clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Walter McCarty talks about learning under Brad Stevens, meeting Denzel Washington, and becoming friends with Tommy Heinsohn

New, comments

The new Evansville head coach is one of the most well-travelled men in basketball. He spoke with SB Nation about what he learned under Rick Pitino and Brad Stevens, and his hopes for a “He Got Game” sequel.

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The University of Evansville hired a new coach for its men’s basketball team last month. Walter McCarty grew up in Evansville, and went back to his hometown after five seasons on the bench as an assistant coach for Boston Celtics.

He is much more than just a savvy hire for a Missouri Valley Conference hopeful, however. McCarty’s basketball career spans decades, and has come in contact with some of the sport’s most memorable personalities.

He was a standout at Kentucky under Rick Pitino where he won a national championship, and became part of the historic 1996 NBA Draft class. He also acted in the movie He Got Game, and has dabbled as a recording artist and sock entrepreneur. He has Charles Oakley stories.

Basketball’s do-it-all man took the time to talk to SB Nation about his life of basketball experiences throughout his career. This following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You sang the national anthem before a game at Harrison High School in front of Rick Pitino as a recruit. Was there any added pressure there?

WM: I thought there was no added pressure. I knew by him being there and me doing it, I was going to get some nationwide exposure, so that was good. [laughs] It was a fun time.

You were a star at Evansville Harrison, and transitioning to Lexington — city-wise — isn’t exactly wild. But you went and played basketball for Kentucky and Rick Pitino. Was there any kind of culture shock, just because of how big the stage got?

WM: It was not, because during my senior year, I went up to Kentucky for a lot of games. So I kind of got accustomed to it early. And then once Kentucky was recruiting me, it was always crazy living down close to Kentucky. During the Kentucky Derby Festival and all that stuff, I mean, they kind of got us used to it. We found out early on that this was not normal, but it was fun. Once I got there, I was already used to it.

What was it like playing for Rick Pitino at Kentucky?

WM: It was great. One of the big reasons I went there was because I wanted to shoot threes, I wanted to be able to get the ball off the backboard and dribble it up, and make passes and just play free. He allowed us to be ourselves out there. We played hard, played for one another, but he really trusted us to make the right decisions and it’s a lot of fun to play that way.

Do you have any favorite teammates you played with, and why?

WM: Aw, man. I mean each place it was a different guy. Obviously my first year in New York — Patrick Ewing, [Charles] Oakley, and Larry Johnson. Those guys were awesome and treated me really well. When I got the job, Patrick was one of the first persons who called me, so Pat and I’s relationship has gone way beyond our years of playing and he’s just been a great friend. I think with the Celtics, obviously you know, knowing Antoine [Walker] and spending so much time with him in college — he’s probably one of my favorite Celtics teammates. In Phoenix, Steve Nash, and my last year in LA, Sam Cassell.

1996 Final Four
Walter McCarty on Kentucky in the 1996 Final Four.

I gotta ask — what’s the craziest thing you saw Oakley do?

WM: [laughter] Man, I’ve seen Oakley, man, punk some NBA players. I can’t say names on stories, but he’d just punk’d some people and you’re like “Wow.” I’ve seen, you know, guys gambling and guys owe him money. He was just awesome.

There was the whole Rockets-Clippers backdoor situation ...

WM: Oakley’s not taking the back door. If he saw you, you got beef, it was all right there. Before the game, walking out of the tunnel, both teams. There was no back door. If he wanted to see you, he was going to see you. For me as a rookie it was awesome to see.

Is there anybody in today’s game that you think could roll with Oak?

WM: Nah. Nah.

Tommy Heinsohn loved you more than anybody has ever loved anybody. I’m sorry, let me be more specific. My editor Nate Scott told me it was the greatest love story of his youth. I’m talking, “I LOVE WALTAH!” What was that whole dynamic like for you?

