There are some kids you just want to protect. It would be great to say that about all of them, but the truth is some wear trouble like a too-big pair of jeans, uncomfortable unless they're pretty much engulfed by it. Tywain McKee, back when he was a hunch-shouldered, woolly haired teenager, could have been one of those kids. "He was swallowed up by strife, living in a hotbed of violence," says former Temple coach John Chaney, who recruited McKee as a Philly high school senior four years ago. Chaney discovered McKee when the Bartram High guard dropped 13 fourth-quarter points in a city-league semis loss to Philly power Simon Gratz. But McKee, who battled a stutter and had always felt uncomfortable in school, fell well short of Temple's academic requirements. Still, the Hall of Fame coach liked the fight he saw in McKee. He liked that the kid had learned the game from his mom. He liked that McKee kept playing, even after his mother's drug abuse meant she was around less and less. And he liked that McKee didn't lose focus, even while his younger brother, Robert, was skipping school. Chaney wanted to see McKee play at the next level, for him or someone else. "If no one puts a kid like that in a position to succeed, his self-esteem keeps dropping," Chaney says. "I called Fang Mitchell because I knew he would be good for Tywain."
Ron "Fang" Mitchell has spent 21 seasons at Baltimore's Coppin State, one of 103 historically black colleges and universities in the U.S. His program—and those at other HBCUs, like Southern, Jackson State and Hampton—is built on taking talented, underrecruited kids and occasionally turning them into tourney darlings. McKee, a wispy 6'2" guard with a smooth stroke, signed with Coppin State in 2004 even though he'd never set foot on campus. That's not uncommon at HBCUs. Coppin has long had an open-access admissions policy, meaning school counselors bend already low test-score requirements (850 on the SAT) on a case-by-case basis. With just one in three black men between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college, these institutions want to provide an opportunity that some students wouldn't get elsewhere. "These schools are the last option," says Dan Klores, director of Black Magic, a documentary about HBCUs (see below right). "Kids come in with a chip on their shoulder and want to prove they have talent, which is why they end up being wonderful kids to have on your team."
That's what they said about Earl Monroe at Winston-Salem State. And Jerome James at Florida A&M and Avery Johnson at Southern and Ben Wallace at Virginia Union. That's what they'll say about McKee, who started playing one-on-one with his mom when he was 6. "Although," McKee says, "I didn't realize she didn't have a left hand 'til I was"—a pause—"14." It takes some concentration to get the number out; McKee forces himself to slow the words in his head so they don't trip into a stutter.
Before college, the impediment kept him from speaking up in classes, contributing to his academic struggles. "It was a confidence thing," Mitchell says. At Coppin, McKee was the team's best player the day he stepped on to the court. With the ball in his hands most of the game, he had to learn quickly to squelch that stammer so he could direct teammates and call huddles during games. Now, the shooter's gotten so steady he tells defenders who foul him, "Man, you're too close to me."
The leaps he's made under Mitchell have exceeded Chaney's original hopes. "Fang got him, and not only has made a gentleman out of him," Chaney says, "he's made something special out of him." That may be the greatest benefit of playing for an HBCU as opposed to a hoops factory. Faculty members, knowing who their kids are and what they represent, are loath to let any student fall behind. AD Mary Wanza had McKee in her African-American history course in his freshman year. "He walked in late," Wanza says, "and I asked him, 'Why did you sign up for an 8 a.m. class if you don't want to be here?' " He wasn't late to another one of her lectures after that, and he's passed every class. And if McKee's grades do happen to slip—he's carrying a 2.5 GPA—his professors have Mitchell's digits. "He's been nurtured in a way he wouldn't be anywhere else," Mitchell says. "The instructors care about your success, but they remind you that you're responsible to the people that helped you."
But as far as McKee has come, it's a long way from where he wants to be. Having skidded through its hellacious nonconference schedule—Ohio State, Missouri, Marquette, Indiana—Coppin hasn't stepped it up in the MEAC; the Eagles are 10th in the conference at 1–8. But playing high-profile games got McKee, who's averaging a team-high 15.2 ppg and 2.8 apg, in front of scouts he'd never find in Coppin's gym. And while he's not a future NBA star, he could make noise overseas—where Fang's sent several players. But the reason Mitchell keeps signing up for those nonconference tilts against top teams—other than the $70,000 his school gets for making the visits—is that they prime his underdogs for upsets, on the court and off it. "I take them to places they're not supposed to be successful," says Mitchell. "Basketball has to challenge them to show character, because there's no one expecting them to respond positively to the adversity in their lives."
That was once true for McKee. But not anymore.