By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Stephon Blackwell watched a Highland boys basketball practice in 2004, and he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Gary McGhee, the Scots’ center, was so out of shape he was having trouble getting past half-court.
McGhee was a big kid who would eventually grow to 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, and he was well liked. But Blackwell was ready to give up on him that day.
He probably would have, too, if not for McGhee’s unshakable tenacity.
Then a Highland sophomore, he volunteered to join Blackwell’s legendary workouts at the White River Athletic Club. The sessions — which also included Anderson baseball players Michael and Nolan Earley — began at 5:30 a.m., and the athletes still had a full school day and practices with their teams to follow.
“He made a commitment to get better,” Blackwell said Friday. “He started training with me at 5:30 in the morning, and he did it for three years.”
That work ethic created a career for McGhee.
He sculpted his physique and chiseled his post game in four years at the University of Pittsburgh, starting for the last two seasons and making four consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
After not being selected in last month’s NBA Draft, McGhee began looking for the best available opportunity.
He found it this week and signed a two-year contact with KK Zagreb to play professionally in Croatia.
One of several teams based in Croatia’s capital city, the Ants — as they are known locally — are the defending national champions.
It also meant a lot to McGhee that the team plays at the top tier of Europe’s three pro leagues.
“There will be some really good competition,” he said.
McGhee’s teammates will include former Iowa State star Diante Garrett and Papa Dia, former star at SMU from Senegal.
McGhee and Garrett are represented by the same agency and became close this summer during pre-draft workouts in Los Angeles.
The former Scot turned down offers in Turkey, Germany and Korea because none felt like the right fit.
It hasn’t been easy waiting for the right deal in the weeks since the draft, but McGhee believes his patience has paid off.
“That’s the reason it took awhile,” he said. “I wanted to make sure to get the best one. And I wanted to see if there would be an opportunity for me to come back and play in the NBA, of course.”
The NBA lockout has severely complicated McGhee’s summer.
Oklahoma City extended an offer to compete for its summer league team in what would have amounted to an extended tryout. But the NBA’s summer league was canceled after the lockout went into effect.
McGhee instead spent his time in Pittsburgh, working at Panthers coach Jamie Dixon’s basketball camp and playing in a league with some of his former teammates and other recent college stars from the metro area.
“It was real fun,” he said. “I got to work out a little bit, and my team made it to the championship game. But we lost.”
Blackwell still remembers the flabby youngster who years ago came to him for help.
He can’t help but admire the man that boy has become.
“Gary’s just a good person,” Blackwell said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
McGhee is thankful for his opportunity in Croatia — which includes a free apartment, car, food and cable in addition to his salary — but he doesn’t feel as though his work is done.
“It makes me want to get in the gym and keep working on my game,” he said. “And make it to the NBA, which is my dream.”