By Toby Brown
Walter McCarty is still taken aback a little every time he gets the question.
“Why would you leave the Boston Celtics to go coach in Evansville?” they ask.
More like, why wouldn’t he?
“I look at them and think, ‘Well, you do know I grew up in Evansville, right?’” said the new UE men’s basketball coach and special guest of the Carmi Kiwanis Club on Thursday, Aug. 8.“I think the world of Evansville. I had a great upbringing. This is a great basketball state. We have great high school basketball here and great people, too, like all of my friends that I grew up with.
“You know, in my mind, I’m thinking I turned out pretty good after growing up in Evansville, so why not Evansville?For me, as a kid growing up, being able to go to Aces games with a sold-out crowd of 10,000 or 11,000 people at Roberts Stadium was great. We had really good teams. And to have an opportunity to come home and coach at the same place where you grew up, where everybody supported you, is an awesome thing. For me, I thought it was a home run.”
The proud Evansville native and former University of Kentucky and NBA star spoke to the local Kiwanis club about his excitement for the upcoming season, his first as head coach of the Purple Aces. McCarty, who was serving as an assistant coach for the Celtics at the time, was hired this past spring by UE and had to dive right into the recruiting trail immediately.
“We had only six players returning, so we had to get on the road really fast to put a team together,” he said.“We didn’t want to fill roster spots with players who weren’t good enough. The last thing you want to do is have a player who’s not good enough and have him for four years. When you want to turn a program around, that’s not the way to start.”
One of McCarty’s goals is to beef up the Aces’ nonconference schedule. For the 2018-19 campaign, his team’s nonconference foes will include the University of Illinois, Xavier (which was ranked in the top 10 nationally most of last season), Murray State, Arkansas State, Wyoming (a 20-game winner last season) and Jacksonville State.
“In order to build a winning program and be on the big stage, you have to play tough teams,” said McCarty, a Harrison High School alum.“We have to challenge our players and see what it feels like to play the best competition. Yes, you might get smacked in the face some, but by the time the MVC [Missouri Valley Conference] starts, maybe our guys are ready to fight back. We need to be tested.”
And being tested is something McCarty knows about. He was a starteron the 1995-96 Kentucky team that went 34-2 en route to a national championship.
“The toughest games that year were our practices,” he said.“We had nine or 10 pros on that team. For us, it was like if you miss a practice or get hurt in practice and sit out, you lost your starting spot because you had a pro behind you. We had to bring it every day.”
Naturally, McCarty alluded to the Big Blue program frequently throughout his talk. He intends to change the Purple Aces’ tempo of play to more resemble that of his former teams at UK.
“I think what’s going to help us out — even though we’re rebuilding – is going to be our style of play,” said McCarty.“No one in the MVC is going to play as fast as we play, with the movement of the basketball and the rim threats that we have.”
McCarty believes he has three players on his current roster who could one day play in the NBA, including 6-foot-9 freshman forward DeAndre Williams (one of his first recruits).
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge of turning this program around and having young men who represent our city – my city – in a great way,” he said.
McCarty also referenced his days as a Wildcat when asked to name his all-time favorite game. Coming as no surprise to the UK faithful in the crowd, he named the ‘Cats’ 99-95 win at LSU in 1994, when UK overcame a 31-point deficit with 15 minutes, 34 seconds remaining. He also noted among his favorites the 1995 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game against Arkansas in Atlanta when UK came back from down ninewith 1:33 left in overtime (they also trailed by 19 in the first half and by12 with nine minutes left in regulation).
And when asked which of the coaches he had played for had inspired him the most, McCarty again went back to his days in Lexington.
“Obviously, Rick Pitino,” he said. “He just had a way of motivating players. When you’re in high school and playing in AAU tourneys, you usually know who the future pros are early on, so from the eighth grade on, you’re kind of playing against the same guys all the time.
“So by the time I was at Kentucky and playing some of those same guys, I just remember thinking, ‘Man, I’ve gotten ten times better than that guy.’ Coach Pitino just got so much out of you and made you the best that you can be. You just always saw results with him.”
McCarty noted, though, he also frequently converses with former Butler University and current Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and occasionally with current UK coach John Calipari.
“I talk to Brad all the time; the same with Coach Pitino,” said McCarty.“I saw Coach Calipari maybe a week ago. We were in Las Vegas. We give each other a hug, then he tells me, ‘Anything I can do for you, just let me know… except I’m not coming to Evansville.’He said he’d come to Evansville to hang out with me, but what he meant was he wouldn’t play here.”
However, McCarty does expect the Aces to play in Kentucky sometime in November of the 2019-20 season.
Though many in the Heartland will always think of him as a Wildcat, McCarty also had a very successful pro career. He was drafted in the first round in 1996 by the New York Knicks, where he played alongside Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Charlie Ward.
…Or rather, sat alongside those NBA stars.
McCarty said the best advice he has ever received came early that season from Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who assured him that despite his stellar career at UK, he was not going to see much playing time during his first year in the pro’s “unless it was a blowout or we were in some serious foul trouble.” Van Gundy, though, encouraged the young McCarty to always work as hard as possible and be patient. McCarty said he did just that and credits that advice for his successful career.
After the Knicks, McCarty played for the Celtics (where he was a fan favorite) for seven seasons, the Phoenix Suns for a season and the Los Angeles Clippers for one season.
“My favorite off-court memory was probably when I was with the Celtics,” said McCarty.“I would go over to [former Celtics player and coach, and current broadcaster] Tommy Heinsohn’s house and we’d sit out by the pool. Then here would come John Havlicek or Bob Cousy. I’d be sitting over there like one of the guys listening to all these stories from these legends. Now I didn’t have any stories, but just to be over there and be in that group was one of the greatest things. That was awesome to hear them talk about all the things all those guys went through as players. They had a lot of tough times.”
In response to other questions from the crowd, McCarty said he expects Loyola of Chicago (a Final Four team last year) to be the team to beat this year in the MVC, that his favorite golf courses are Torrey Pines in San Diego, TPC in San Antonio and TPC in Boston, and that his biggest challenge so far in coaching is that “there is so much for a head coach to do that doesn’t have anything to do with basketball.”
McCarty was accompanied by the first staff member he hired, Director of Basketball Operations Logan Baumann, and was introduced by Kiwanian Barry Cleveland, who was instrumental in getting McCarty to speak to the club. Cleveland, a Crossville native, had enlisted the aid of another Crossville alum, Ed Brown, who is a member of the University of Evansville’s Board of Trustees, in securing McCarty as a guest.