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In NIT final, fathers, sons and a ‘fairy-tale story’

Kellen McCormick’s basketball career will end Thursday night at Madison Square Garden when Georgia Tech plays TCU for the NIT championship. It could scarcely conclude in a better place.

“It’s just kind of cool knowing that I’m going to end my career in the Garden, and my dad ended his in the Garden, too,” said McCormick, a Georgia Tech forward.

In 1984, McCormick’s father Tim led Michigan to the NIT championship, earning MVP honors for his 28-point, 14-rebound performance against Notre Dame. He went on to a 10-year NBA career, including one season with the Hawks. He now works for ESPN as a college basketball analyst and is a senior director for player programs the NBA players union.

His father happened to have meetings in New York this week, so he was at Tuesday’s semifinal win over Cal State Bakersfield with wife Michelle and other family. They’ll be there Thursday, as well.

“It’s kind of funny how things work out,” Kellen said.

For Tech and its seniors, a career moment has arrived

Josh Heath might say the same. Three years ago, he was stung by USF’s decision to fire his father Stan as head coach. Heath realized a dream by enrolling at USF to play for his father, only to see it taken away after one season.

Some parts of his career might seem like favor has not blessed him. Josh Pastner is his third coach, following his father and Brian Gregory. He has had two surgeries to repair a body broken down by the game. In four seasons, he never made it to the NCAA Tournament.

However, Heath will play his final game – perhaps of his basketball career – playing for a championship with teammates that he cherishes. He is their starting point guard and his decision making, leadership and implacable cool have been integral elements of the Yellow Jackets’ stunning season.

“I’m just so proud of him,” said Stan Heath, now an assistant coach at Boston College. “My wife and I, we’re just enjoying this moment. It’s been an incredible moment. I can’t thank Josh Pastner enough. He and his staff have done an incredible job with those kids.”

Bound by the game

Basketball has connected Josh Heath and Kellen McCormick to their fathers from the time they were young. That bond will be celebrated Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

The NIT run has been particularly meaningful for Heath. Because of his father’s position on the Boston College staff, he has been only to a handful of games in the past two seasons. (In Heath’s first season at Tech, his father was out of coaching and working for ESPN and attended several.) But with the Eagles not in the postseason, Stan has been in the stands for all four of his NIT games. He and wife Ramona were to board a train Thursday from Boston to New York’s Penn Station, which sits directly under Madison Square Garden.

Josh said that “I’m really grateful” that it has worked out that way. Stan said that he just tries to be a dad at the games and never talks basketball with Pastner or his staff. (Josh recalls rides homes from games as a child when his father offered pointed critiques of his play while he silently stewed, though that’s hardly territory occupied only by fathers who are also coaches. “He’s just a dad,” Josh said.)

“I’m just going to enjoy the moment,” Stan said. “It’s his season, he’s a part of a really good basketball team, and I’m going to sit back and cheer and support and yell at the officials a little bit.”

How Josh Heath is thriving in his role for Yellow Jackets

McCormick has played in 23 games this season, mostly at the end of blowouts or for short stints. A 3-point specialist, he did save Tech from a catastrophic defeat with four second-half 3-pointers against North Carolina A&T, which beat one Division I team this season, in the game immediately before the Jackets’ upset of North Carolina. It’s conceivable that, had Tech lost that game, it would not have earned an NIT bid. He did get into the semifinal win over Cal State Bakersfield, playing the final 1:29 of the 76-61 win.

Despite the limited role, McCormick has no regrets about his decision to leave Western Michigan to come to Tech for his final season as a graduate transfer. Quite the opposite.

“I needed something different from what I’d experienced in the past, and to play in the ACC and to play in some of the gyms I’ve been in,” he said, not needing to complete the thought. “The group of guys that I’m with has been unbelievable. Just great guys on the team. It says something, a lot, about the team that we’ve got transfers, we’ve got freshmen, we’ve got guys from an old coaching staff, and the way that everyone has meshed has just been phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Tim McCormick said that his son made the choice seeking to be at a strong academic school in a major city that would prepare him for his future.

“It’s been phenomenal, and I think that he is a unique kid in thinking long term,” Tim McCormick said.

One final game

McCormick is hopeful for a business career, possibly in consulting. Heath wants to follow his father into coaching. He is leaning towards not pursuing a professional career because of the toll the game has taken.

Thursday could be the last time playing, he said “except playing pickup at LA Fitness.”

He won’t be caught up in the thought of putting on a basketball uniform for possibly the last time, though. Heath is an even-keeled pragmatist to his core.

“Letting outside factors affect the way you play I think can be a slippery slope,” he said Wednesday. “Just going to go and play just like any other game.”

Said Stan, informed of the comments, “That’s my kid.”

Heath’s parents see it a little differently. After Stan was fired, he and Ramona wanted academics to guide the decision. Tech, where Stan’s longtime friend and colleague Gregory was the coach, became the option. Stan wasn’t sure if his son could play at the ACC level. In fact, while at USF, he had intended to redshirt him to help get him ready for college basketball before injuries forced him on the court.

Three years later, his son has become a starter and leader of a team that has won 21 games, beaten four NCAA Tournament teams and, in his final game, will play for the school’s first-ever NIT championship. And he gets to be there for it.

“It’s been a little bit of a fairy-tale story, where it started off with injuries and coaching changes and getting let go to, ‘Hey, you’re playing for a championship in your final game,’” Stan Heath said. “It’s a good story. It’s a really good story.”

It’s a story worthy of New York and a most storied arena. It is indeed funny how things work out.

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