The boy in his father’s arms.
There are times when Irmo High boys basketball coach Tim Whipple forgets that boy. At those times, the little boy is the knucklehead careening recklessly down the lane without waiting for his screen.
“It’s just been a very unique situation,” Whipple said, “watching a player grow up from the time he was born.”
Time flies, is the moral in Whipple’s words.
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Justin McKie, that little boy, signed with USC on Tuesday in front of several hundred classmates in the Irmo High gym.
Whipple stood to the side as BJ McKie, perhaps the greatest Yellow Jackets player of all, kissed the top of his son’s head. Whipple coached BJ as well, back in the early 1990s. He followed BJ’s career at USC and saw the infant Justin cradled in BJ’s arms whenever he came to visit his former coach.
Then in the blink of an eye, there Justin was, on Whipple’s bench. Running sprints in the gym. Winning games for the Yellow Jackets, just like his father.
Signing with the Gamecocks, just like his father.
“I can remember,” Whipple said. “Justin whenever BJ was around just always holding him and hugging him and still, when I think of Justin, I think of this little boy.
“And then of course, I look at him now and he’s not a little boy anymore.”
Yep. Time flies.
His father’s son
Time flies, but it also can cast long shadows.
There are no shadows in the USC basketball program longer than the one cast by BJ McKie.
Fired in Whipple’s forge, then honed under the hammer of Eddie Fogler, the elder McKie sliced through USC’s opponents, then eventually, its record book.
During his senior season, McKie climbed past Jimmy Foster, John Roche and the legendary Alex English and emerged beyond the 2,000-point plateau, where he remains the only Gamecock to fly so high.
Into this shadow Justin was born. Early on, BJ steered the boy toward other sports.
“I wanted Justin to try some new things,” he said. “Football, maybe a little bit of baseball, just to try things.”
But Justin was his father’s son.
It was basketball, always basketball.
“I guess he was just born to play,” BJ said. “He was always around it, ever since I was at USC. Justin has USC in his blood and in his heart.”
But having Garnet in your veins meant having BJ in your soul. As Justin grew, as his own unique skills evolved, there did come a time when the shadow became too much.
“He had a poster of me on his wall,” BJ said. “But he took it down. True story. He had me up and then we got in a big argument and he took all my stuff down.
“I understood that,” BJ added. “It’s all about getting his own identity.”
At Irmo, that identity became clear to Whipple.
Where BJ was strong and bent opponents to his will, Justin used finesse. Where BJ bullied, Justin slashed.
Indeed, Justin was not his father’s son on the court.
But he was between the ears. Everything Whipple preached was something Justin had long before been indoctrinated in by his father.
“I’ve watched Justin grow up since he was born, so the relationship BJ and I have make my relationship with Justin so much easier,” Whipple said. “What you get in that situation is you know where someone is coming from. There is none of this not understanding where you’re coming from. Ever.”
His father’s footsteps
Time flies, but each of those moments is every bit as important as the next.
Tick, a child is born.
Tock, that child is a man.
What happens between the tick and the tock can be everything and the moment can be so fleeting it brushes past like a stranger on a crowded sidewalk.
For those who are aware of these moments, time can be transcended.
With the aid of his father, his extended family and Whipple, Justin endures.
Today, BJ has no worries about his son. Justin will not walk in BJ’s footsteps.
He’ll be walking alongside them.
“Justin might have followed in my footsteps, but Justin is going to pave his own way for his own path,” BJ said.
“There’s no telling what Justin might be able to do,” Whipple said.
Ask Justin that question and his answer comes from somewhere beyond his years.
“I don’t really feel any pressure,” Justin said. “One thing my dad has always told me is the only pressure you should worry about is the pressure you put on yourself. I don’t put much pressure on myself to be like him or be him.
“I know he and I are two completely different people and we are two completely different players,” Justin continued. “I think both of the ways we play — of course the way he played got the job done — but the way I play can get the job done, too. I know I work hard, so I’m not putting any pressure on myself.”
Being BJ McKie’s son has prepared Justin for the inevitable comparison to come.
“I know other people are going to say, he has to do this, he has to do that, like his father,” Justin said. “But like I said, ultimately, the only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself, and I don’t do much of that.”
Frank Martin picked up on this not long after arriving at USC. When others told him Justin’s game was mid-major, Martin would not hear of it, for the only evaluation that matters to him is his own.
“Justin’s just my kind of guy,” Martin said. “When you go recruit, there are some guys that are highly touted and you start watching them and, the more you watch them, the more you start to dislike them.
“Justin was the other way,” Martin continued. “I heard all these things — ‘Well, he ain’t good enough’ and ‘This school is recruiting him, that school is recruiting him’ blah, blah, blah — that’s fine. I don’t pay attention to none of that garbage.”
Martin saw Justin for the first time in April during a tournament in Augusta.
By summer’s end, he had seen enough.
“The more I watched that kid, the more I said he’s my kind of guy,” Martin said. “He’s my kind of guy. That’s what he is.”
His father’s successor
Time flies, but if there is consistency, the grand design unfolds to reveal its innate symmetry.
The great thing about Martin, in Justin’s mind, is that his demeanor is that of Whipple’s.
The great thing about Martin, in BJ’s mind, is that his demeanor is that of Fogler’s as well.
Between Whipple and BJ, there is the rest of the McKie clan, all of whom ride Justin just as hard as anything Martin could throw at him.
“I love it. I love it because one thing about me is I come from a home where if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, they’re gonna get into you. My dad, my granddads, my mom — if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, they’re going to get into you.
“From a basketball standpoint, my coach right now is the same exact way,” Justin continued. “So you get the job done. And if you’re not getting the job done? They’re going to light a fire under you.”
So, Justin, as his father before him, has been forged and honed by the finest, ready to be wielded by Martin.
The great thing about fathers and sons is that there comes a time when the son ceases the pursuit of his father in favor of blazing his own trail. It is in that succession true joy and true pride swell in both.
A son can honor his father by being his own man.
“He’s a great kid and has a good personality and people will start to see Justin for Justin and not just BJ McKie’s son,” BJ said.
And a son can call his father his hero even as he walks another path.
“My dad is my idol,” Justin said. “He is everything I can hope to be as a man and as a basketball player. He’s my hero and he’s my idol and that’s point blank.”
In time, that’s all that matters.