There was a moment Friday night where Coach Joe McKeown was at a loss for words.
For a second, he had no answers. Typically eager to talk about his team, McKeown gasped and looked up at the ceiling.
He was asked a routine, clich? question about Friday night’s game with Lake Truck: did he learn anything in the 40-minute preseason contest?
After an awkward jumbling of words McKeown discovered he had learned something. He actually relearned something that he’s known for two years, something that could have beat Tennessee or tripped up Temple.
He needs, more than anything this season, a player that has averaged 1.9 points in 23 games. A player that has seen only 191 minutes since stepping foot on campus three years ago.
“Maybe Red Auerbach will help me or something; I need Lisa Steele on the floor,” McKeown said, pleading with a crowd of powerless reporters. “Because she can play, she just has not been able to practice at a high level the last two years. She’s smart and she’s tough.”
Maybe it was the timing, nearly a week to the day of Auerbach’s death, but McKeown tilted his head back and juxtaposed two figures in his life that have seldom crossed paths. But for McKeown, they hold unique places: friendship and success.
When McKeown’s father died in 1997, Auerbach was a special figure to him. They had a unique relationship, one of mutual respect. For McKeown, Auerbach was an NBA legend who always took the time to give advice or just talk about life.
Last season, Auerbach surprised McKeown’s squad at a 9 a.m. practice at the Smith Center. He spoke to the team in the locker room and had interactions with a trio of players: the Adair twins and Lisa Steele.
“He took (the twins) aside, told them how much he hoped they did well at GW and how important it was they got a degree,” McKeown recalled.
Auerbach, whom coached at Roosevelt High School close to where the Adairs grew up, never was a huge women’s basketball fan, but he was a teacher and lover of the game.
Steele, McKeown said, is the type of player that Auerbach would have loved. She works hard, she can shoot and has the utmost respect for the game. Through hardships, Steele has persisted and kept her head up.
A New Jersey native and sharp-shooting guard, Steele has been plagued with injury since coming to GW. She had a stress fracture in her foot, which never healed properly. Most players would’ve ditched the game, concentrated on a degree and stored the Auerbach story for grandchildren decades later. But Steele, who McKeown said has a 4.0 grade point average, kept on.
Auerbach’s personal interaction with Steele was limited to one occasion. One moment where the two, who are 60 years in age apart, connected. Steele told Auerbach that her favorite player was John Havilcek, a Celtics guard that Auerbach coached.
Auerbach’s face lit up.
“He thought it was great,” McKeown said of Steele’s idol.
In Havilcek, there is a lot of what McKeown hopes Steele can be. Havilcek epitomizes a clutch player. He averaged 20.8 points per game in his NBA career to top the NBA and Celtics’ scoring list. He is in the basketball Hall of Fame and nabbed a spot on the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Steele, McKeown said, fits into the mold of an old-time basketball stalwart.
“She has the basketball I.Q.,” McKeown said of Steele. “She’ll make a free throw at the end of the game. She’ll hit a big shot.”
For the women’s squad this year, that seems to be what they’ll need. The Adairs and Steele are required components for success. McKeown doesn’t want to rely heavily on the perimeter game, so he’ll throw it down to either Adair twin. When he needs the three-pointer, there will be the marksman in Steele waiting on the wing.
In a season where the Colonials are being touted and flanked as the Atlantic 10’s prize, McKeown has tried to keep it simple – crisp passing, good defense and consistently strong offense.
It has been tough for McKeown to lose a good friend but he has kept busy by focusing on the team and the upcoming year.
One thing he’ll know is that two keys to success have Red’s irreplaceable stamp of approval.