Will McKinney's Way
He’s always plugged in, his phone’s earbuds hanging like bionic extensions. His cell rings and chimes and vibrates incessantly. It’s a monster, he says with a laid-back chuckle. It’s largely a monster of his own making.
Will McKinney’s first call every day, to his friend Johnny “Jay-Bee” Bethea, begins before dawn. He regularly calls his players on the Africentric girls’ basketball team to make sure they’re going to the gym—always be in the gym. Then there are countless check-ins with former players. He’s also in contact with his coterie of fellow coaches, picking their brains for some new competitive edge.
In August, nearly four months before the season starts, McKinney sits on the patio behind his Pickerington home, where he lives with his wife, Anissa, and their two boys. He wears a purple T-shirt that lists the years of all seven state championships the Lady Nubians have won during his tenure as coach of Columbus Africentric Early College. They’ve gone to four consecutive Division III state final fours, winning three—a dynasty. His players talk about him in reverential terms, as a coach, mentor, friend and the man responsible for their enduring sisterhood. But he’s demanding, and they also talk about the program as something you survive.
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While the cicadas vibrate in the summer heat, McKinney discusses the history that will be made if the Nubians win an eighth title this season, potentially becoming the sole owners of the all-time Ohio record. No one has ever done it quite like Africentric before, he says, thumping his hand on the iron patio table for emphasis. He’s the program’s first coach, its only one, and it’s the only high school gig he’s ever had.
When Alesia Howard thinks about the early days, before receiving championship rings was close to an annual tradition, she recalls a van they named Blue Magic. It was one of those 15-passenger extended wagons, owned by Columbus City Schools, a chariot of barest circumstance. McKinney says it was raggedy as all get-out. He got certified to drive it so he could ferry his Africentric players around the city. They all laugh when they remember Blue Magic.
Such was the life of a young team just getting off the ground. They didn’t have many resources or any alumni to lean on, says Tyeasha Moss, Howard’s teammate from 2004–08. In fact, McKinney hadn’t even wanted the job. In 2001, when the district was adding a new high school to the existing Africentric Alternative School, his old fraternity brother George Maxey was named its principal. Maxey asked him to start the girls’ basketball program, and McKinney declined. He was just getting comfortable as coach at Linmoor Middle School. Why start a high school program from scratch? But no one else wanted the job either, McKinney says, and after several overtures from Maxey, he accepted as a favor.
Africentric’s athletic department rolled out its freshman teams in 2001–02, junior varsity in 2002–03 and varsity in 2003–04. That first year, McKinney estimates 13 or 14 girls tried out for the freshman team. He cut all but five, “because if the foundation is weak, then everything else is going to crumble.” They had “extremely average” talent, but they were hard-working, dedicated, consistent. No one missed practice. No one fouled out. One unit, no subs, no excuses. You might beat the Nubians—and many teams did early on—but you would never outwork them.
McKinney was single, no kids, so he was always holding open gyms and training players one-on-one. Howard was the first girl he ever developed, and he taught her everything, from the fundamentals on. He never seemed to tire of the gym, long after she was sick of sweating. So if players wanted to get in early, McKinney would unlock the doors at 6 a.m. If they wanted to shoot after practice, he wouldn’t close until 10 at night. He would pick them up and drop them off, one by one, so their families didn’t have to worry about rides. Blue Magic was a van, but it was also a raggedy 15-passenger reminder of his willingness to devote time and energy to them.
In conversation, McKinney is animated and funny, with a dimple in his right cheek and glasses resting slightly down the bridge of his nose. He was born on Christmas Eve on the South Side of Chicago, a city where basketball is “flat-out king.” He was an average player—“nothing to write home about”—but he made the high school team at Kenwood Academy because he practiced hard. He’s personable, a conversationalist. But his current and former players say he can be intense, very intense, even fiery.
“One day he can be the jokester, playful,” says former All-American guard Jordan Horston. “Next day, he’s strict, straight to business, cuss you out.”
Horston, now a freshman basketball player at the University of Tennessee, says he was a great coach who was full of good advice, though sometimes she had to glean the message amid profanity. When Janicia Anderson—or “Shaq,” as most people call her—transferred from Beechcroft in 2005, the Africentric gym was different than any she’d seen. The demands were higher, the competition more fierce.
McKinney believes in consequences for everything—not punishment, he loves his players too much for that. But he will hand out consequences until muscles scream for mercy. Showing up late, even by a minute, earns an extra sprint. If girls don’t run sprints in the required time, it’s a re-do. Giving up a rebound equals five pushups.
Discipline and accountability are paramount, and practices have always been harder than games. He learned some of those lessons from Reggie Lee, the longtime coach of the Brookhaven girls’ team, who was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in May and has served as an Africentric assistant for two years. When Lee first met McKinney 20 years ago, he says he saw the same thing that other mentors had: hunger. So Lee did what he has done for many young coaches over the years, opening up Brookhaven’s practices so McKinney could observe what it took to make a Columbus City League powerhouse.
