Second to none

23:55, Dec 01 2012
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Steve "Coach" McKean

The game's in overtime, baby.

Keep your eye on the target, square of the basket. You should get nothing but net. Look forward to returning your call.

Sound familiar? It will if you've ever listened to Coach's answerphone message.

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Steve "Coach" McKean

He needs scant introduction as there wouldn't be many in Taranaki who haven't crossed paths with Steve "Coach" McKean.

If they haven't met personally it's a fair bet they would have heard him either on the radio waves or a variety of sporting sidelines.

Despite living in New Zealand for years he hasn't lost any of his American volume. Not crass, just loud.


Maybe not quite as loud as when he arrived in New Zealand in 1971, but sufficient to stop people in their tracks when he delivers a standard greeting.

Within a minute of sitting down for a chat on the balcony of a central city bar, he bellows out a "gidday, buddy" to expat Englishman James Graham passing by on the footpath.

He once drew a barb from a fellow expat working at the Taranaki Daily News. Seemingly unaware of her own shrillness, she bellowed across the room after McKean had left: "Who was that loud American?"

It's just the McKean way and it obviously hasn't harmed his relationship with the thousands of Taranaki school children he has helped steer into sport for the past 20 years.

His energy and drive has expanded the secondary schools' sporting calendar to 44 events a year.

His job has evolved from a part-time role as organiser of Taranaki secondary schools' sport to regional sports director for the Taranaki Secondary Schools' Association.

But now he has decided it's time to hand the baton to someone else, relax a little and reflect on a job well done.

At 69 (as he puts it, he's nine months off 70), McKean deserves his time out.

"It's been the best job in the country. I'm working with the best people. When you get to my age, you know you're lucky when you get up and you're happy to go to work. I can't ever recall not wanting to come to work. I've had a lot of fun," he said. "I'm involved with sport every day and that's something I love. You develop a strong relationship with the people you work with, the sponsors . . . Shell Todd are the best in the country . . . the principals, they're the best, they're outstanding to work with . . . and all the sports co-ordinators . . . and the kids."

McKean said there were only two events on the sports calendar that cost money.

"Smallbore, because of the ammo, and tenpin bowling which is at a reduced rate. Everything else is free. I love working with the kids. I'd rather watch a good secondary school sports game than any other sport . . . apart from the Breakers."

McKean said those he'd helped never forgot that assistance.

"If you can create some funding for them, they never forget that. Our funding organisations in Taranaki are the best.

"There's the TSSA and the TSB and when you throw in the Laurie Denton Trust and the Cameron Clow Trust, there's four funding streams for our young athletes.

"Nowhere else in the country do you get that."

So successful is the Taranaki programme, it's now seen as a model for regional secondary school sport in New Zealand.

"Our model works and is the best in the country. I've given a few presentations for Sport New Zealand [it used to be Sparc] and the New Zealand Secondary Schools' Association."

McKean says while he is retiring - he finishes up just before Christmas - he still hopes to keep his hand in doing something with sport.

"I'll definitely do something, I can't sit on my arse. I'm not a bowler or a gardener."

One thing he has planned is some travelling with his wife Rachel.

"She's retired and our daughter Naomi lives in San Francisco, so we'd like to go and see her. She's a lawyer, she's working for a big finance company over there," he said.

"But Taranaki will always be home for us. We're not planning on moving from here, we love the place."

McKean's contribution to Taranaki sport was recognised in 2004 when he received a New Plymouth District Council citizen's award and then again this year when his name was in the Queen's Birthday honours list. McKean became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport.

He said it was his sporting passion - basketball - that brought him to New Zealand.

While he could shoot the ball well enough to earn the nickname "Bomber", he was too short to make it in the NBA. So he came to New Zealand.

He was going to play in Tasmania until his old college mate Bob South, who was already playing in New Zealand, told him it was better here.

McKean thought about it for a few hours and went with South's advice. Tasmania's loss was Auckland's gain.

His adopted club Panmure was unbeatable, winning five national club titles in a row.

McKean then turned to coaching. He coached Auckland and New Zealand, with New Zealand winning 13 of their 17 games, including a silver medal at the Commonwealth championships and an epic breakthrough win against Australia in 1978. It would take the Tall Blacks almost a quarter of a century later to repeat the feat, with Tab Baldwin as coach.

McKean shifted to New Plymouth in 1990 with Rachel and Naomi and was meant to start as director of coaching for the New Plymouth Basketball Association. Despite the best of intentions, it never happened.

But that didn't faze McKean. He did some relieving - he's a qualified PE teacher - at Francis Douglas Memorial College and then taught part- time at Spotswood College for two years.

On the coaching front, he took on the role with the New Plymouth national league team, winning the regular season title in 1992 before choking in the playoffs.

He coached New Plymouth for a number of years, securing a sponsorship deal with BP to save the sport in Taranaki in 1993 when the national league was declining.

McKean said when BP pulled out, Taranaki basketball went into recess for a couple of years.

"We couldn't get a sponsor and without a sponsor, we couldn't get a team. Then Warren Osborne picked it up and got a team going again. We owe him a lot. We've had a team ever since," he said.

"I want it to keep going. I love basketball and even though things have changed, we need first division basketball here. There's a huge gap when kids leave high school.

"Everyone is making too much money in this league and I believe every team must have three under-20 players on their 10-man travelling team. You would only have to pay seven players and pay the expenses for the under-20 guys.

"It would give the young kids something to aim for. They'd work their backsides off and develop as players. It's something I believe should happen."

McKean said he didn't agree with some of the money being paid to players these days.

"When I was coaching, the top players had their rent paid, got a car and were probably making $700 to $800 a week. It was pretty good money. Now some of them are getting in excess of $25,000 to $30,000 for 16 weeks' work.

"That's $1500 a week plus expenses. They're pricing themselves out of the league. Just look around; no franchise is making money and some are folding."

And that's a pity because age group basketball is booming.

"At the national secondary schoolboys' champs in New Plymouth this year, we had 24 teams. It's head and shoulders the best tournament in the country. There's some great talent around," he said.

"Kids love basketball. There's only five on court for a team and everyone gets a chance to dribble and shoot the ball. They're all involved, not like in some other sports."

We salute you, Coach. Has there been a more obliging or passionate media-savvy man promoting sport in Taranaki?

The simple answer: No.


Wife: Rachel

Daughter: Naomi

Playing/coaching career: San Jose State University, California (1967-70); player-coach with Panmure (1971-78) winning two national provincial titles and one national club championship title; coach of Panmure under-21 (1971-78) winning two national under-21 titles; New Zealand coach (1972-81) with team beating Australia for first time in 1978; first NBL coach to win 100 games; trainer with Auckland B rugby team (1986-88); coached New Plymouth (1990-95).

Employment: Qualified teacher, professional basketball coach. Last 20 years, regional sports director for Taranaki Secondary Schools' Sports Association (1993-2013).

Taranaki Daily News