Wednesday September 14th, 2016

“How far back do you want to go?”

That is how a chuckling Bob McKillop answered my request for an explanation as to how he became college basketball’s international man of mystery. As he took me on a journey back in time, it quickly became evident that this was not a story of mystery so much as history.

That was the subject McKillop majored in at Hofstra, where he was named MVP of the basketball team as a senior in 1972. It is the subject he taught for five years at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, Long Island. It is a passion he pursues through reading, travels and insatiable curiosity. And of course, history is what McKillop’s Davidson team made in 2008, when a little-known, spindly, baby-faced guard named Stephen Curry led the Wildcats to the brink of the Final Four.

Now McKillop, who is about to begin his 28th season as Davidson’s head coach, will make history of a different kind. His roster will feature players from seven different countries—the United States, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Serbia, Nigeria and Sweden. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is unprecedented, but even in this era of globalization, it is most unusual. It is also no accident. Rather, it stems from the three-plus decades McKillop has spent embracing the international game, starting long before it was cool.

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“Until [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] took over USA Basketball, Bob was the most well-known American college coach in Europe,” says Fran Fraschilla, the former head coach at Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico who now tracks international basketball closely for ESPN. “He’s the first guy that I can think of who made it a huge part of his recruiting. He built a great niche, and that allowed him to recruit a better level of player than he could have gotten if he only recruited Charlotte, Washington D.C. and New York City.”

It all began when McKillop, 66, was a growing up and playing ball in his native Long Island. “There were only eight teams in the NBA back then, so a lot of college players from New York went overseas to play basketball,” he says. “They’d come back and they were looking for action. We called them ‘action’ games. You’d play against them in a playground or a park. So I became familiar with these guys, and they talked about their experiences in Europe. It sounded attractive.”

At the time, many American collegians went on so-called barnstorming tours through Europe after graduating. McKillop wanted to join one of those after he graduated Hofstra—he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent before being cut—but he was unable to pull it together. So he took the Trinity High School gig. After five years there and one year as an assistant at Davidson, McKillop returned home to take a job as headmaster and basketball coach at Long Island Lutheran High School. His 1981 squad featured Bill Wennington, a 7-foot senior center from Canada who went on to play for St. John’s and enjoy a 15-year NBA career.

McKillop’s experience with Wennington led to a phone call one day from Morgan Wootten, the famed coach at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattesville, Md. Wootten was calling to recommend a 6' 10" center from Italy named Augusto Binelli. “I guess Morgan thought because I coached Wennington that I was able to take international players,” McKillop says. Binelli was a great find—he would later play professionally for 20 years in Europe. His success earned McKillop access to a growing global community. “First a clinic came, then a camp, then I did some scouting work for European clubs. I was a high school coach on Long Island, but I had my fingers on the European marketplace.”

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McKillop estimates that he did upwards of 50 clinics in a dozen countries during that 10-year period. When he returned to Davidson as head coach in 1989, he was ready to exploit those pipelines. Besides recruiting dozens of international players to Davidson, McKillop has regularly invited European coaches to spend time with his program. His web of relationships benefits his own players as well. McKillop has had nearly 50 former Wildcats play somewhere in Europe, including 11 who are currently active. Once they get there, they serve as ambassadors to the up-and-coming talent. “I don’t have to rely on scouting services or agents for information on players,” McKillop says. “I get it right from guys who were part of our program.”

The team that will take the court for Davidson this season is thus a culmination (and continuation) of a lifetime spent trotting the globe. For example, back in the 1990s, McKillop conducted a clinic in Reykjavik, Iceland. On several occasions since then, Iceland’s national coach and his assistants have visited Davidson. Last year, the national coach called McKillop to tell him about a promising 6’4” guard from Grindavik named Jon Axel Gudmundsson. So McKillop flew to Iceland, watched the kid practice with his high school team and signed him to a scholarship. (When I remarked to McKillop that Iceland is a long way to go to watch a high school practice, he replied, “Yeah, well, he’s a pretty good player.”)

McKillop has likewise conducted three clinics over the years in Helsinki, Finland, which enabled him to land Oskar Michelsen, now a 6' 9" junior forward. While McKillop has never traveled to Africa, he has had three former players from Nigeria, which proved attractive to 6' 7" junior forward Nathan Ekwu, a native of Nigeria who played high school basketball in the Bronx. McKillop worked his contacts in Sweden to recruit 6' 11" forward Will Magarity from Stockholm. Magarity originally chose to play for Boston College, but when BC made a coaching change in 2014, he transferred to Davidson. Heck, McKillop even used his network to procure a walk-on, 6' 1" senior guard Manu Giamoukis, who hails from Thessaloniki, Greece.

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This makes for a colorful environment, to say the least. Ekwu is known to boogie into the locker room blasting Nigerian gospel music. Michelsen regals teammates with stories of playing golf at 11 o’clock at night, where it is still light in Helsinki during certain times of the year. On team picture day, the individual players are each photographed holding their respective flags. “It’s a great time, honestly. We learn a lot about their backgrounds and their countries,” says Peyton Aldridge, a 6' 8" junior forward from Ohio. “It’s funny because sometimes they’ll slip and speak in their own language, and we don’t understand what they’re saying, but overall they’ve adjusted pretty well.”

It should come as no surprise that McKillop puts a special emphasis on the overseas summer exhibition tours that the NCAA permits once every four years. Many coaches take these trips primarily because it allows them to conduct practices during the summer, but McKillop puts in extra hours to make it a worthwhile cultural experience. He even books the trips himself. “I don’t go through a travel agency,” he says. “We call our friends, our players on the ground, and we ask them to make the connections for us.”

Those trips, just like all those clinics he has conducted over the last three decades, feed his twin passions—basketball and history. “Our players have walked through the Piazza San Marco in Venice,” he says. “They’ve been to the city of Ljubljana, which is the capital of Slovenia and one of the most enchanting cities you could ever find. Our players have swum in the Adriatic Sea. They’ve been to the Alps of Italy and seen the famous buildings in Florence. To this day, you talk to our players from 20 years ago, and they have such treasured memories from our trips abroad.”

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Now that the trickle of international players into college hoops has turned into a flood, plenty of other programs are trying to get in on the action. Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, for example, has specialized in Australian imports, and Gonzaga has recruited overseas effectively thanks largely to the dogged efforts of assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. Still, McKillop remains well ahead of the curve. This year, he conducted clinics in Manheim, Germany, as well as Jerusalem. (“There were 250 coaches at the one in Jerusalem. So now I have tremendous connections in Israel.”) McKillop has long been considered one of the best teachers in the American game, and it is clear that he has made a similar impression on his European counterparts. “There is a disdain at times in Europe for American coaching because they feel that many of our college and NBA coaches just roll the balls out and don’t teach the game,” Fraschilla says. “Bob has created a kinship with the European coaching community because they know he thinks like they do—the spacing, the ball movement, the beauty of the game.”

As for this year’s team, McKillop says the Wildcats, who went 20–13 last season, will be “a work in progress.” He has traveled many miles since he was a young man looking for basketball action on Long Island, but he still views his teams through the eyes of a high school history teacher. “Here are guys from seven different countries, and they’re all getting along as a team focused on the same intent and same purpose, and guided by the same rules,” he marvels. “Isn’t this a model of the way our world should be?”

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