WM: [laughs] It was great. I think the way I played reminded Tommy of how his teammates played and what he was used to. I was a guy at that point that sacrificed a lot, didn’t really care about scoring, just did whatever I needed to do to help my team to have a better chance of winning. I just think trying to get extra possessions, bring energy, offensive rebounds, playing against the toughest guys and guarding them each and every night. I think he understood what my job was and how hard it is to do that night in and night out, and always put your team first. He appreciated that and I think that was his way of letting people know, “Hey, this kid can play, but he’s doing everything for this team to make this team better.” A lot of players aren’t able to that and I think he appreciated, he noticed it, and it took off from there.

Did your relationship go beyond the court?

WM: Oh definitely. He was my man. His wife Helen, bless her soul, she passed years ago, but she was just an angel. Some of the best memories I have are over at his house sitting in the backyard around the pool and you got Satch Sanders and (John) Havlicek and just telling stories. It was just awesome, and I’m sitting there thinking “Wow, I’m from Evansville, Indiana, I’m here in the backyard of a legend Celtics player.” It was really cool to be a part of that.

What did you make of the whole Paul Pierce/Isaiah Thomas retirement ceremony beef?

WM: Me being there, it was more blown out of proportion. The Celtics wanted to honor IT, but just circumstances kept coming up, just kept coming up, and they put him on that night. IT didn’t want to take away from Paul’s night. Obviously he wanted to hear the fans cheer for him one last time. He did a lot for us. I think it was more the media. You know how it is, anytime something comes up, if it has a chance to get blown out of proportion, it will because media will take it and run with it. But neither one of those guys meant any ill will toward one another. IT, I think, handled it really well, and I think Paul handled it really well. I just think it was people outside of those guys who tried to blow it out of proportion to make it a story.

Walter McCarty behind Isaiah Thomas during the first quarter of Game 5 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals in Boston.
Getty Images

What was it like, being in a movie like He Got Game?

WM: I never even thought about being in a film, and it was great because obviously it was a basketball movie. And you know, I’m still getting those checks so I’m very happy about it. It was a lot of fun, the cast was a lot of fun to be around. I read for the main script of Jesus Shuttlesworth. Spike loved what I did so much, he created a spot for me. It was fun, and it still gets a lot of run on TV. People I’ve known for years, they always come up and say, “Man I didn’t know you were in that movie! I just saw it!” That’s kinda cool.

You were in the movie in a limited role, but how often did you get to work with Denzel Washington?

WM: Reading for the part, I spent a lot of time with Denzel. In the beginning, reading for that part, we all had an acting coach. She was like “Alright, you’re always in character.” I had to go read with Denzel. She was trying to get me ready so [she said], “You gotta be in character. He’s not Denzel, he’s Jake. He killed your mother. You don’t like him,” and you know, just trying to get me in character, you have to be that way all the time. I get to the studio where I have to go read. So I walk in, there’s this guy sitting on the couch and he has on sunglasses and dreadlocks. So I sit next to him, talk to him, “Hey, how are you doing?” We were just talking. Now that I think about it, she set me up. She walks away, she comes back, and she’s just screaming, “You’re not supposed to be talking to him!” But she’s cursing, “He killed your F’in mother!” I look at her like, oh my goodness, she’s freaking out, she’s going crazy. And I look at him, he takes his glasses off and the hair and it’s Denzel. And he’s laughing, and I’m looking at him shocked. Because first off, it’s Denzel. And then she’s looking at me like she’s really upset, she’s screaming at me. He just looks at me and goes, “I understand, don’t worry about it.” And then I go in the room and read my part, but that was my first interaction with him. It was crazy as hell.

Is that something you’d do again?

WM: Oh definitely. He said he wants to do another one. I’m not sure what else he has to do, but he contacted us and said he wants to do another one.

So hope is still alive for another He Got Game?

WM: Hope is still alive.

You’ve got a few albums that you’ve put out. Moment for Love, Unbreakable, and Emotionally. When did you first learn you could sing?

WM: Probably at 4 or 5 years old. I grew up singing in church and traveling around with my brother and sisters, cousins, my great aunt having us perform in front of people. So, forever.

Is it a passion you still follow?

WM: Nah, I’m just a walking jukebox. If I’m at home, sitting playing my piano or messing around with the guitar. But my passion right now is coaching and helping young men succeed on and off the court. I loved music, but for me it was never about being a big music star. It was just something I always wanted to do and get out of my system. But I’m always going to love music and walking around singing. My thing is here at the university.

