The college basketball world is a-twitter with word, first reported by Jeff Goodman of FoxSports, that the proudest program in the land stands ready to offer an assistant coach’s job to someone known for his work in AAU circles. The program is UCLA. The AAU man is Korey McCray, the 32-year-old CEO of the Atlanta Celtics.
“I’m right there in the running,” said McCray, speaking of the UCLA post. “I’m probably the favorite right now.”
McCray played college basketball at Mercer and served as assistant there under Mark Slonaker. He was a graduate assistant under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State and also worked at Chipola (Fla.) College. Today McCray coaches the sophomore boys’ team for the summer-league Celtics — he once played for them; his father Karl helped found the club in 1990 with the late Wallace Prather and remains its president — and runs a basketball training program called Fundamentals.
You might never have seen the Atlanta Celtics play, but you’ve seen dozens of alums. Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Randolph Morris once comprised the Celtics’ front line. Derrick Favors was a Celtic. So were B.J. Elder and Isma’il Muhammad, members of Georgia Tech’s 2004 Final Four team. Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire wore the Green. (No, you don’t have to be from Atlanta or even Georgia to be a Celtic.) Two former Celtics — Trey Thompkins of Georgia and Chris Singleton of Florida State — figure to be first-round picks in the June NBA draft.
Over the past decade, debate has raged over whether AAU clubs have become too mighty. The big ones have their own shoe deals — the Celtics are an adidas team, just like UCLA — and some believe AAU coaches have come to influence recruits’ decisions more than family (and far more than high school coaches). For UCLA to hire McCray would be, depending on your slant, either a breakthrough moment or a sign that even a collegiate giant is willing to stoop to sign players.
Said McCray: “AAU guys get such a bad rap. I would embrace it. I’ve been in basketball my whole life. I have my Masters in adult education. I love summer basketball … If that’s how they’re going to label me, I hope to represent AAU basketball very well.”
Then: “I’m going there to learn from Coach [Ben] Howland. I’m going there with a mindset to learn. And I’ve got to be a good recruiter.”
Technically, McCray doesn’t yet have the job. He said he “networked” with Howland at the Final Four, but he hasn’t been to Westwood for a formal interview. McCray expects that to come next month, though UCLA might not name its new assistant until June.
A call to UCLA seeking a comment from Howland was unavailing. Said Bruins spokesman Marc Dellins: “We never talk about candidates for a job until a hire is made.”
There’s no question McCray would open doors for UCLA, or for any school. The name “Atlanta Celtics” cuts a huge swath in hoops circles, and he can also point to his role as a trainer. In that capacity he worked with Howard, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and John Wall, the No. 1 pick in 2010. But not everything, McCray said, is about access.
“We have a history of so many pros coming through our program. We’ve been blessed with so many good basketball players. But there’s also someone like me — I was never able to go to the NBA but I was able to get a good education and a Masters degree. One thing we do is special: If a kid plays for us, he doesn’t go to a JUCO. We make it our business to get him into a four-year college.”
Stop right there: We make it our business. Isn’t such a statement an admission that the AAU Celtics are what critics insist — a placement service for basketball players?
Said McCray: “I wouldn’t say we’re that powerful. If you’re Duke, people are going to say you get all the calls. That’s part of being successful. We love kids; we don’t just love the superstars.”
If McCray is indeed UCLA’s choice, he’ll be representing a program that has won more national championships than Duke and North Carolina combined. He’ll be scrutinized. If he succeeds, he might help change the perception of AAU basketball. And maybe he’s the guy to do it. Said McCray, speaking of his prospective employer: “[Howland] likes how I carry myself as a young man.”
By Mark Bradley