Still, it takes time to build a program from scratch. McKinney recalls being deep into lopsided losses and urging his players to ignore the scoreboard and focus on incremental improvements—coaching for progression, he calls it. Get the ball across half court three times without a turnover. Make four passes and take a good shot. They’d celebrate a minor success during a 30-point defeat. The varsity team went 6-15 during its first season.
But talent was rising through the middle school ranks. Africentric, which educates a largely black student body from across the city through an African-American perspective, is filled by the district’s lottery system, so girls could come from anywhere if they were selected. Some followed McKinney from Linmoor. Others came from his connections to the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, where he’d been learning the ropes of coaching elite-level talent under Bethea’s tutelage. The same year the varsity struggled, Bethea took over Africentric’s middle school team—featuring Howard and Moss as eighth graders—and went unbeaten. The average margin of victory was 63 points.
The Nubians became known for their full-court pressure and aggressive, physical defense, and as the young talent matriculated to the varsity team, they scored with ease. Africentric’s record improved to 19-5 by the second year and 25-1 by year three, 2005–06, when they dethroned Brookhaven and Lee to win the city league.
Expectations changed. Two years after celebrating minor in-game successes, a city championship wasn’t enough. Anderson felt they didn’t live up to their potential, because a month after beating Brookhaven they lost in the regionals to defending state champ Berlin Hiland, ending her senior season. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Moss was so distraught she had to be helped to the locker room.
In 2007, she and her teammates got redemption, winning their first state title.
James “Satch” Sullinger met McKinney at Linmoor, after Sullinger left his job coaching the men’s basketball team at Oberlin College but before he led his son Jared to a state title at Northland. Sullinger too was struck by McKinney’s hunger, but he says the Africentric coach’s biggest strength is that he coaches the whole kid, not just her athletic side. Talk to McKinney’s players, former and current, and they don’t discuss wins and losses much, or even titles. They talk about their sisterhood.
At Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, McKinney joined Kappa Alpha Psi, and the bonding and closeness of the fraternity experience meant so much that he used it as a model for the Africentric program. “Everything about me since 19 years of age has been about banding groups together,” he says. “That’s what I know. That’s what I do.”
For example, a favorite fraternity mantra of his: Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance. The six Ps, as he refers to them, still roll off Howard’s tongue with ease. The sisterhood developed organically in some ways—hours in the gym, helping each other with school—but sometimes he compelled it, making them run suicides if they couldn’t recite each other’s family members’ names.
The other fraternity concept McKinney instilled was altruism—an unselfish concern to promote group interest, in his words. It’s about creating an environment where everyone has to work toward a common goal. It’s about spending time together, encouraging connections that last a lifetime, whether it’s someone to confide in or one player hiring another later in life. He has hired several of them as assistant coaches, including
Anderson and Moss. He encourages all the alums to come back and support the program by volunteering or dropping in on practices, open gyms and games. They give advice to current players like senior guard Nyam Thornton, who says they’ve told her how to practice and how to work with McKinney. They’ve been through the Africentric crucible and know the way.
“When you walk in the gym as an alumni, he just glows, like he’s the happiest person in the world, like a kid,” says Anderson. She and Moss and Howard are all still close friends, a phenomenon that’s common among former players.
Every year on Christmas Eve, the Africentric family comes together again—the alums, current players, coaches, McKinney and his relatives—for a big breakfast at Africentric to celebrate his birthday. He estimates as many as 35 to 40 former players attend, a generational gathering of Nubians, a reunion where everyone has championship rings.
“I try to create a situation to where these young ladies will have something that they can just hold on to and grab on to forever,” McKinney says, “even if it’s just each other.”
The only time in the last four years Africentric hasn’t reached the state finals came in 2017, following controversy in the playoffs. After a blowout win over Mount Blanchard Riverdale in the regional semifinals, McKinney complained in a Dispatch article about the officiating and received a one-game suspension from the Ohio High School Athletic Association, along with a fine for Africentric.
Moss, his assistant at the time, would become the only former player to coach the team. In a phone call leading up to the game, she says McKinney simply told her, “You got this,” and then hung up. No long, drawn-out speech necessary. She had been with the program. She was one of his. Moss led Africentric to a 60-31 victory over Archbold and yet another trip to the state final four.
A few days later, the Dispatch ran a follow-up story in which McKinney claimed the rant against officials was motivated by their failure to address racial taunts, one fan’s pig calls in particular. It was actually multiple incidents, he says now, including slurs directed at players and someone imitating a monkey. He says that by criticizing the officiating without mentioning the taunts, he knew he would be suspended and that was his goal. He figured he could draw more attention to the situation by earning a suspension and then talking about the behavior the team had faced.
