establish a winning culture here once again.
After a down year last season, a lot of local talent has transferred back to Temple this season to help out the program. Is it nice to see local guys like Jaylen Bond come back home to help out programs they were so accustomed to seeing like Temple growing up?
I’ve always been a firm believer that there’s enough talent in Philadelphia where you can build a nationally ranked high-profile program here. For such a long time, a lot of the kids have been heading out of town and going to other schools, but I think if we can keep the majority of them together here we can accomplish great things. A lot of the parents want to get their kids out of Philadelphia because of a lot of the troubling things that go on in some of the neighborhoods here. I can’t blame them for that, but I also believe a lot of these kids can stay here, star here and accomplish great things with the ties we have in the city at Temple.
Over the past three years, it seems like the program has really tried to appeal to incoming recruits who might have an interest in Temple. They added a new gym, more additions to the arena, a new locker room and they’ve even had NBA players like LeBron James in for practice at the new facility. How much of an impact do these things have on incoming recruits who’re looking at Temple as a destination?
It has an impact from a positive standpoint, but I think just about every school these kids go to have something that can rival what we have here. We don’t have the typical campus life here so a lot of kids are enamored with that when they go visit the other schools. What we do have is coaches that will work hard to make kids better who are willing to listen and willing to work. It’s a family structured atmosphere that is unique compared to a lot of the other programs.
Fran Dunphy has obviously shown what he can do as a coach in his time with the program. What’s it like to pick his brain and really entrench yourself in the program in the time you’ve been there so far?
Coach [Dunphy] is great and he really gives you room to grow, which I think is important. A lot of times you have coaches who don’t really give kids the opportunity to make their own decisions, but Fran gives them that. If they don’t make the right ones then he’ll take those opportunities away, but I believe that’s the best way to learn and grow. It’s been a process for me too because I’m just really getting into the flow of things now. I didn’t get started until the end of August so there’s a lot I still have to learn and I’m willing to do that. I’m going to try and pick coaches brain as much as I can in order to learn as much as I can.
How have the players responded to you joining the staff? Obviously you had a long pro career playing with names like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant as well as coaches like Larry Brown and Phil Jackson. What do you share with them when one of them approaches you with a question pertaining to their game?
I try to share my life experiences more so than my basketball experiences with the kids, because a lot of them aren’t going to be able to accomplish what I was able to on the court. I think I can really relate to them in terms of my life experiences because a lot of them are like me, where they’re coming from single parent homes and they have to scratch and claw for everything they get in their lives. Obviously they ask me about Allen Iverson and Larry Brown and some of the players or coaches I’ve worked with and I’ll gladly talk about it, but you don’t want to give them false hopes. As a coach you want to be as honest as you possibly can and that’s the perspective I try to give to these kids.
Aside from your new position with Temple, Allen Iverson had some very kind words for you at his retirement press conference last year. How much did that moment touch you, being such a close friend to Allen and a teammate for all of those years?
It’s great because I was able to spend so much time with Allen over the years. Sometimes you don’t feel like a person quite gets the advice you’re giving them, but for him to single me out on one of the biggest days of his life was a great feeling. It means so much to feel like your voice is being heard. We did a lot together and we had a lot of heartfelt conversations about life and basketball. To some degree, the conversations that I had with him are some of the conversations I’m trying to have with the kids on the team now.
That 2000-01 Sixers team that went to the NBA finals was so tight-knit. In your mind, is that the biggest reason you guys found so much success?
That’s the biggest thing I try to get across to these guys. A lot of times it’s not about talent, it’s about synergy and fighting for one another. I like to use the current Eagles team as an example. Nobody really jumps out of the page at you when you look at their players. They have a few very skilled players, but it’s more about the unity they have and fighting for each other on the field. That’s what I try to get across to these guys here. We’re not loaded with talent, but if we put it all together and play for one another then we can make some good things happen. That’s what you see in a good team, being able to put things on the line for one another.
What was your most memorable moment playing under Hall-of-Fame coach John Chaney with the Owls from 1991-1993?
I’d say it was going to the Elite Eight in 1993. That year, we were hovering around .500 late in the year and we had some nationally televised games coming up against some of the top teams that we knew we had to win. We ended up making the tournament that year with just 17 wins. When we got to our first practice leading up to the tournament, which was at the Kingdome in Seattle, the highlight for me was having 20,000 people there just to watch us practice. Here we are kids from Philadelphia who found a bit of success in the tournament and suddenly everyone was calling out our names in the stands. It was the first time that any of us had felt like celebrities. That’s when I first realized that all of our hard work was coming to the surface. We didn’t win it all that year and ended up losing to the Fab Five and Michigan, but that was probably the highlight of my collegiate career with coach Chaney. After the game he came in the locker room and had a great speech for us. He was crying and we were crying and everyone else within the program was crying. He liked to stand the seniors up after their last games and say some good words about them. Those are the memories that stick with you as time passes.
Does it make you proud to see where the program was then to where it is now and to know that you were a part of a team that helped build it to where it is today? The Liacouras Center and new practice facility weren’t there when you were a player, so what does having them now mean to you as a former player?
I get jealous a little bit and wish we could’ve had that facility, but those kids get the opportunity to enjoy it and to use it so I’m happy for that. I like to say that I had a hand in [where the program has come], but there’s a lot of guys that helped build the program well before me as well. It’s for the greater good of the entire program and hopefully those guys will put it to good use and make the best of it.
You’re the epitome of a Philly guy. You played high school, college and professionally in the area and are now in the coaching spectrum here as well. How much are you trying to keep the traditions of Philadelphia basketball and the Big Five alive here in the city?
I want to keep these traditions alive so bad. When I was growing up, watching the Big Five is what made me want to go to Temple. Obviously coach Chaney played a huge part in that as well, but the Big Five is another big reason on why I chose Temple. To fight for your turf and the bragging rights within the city held a lot more interest when I was growing up. A lot of the kids that come up now don’t quite understand it. Hopefully we can get all that stuff back – get the Big Five back, get Temple basketball back and bring the traditions back that make Philadelphia basketball beautiful.