How Gary McKnight has built Mater Dei into a high school basketball dynasty

How Gary McKnight has built Mater Dei into a high school basketball dynasty

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How Gary McKnight has built Mater Dei into a high school basketball dynasty

The Mater Dei basketball team. / Mater Dei High School

The Mater Dei basketball team. / Mater Dei High School

There were days in Gary McKnight’s earlier years of the Mater Dei basketball dynasty that rivals would point to the out-of-area kids and transfers that showed up at the Santa Ana, Calif., high school and complain that McKnight and Mater Dei were unfairly recruiting their dominance.

But that groaning has all but faded away these days, and when McKnight, 62, became the first California high school basketball coach – and the 14th in the nation — to reach 1,000 victories last weekend, joining such legends as Morgan Wootten and Bob Hurley, there was little to do but stand and acknowledge greatness.

“He’s one of the most caring and loyal and genuine people you’ll ever meet – almost to a fault.” – Chris Nordstrom of Gary McKnight

On and off the court.

“He’s one of the most caring and loyal and genuine people you’ll ever meet – almost to a fault,” says Orange Lutheran coach Chris Nordstrom, a former McKnight assistant who has battled his ex-boss twice a year in Trinity League play the past 11 years. “As for coaching, people think he gets all these superstars. But he really doesn’t. His gift is being able to put people in the right places to succeed.”

As a result, the boys’ basketball team at Mater Dei, a private Catholic school that excels both athletically and academically, has become the right place to succeed for more than 30 years.

Finding the talent

McKnight’s recruiting? Here’s how that usually works:

A few years ago, NBA coach Mike Brown had just been hired by the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown felt bad about uprooting his high school age kids, so he told them to come up with a list of top high schools in the L.A. area, and they’d visit them and choose one and then Brown would buy a house near that school.

His oldest son, Elijah, who was coming into his junior year as a talented basketball player, took one look at McKnight and Mater Dei and that was that.

“I picked him up and he said, ‘I don’t want to visit anywhere else; this is where I want to go,’” Brown tells USA TODAY Sports.

Then there is McKnight’s version of the story.

“Mike (Brown) asked Kobe (Bryant) where his son should play, and Kobe said Mater Dei.” – Gary McKnight

“Mike asked Kobe (Bryant) where his son should play, and Kobe said Mater Dei,” McKnight says, laughing, in an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

Elijah Brown played two years at Mater Dei. He then went to Butler but has transferred to New Mexico and is sitting out a transfer year.

“Mater Dei worked out great for him,” Mike Brown says. “It was a terrific fit. It gave him a lot of self-confidence and gave him a chance to be a part of a big winner.”

How big?

  • Mater Dei has won 11 state titles, including the last four that were accomplished with Stanley Johnson, a 6-7 forward who is a freshman at Arizona, leading the No.3 Wildcats in scoring. He’s a potential top five pick in next year’s NBA draft.
  • Mater Dei has won 22 CIF sectional titles.
  • McKnight is in his 33rd season as head coach. Mater Dei has won 31 of 32 league titles during that time.

His overall record going into this week’s (Friday through Tuesday) prestigious City of Palms Tournament in Fort Meyers, Fla., is 1,001-85, a stunning winning percentage of .922.

It’s arguably the greatest high school basketball coaching resume in history.

“It’s almost surreal,” Brown says. “If I didn’t know he was there and I hadn’t watched my son play there, I would think something fishy was going on with those numbers. There’s just no way you can attain that kind of a record.”

A true team concept

One would think that the rosters of such a dynasty would include memorable superstars who went on to college and NBA fame.

And there has been some of that. About 70 McKnight-coached players have gone on to play Division I. A handful of them have been prominent players, such as Miles Simon at Arizona and Travis and David Wear at UCLA. And there have been a handful of former Mater Dei players reach the NBA, including, LeRon Ellis, Reggie Geary, Jamal Sampson and DJ Strawberry.

But there haven’t been any Kobes or LeBrons in the mix.

“The kids I get are from Orange County or close by,” McKnight says. “The kids I’ve had, we’ve had a real good knack of playing together. A lot of times with superstars, they want to be superstars. We’ve been real fortunate to have kids who just wanted to play together. Miles Simon was a two-time CIF player of the year, but he averaged just 18 points. Stanley Johnson played on four state titles, but his senior year was the first year he averaged over 20 points.”

“I’ve just been blessed with some of the best players in Southern California.” – Gary McKnight

So is McKnight the high school version of North Carolina’s legendary coach Dean Smith, of whom it was said that he was the only person who could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points a game?

“I don’t think so,” McKnight says. “I’ve just been blessed with some of the best players in Southern California, and I’ve had great coaching staffs, and they’ve all made me look good.

“Year in and year out, we’ve just competed. We’ve competed with small teams and big teams and athletic teams, all types of teams. But we keep on winning 30-plus games every year. The school adds to it, the great academics. The faith adds to it.

“I just think the stars have been aligned for me, and it’s been a great situation.”

College coaching? No thanks

Along the way, there was interest in moving to the Division I college basketball level.

“I flirted with that for a while, and I got wooed a little,” McKnight says. “I thought that would be fun, kind of nice. I had some interviews and some talks, but that was about the time some high school coaches weren’t being successful in college. They were a little hesitant. Then the more I coached here, the more I realized I had the greatest job. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. A lot of times it’s browner.

“I look at college coaches around the country, and how many of them are like Jim Boeheim or Mike Krzyzewski and stay at the same school year in and year out? They’re always on the move, or they’re getting fired, even when they win. To me, I had a great situation. I’m close to home. And I have five kids.”

Confirmation came from his son, Clay, a former assistant to Boeheim at Syracuse and Ben Howland at UCLA who is now an assistant to his dad at Mater Dei.

“Clay tells me, ‘Dad, you’d hate the NCAA. If you went to a McDonalds and some kid forgot his money and you loaned him five bucks, that’s a major violation.’ It’s a different world. He says I’d hate college basketball. I listen to him.”

McKnight actually played baseball and football – and not basketball – at San Clemente (Calif.) High School.

Like John Wooden before him, McKnight says baseball was his favorite sport.

In fact, 33 years ago, he had his heart set on being the head baseball coach at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“I was a finalist for that job,” he says. “It was down to the last two. The other guy got it, he coached one year and then went into administration.”

Two weeks later, Mater Dei offered McKnight the basketball job.

For a thousand and one reasons, it was the right fit.

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