Riding the Crimson Wave
For those who know Caron McKinney, they might be surprised to hear there was a point in time when he wasn't the chatty lightning rod on the basketball court that is now the trademark of his game.
"Actually, I was quiet," the Michigan City senior said. "I've always played good defense, but I didn't say anything to anybody."
McKinney was in fourth grade, playing youth basketball, when his dad gave him some advice: "Show them you want to play."
"I started talking, I started guarding more and I blew up from there," he said.
Eight years later, McKinney has parlayed his effort and enthusiasm into an opportunity to play in college as the fiery 6-foot-2 forward has committed to play for Calumet College of St. Joseph, an NAIA school in Whiting.
"It means a lot," McKinney said. "It's been a goal my whole life. I wanted to continue to play after high school."
The opportunity to hoop for the Crimson Wave got its legs after assistant coach Antonio (Bud) Hurt, who played at Cal College, contacted the school about McKinney. They saw him in action against Lake Central and liked what they saw.
"I'm so happy for and so proud of Caron," Wolves coach Tom Wells said. "He needed a break like this and an opportunity. I'm not sure anyone outside our very inner circle can appreciate how far this young man has come both maturity-wise and emotionally."
McKinney averaged 7.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-leading 2.1 steals per game in helping City to 17 wins.
"Caron is one of the toughest kids and most competitive players I have coached in 31 years," Wells said. "He is one of those 'foxhole' guys that military people talk about when talking about soldiers."
The relationship was a mutually beneficial one as McKinney appreciated how Wells allowed him to be himself. Michigan City was actually McKinney's third high school in three years. His family moved from southern Illinois to Valparaiso before his junior season, but McKinney was never granted eligibility after making the team. They then relocated to Michigan City, where McKinney's grandma works, and he fit in with Wells' 84Fast philosophy like a comfortable pair of slippers.
"He shows how much he cares," said McKinney, who played AAU last summer with the Indiana Dawgz. "He wanted me to play how I play all the time. He let me come out with it. He was way better for my style of game. He didn't make any changes. He said, just be us."
Walking an emotional tight rope became a knack for McKinney, who picked up a few technicals over the course of the season, though he generally thrived with Wells' freedom of expression, often taking up space in opponents' heads.
"I would test it early in the game, see how they were calling it," McKinney said. "If they were calling everything close, I would back it up a little. If they were calling it loose, guys would see me do all the things the ref wasn't calling and it would make them madder. I was throwing them off. I'd play politics, too, make sure to go and get the ball and give it to the ref."
Even though McKinney knows he was recruited primarily for his defense and energy, he's working, albeit with the constraints of COVID-19, to improve his offensive skills while continuing to stay in top shape.
"I can't for the gym to open. I've got to work on my shooting. It's got to get way better," he said. "I can guard whoever they want me to guard. I'm used to guard guys who are bigger, a little faster and stronger. I've been doing it my whole life and I'll do it in college, too."
Calumet College went 7-21 this season.
Caron McKinney of Michigan City goes up for a shot in a game against Penn this season.
Photo by Robb Quinn