When Jameel McKay joins his four Indian Hills teammates this afternoon to sign their respective National Letters of Intent, it will mark a two-year journey of hard work and self-realization that he admittedly thought would never happen.
The 6-foot-8 power forward is one of five 2013 commitments expected to ink with Marquette during the week-long signing period, but McKay may have had the toughest path to get to this point in his basketball career.
“The junior college transition was an experience, and let me become a better player. It opened up my recruitment,” McKay said. “It’s like a second chance.”
McKay struggled as a forward at Pulaski H.S., averaging fewer than 10 points per game his junior season, and he wasn’t hearing from Division I coaches.
Worse, his grades were suffering and, when he “blew up” his senior season, earning all-state and City Conference player of the year honors, there wasn’t enough time for him to get his grades in order to qualify.
So it was off to Indian Hills, a two-year community college he chose, in part, thanks to Dwight Buycks. The former Indian Hills graduate and Milwaukee native was off to Marquette, and he let McKay know Indian Hills was a place he could succeed. Buycks’ efforts were countered by Jae Crowder, who sent McKay a Facebook message telling him Howard College, McKay’s second choice, would be a good fit.
Like the process is for all Division I student-athletes who attended junior colleges, McKay said the light went on as soon as he arrived at Indian Hills. Something needed to change if he was going to make his dream of playing Division I basketball a reality.
“I knew I had to graduate (junior college),” he said. “I told myself I’d never let academics be the reason I don’t go as high as I’m supposed to go. I really had to buckle down.”
That’s exactly what he did.
McKay got his grades in order, and noticed that he was becoming a better player on the court, too. He earned All-American honors his freshman season, averaging 14.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He committed to Buzz Williams and Marquette in June. His Falcons are 4-0 this year behind his 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds.
“I never really thought that I’d be in this situation where I came from. All my high school years not hearing from coaches, not even being ranked in the state at one point,” McKay said. “It’s a dream come true. It’s almost unreal some days. I feel like a couple years ago I didn’t hear from anyone, to now playing for one of the top coaches in the country.”
That “top coach,” Williams, left an imprint on McKay from the start during his recruitment. McKay told himself that if he ever had the chance to earn a Division I scholarship, he’d find a way to stay out of Milwaukee.
But the way Williams could relate to McKay’s junior college background, and the emphasis Williams put on life off the court — something McKay himself worked hard to chang at Indian Hills — was too good to pass up.
“I couldn’t turn the opportunity from coach Buzz down, to let my family and friends know that you can make it, no matter what the circumstances may be, even if you have to go the JuCo route,” McKay said. It’s a good story for me to be able to tell people. If I’m at home I can show kids you don’t have to leave the city to be successful.”
McKay will sit down tomorrow afternoon with a letter in front of him from Marquette University; a letter he assumed was an afterthought just two years ago. He’s finally put himself in position to earn the Division I scholarship he accepted four months ago, and he said one thing will be going through his head when he signs on the dotted line.
“That hard work pays off. Before it’s all said and done, I can be better than even what I expect out of myself and what other people expect. It reminds me of all the hard work and dedication I’ve had to get to this point, to be able to sign with the school of my choice and one of the best schools in the country.”