Moss and Horston say racist taunts in games weren’t uncommon, and they both think McKinney was simply fed up. Horston, a sophomore on that team, says he typically told them to block all that out, but she gained respect for him when he stood up for them. “It was just bad, and people had to know.”
Then and now, McKinney praises the officiating and the presence of OHSAA officials at the regional final against Archbold, which he watched from the stands. He returned to coach the state semifinal versus Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, but Africentric fell 65-54.
Since that loss, the Nubians have rolled up a 55-3 record and added two consecutive state titles. As good as they had been during the previous decade, they seem to be getting even better.
The championship banners are hung on the entryway wall of the Africentric fieldhouse, just west of the main school building near the Columbus airport. On a Wednesday evening in late September, the players filter in for the weekly open gym. Anderson, in her second stint as McKinney’s primary assistant, oversees the session. When McKinney arrives—he’s late because he also coaches boys’ and girls’ tennis, in addition to teaching phys ed and health—he mostly just watches. Tryouts are a month away, and he’s not allowed to coach yet.
The Nubians only lost two players, Horston and Tearra Cook, and they’re extremely skilled yet again, with a deeper bench. But they will be tested. The season opens on Nov. 30 against Cardinal O’Hara, a talented team from New York, and they’ll face out-of-state powerhouses Detroit Edison and Tennessee’s Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. They have a rematch against Newark, a Division I opponent the Nubians only beat by two last season, plus games against typical city league foes Eastmoor and Northland, where Bethea now coaches.
Plus, Berlin Hiland is likely waiting somewhere on the horizon in the state tournament. The small school in Ohio’s Amish countryside is Africentric’s great rival. The Hiland Hawks have been to more state final fours—16—than any school in Ohio history. They’ve won five titles, including championships in ’05 and ’06 after beating the Nubians in the regionals. The teams traded finals victories in ’08 and ’09, and Africentric beat Hiland en route to the last two titles. “We both don’t take our successes for granted or lightly, but you got to assume we’re on an inevitable path to meet again,” says Hiland coach Dave Schlabach.
Guarding against complacency is McKinney’s toughest challenge. He doesn’t want players to think the Africentric name will win them any games. He wants them to be hungry. Another title in 2020 would be the first time the Nubians have won three in a row, and if Pickerington Central or Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame doesn’t win the Division I championship, Africentric will stand alone atop the record books with eight.
In the fieldhouse, coaches from Ohio University, Wake Forest, Duquesne and the University of Illinois at Chicago are on hand to scout talent. The constant college presence has become a selling point for attending Africentric, as players know they will be seen. Thornton has verbally committed to Texas Tech, and fellow senior guard Alexia Smith committed to the University of Minnesota. Samika Walker, a highly recruited senior center and the daughter of former Whitehall star and ex-NBA player Samaki Walker, says she probably got more attention by transferring from Bishop Hartley to Africentric. She’s weighing offers from Ohio State and Rutgers, among others.
Helping his players get a free education has always been one of McKinney’s highest priorities. He memorializes their success on a custom jacket—each player who earns a scholarship gets her name stitched into the fabric next to her college. “It’s the dopest jacket ever,” Anderson says.
McKinney drove Anderson to visit colleges himself because her mom’s work schedule wouldn’t allow it. As she debated her options, she says McKinney felt she was becoming preoccupied with athletics. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Shaq, I could care less about the basketball. You just make sure you come back to me with a degree.’”
She did just that, earning a communications degree from Wilberforce College in 2010. The jacket has 28 names and counting.
McKinney is still hungry. “This year I want to win so bad,” he says. A first-time high school coach taking a bootstrap basketball program to eight state titles in 17 seasons—wouldn’t that be something?
His aspirations run just as high. He’d like to coach on the college level, but it must be the right situation, where the school is committed to winning a national championship. Otherwise, he’d just be coaching in college to say he did it, to cash out, and that holds no appeal. He’d rather stay where he is, winning titles with the Nubians and watching his kids—Xavier and Braylon—grow up. He coaches their basketball teams, too.
Ask him about success, and McKinney credits hard work, the culture he instilled, his players and colleagues, and the grace of the basketball gods. Sullinger, though, attributes it to something simpler: “He genuinely loves kids, and he wants what’s best for them, not what’s best for him.”
That’s how his players see him, too, especially the older ones who’ve had time to reflect. Howard, now the communications director for the WNBA’s New York Liberty, grew up in Linden without many resources. Though she had a great support system within her family, she feels McKinney was a crucial part of shaping who she has become.
Moss was also profoundly affected by his influence. “He was a huge part in developing me as a person,” she says. She’s forever grateful to be part of the 2007 championship team because she was able to give him that first title after all he’d given her. It’s a peculiar thought, a championship as a gift. But it’s also comforting—a thing shared for someone else’s benefit. It sounds like altruism, one more thing she learned from him.
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