So you play instruments as well?

WM: I mainly play piano, but I’ve been teaching myself guitar. I can sit down and play a couple of solos of guitar if I wanna just mess around and sing or whatever.

Walter McCarty singing the National Anthem on Saturday of the 2006 NBA All-Star Game weekend.
NBAE/Getty Images

When did you pick up the guitar?

WM: I probably started teaching myself four or five years ago.

Another venture you’ve explored is your own line of socks. What was your inspiration behind that?

WM: I’ve always loved socks. One of my best friends is sock crazy as well. I don’t know how we got to happy socks. I always want happy socks and bright colored socks. My best friend, he thinks he’s in on fashion. But we love bright socks and whatever. I used to always wear them, and people, while I’m sitting over on the bench, whether it was officials, or people, from the TV or website, everybody was talking about, “Socks, socks, socks, your socks! What are you wearing today?” and all this stuff. Then back in the locker room, this was after a game or something, Brad (Stevens) comes up to me. He’s like, “Man, you need to start your own sock company, instead of giving out advertisements for everybody else.” He was joking, but I was like “Hmm, he might be onto something.” That’s what led to it, and here we are.

Do you have a lucky or favorite pair of socks?

WM: I don’t have any lucky pairs, but my favorite are the ones that will be released soon, they’re in production. They’re called “Sails,” you can’t get them yet. But they will be out soon. They’ve been my favorite pair.

You mentioned Brad Stevens, what were some of your biggest takeaways from him not just from coaching with him in the NBA, but also picking his mind from his experiences at Butler as you transition to Evansville?

WM: It was always just picking his brain. “Why did you do this? What do you think about this?” He’s phenomenal. He’s still a big part of what I’m doing here, he’s texting me, checking in, how things are going. He helped me prepare for this moment. Just the way he treats people. Basketball is basketball, but Brad has a lot of great ideas, and is one of the smartest minds out there. I think the way he treats people, the culture that he creates, how efficient he is, and with guys’ time, their recovery time. Balancing all those things, I think he’s the best at doing that. The way he treats people, man. All of that stuff you wouldn’t think carries over but it does, and it helps him be a better coach. It helps our team be a better team.

I gotta ask, did you at least try to see if you could steal him to be one of your assistants at Evansville?

WM: [laughs] I did not, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Brad loves where he’s at. He’s done a great job, and he’s going to be there for a long time.

How easy of a decision was it for you to leave the Celtics to come home to Evansville? Not in the sense of you couldn’t wait to get out of Boston or anything, but rather the opportunity to come home and basically turn Evansville around?

WM: It was tough, but I mean that’s what we’re there to — we all want to build up our own programs or our own teams. That’s what I’ve been preparing for for a long time. I know Brad understood that and Danny Ainge understands that. In the last two or three years I’ve interviewed for many schools and this was time, I think this was the right one. I think I’m prepared and it’s tough to get jobs, it’s not easy to get jobs. There’s so many jobs, but there’s so many applicants, and people want to coach. So to have the opportunity to be able to coach here, and be the first African-American coach here, you know, being a guy who is from here, and being able to lead this program and be a part of this community is — I can’t even put into words. It’s a great opportunity for me and I really believe it’s the right choice, and I really look forward to turning this thing around.

I joked that you were really happy to be home only because you showed up to your opening celebration with some Donut Bank coffee

WM: [laughs] I knew you were going to say that!

How badly did you miss that? Be real.

WM: Oh, my goodness. Listen, I always thought about Donut Bank in the back of my head like, “Man, I wish I had Donut Bank right now.” What I wish I did, I wish I would have contacted Donut Bank before I went up there, because I didn’t even think about it walking up there with a Donut Bank cup. That was great advertisement. I need to get like a sponsorship deal or something, an endorsement with Donut Bank for doing that. [laughs]

Will you sing the anthem before any Aces games?

No, I will not.

Not even once?

WM: Not once, and that’s all I need is to lose a game [after signing the anthem] and people are saying, “Well if he wasn’t so busy singing the anthem instead of getting the team ready to play,” we’re not doing that.

Yeah, you’re right. Let’s not.