When Tim McKenna’s basketball teams break at the end of practice or after a game, the players and coaches always say “family.” Developing a sense of family is what it’s all about for McKenna, whose 188 victories make him the winning-est coach in Durham Academy varsity boys basketball history.
“When our guys leave here, I want them to feel they were a part of a family. I want them to have developed some friendships that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise had. I also want them to feel they have ownership in something that’s been a success, and that success has come because of the hard work and the commitment they have put in.
“I really believe those skills will make them better prepared when they get to college, and when they get that first job they will be able to call on some of the things, not only the good but the bad, that occur during an athletic season.”
McKenna didn’t play on his own prep team, Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland, but he played rec league basketball all through high school. Being a part of the team at Good Counsel was more than playing high school versus rec league. Good Counsel competed in the legendary Washington Catholic League, which was known as one of the best high school basketball leagues in the country and regularly sent players to top college programs and then to the NBA.
While he didn’t play high school ball, McKenna he knew he wanted to coach, and he made that a priority when he was a freshman at Providence College.
“I really got revved up, knowing that I wanted to coach. I had a love for basketball. Growing up, I had season tickets to University of Maryland basketball games. I was always around that environment. And then going to Providence College, a Big East school, basketball was really the focal point of the athletic program because there wasn’t football. Rick Barnes [now coaching at Tennessee] was the head coach. I was able to get in there, starting my freshman year all the way through when I graduated, and watch practices, really just get a feel for what the game was all about. I was able to meet a lot of people, learned a lot of things. Once I graduated I knew I wanted to get into coaching and luckily an opportunity opened up at Good Counsel. The rest is history. I’ve been doing it now for 23 years.”
Fresh out of Providence, McKenna put his marketing degree to use first with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission and then in admissions and alumni work at Good Counsel. He was an assistant coach with the boys basketball team for seven years, head coach of the girls varsity for two years and then was head coach of the boys varsity for three years.
“Up there, basketball is much different. There is a level of competitiveness not only on the court, but off the court in getting players. You have to be sure that players succeed not only at your school, but many times they have aspirations to play Division I basketball. … That was always the goal of kids coming to schools like Good Counsel and DeMatha and Gonzaga, other schools up there. There was a lot of recruiting involved. It was like small college basketball. Recruiting is legal, so you went in and would see eighth-grade kids and try to convince them to come to your school, which all began in ninth grade.”
McKenna coached Roger Mason, who went on to play at Virginia; James Gist, who played at Maryland; and Omari Israel, who played at Notre Dame. Mason and Gist were both drafted by the NBA.
But after 12 years of coaching at Good Counsel and competing in the Washington Catholic League, “the rat race kind of wore on me and I needed a change of plans.”
McKenna moved to North Carolina in 2004, landed a job in marketing with The Hill Center and let it be known that he’d be interested in coaching basketball. Durham Academy tapped McKenna as varsity basketball coach in 2006, and in 2011 he became DA’s alumni director.
McKenna thinks his two jobs — coaching and alumni — are a good fit.
“The basketball coaching job is something I love doing. It’s a passion I have, but it’s great for me to not only be able to be with the kids I coach, but with alumni who come back for games and who are engaged with the athletic programs in general. … It’s also a great way to be in touch with our current students, being able to do things promoting our basketball program while engaging the students who don’t play on the team, trying to drive that school spirit.”
Initiating a DA all-school pep rally was McKenna’s idea. “We had them two or three times a year at Good Counsel, and I felt like that was something we were missing here. I proposed the idea two years ago and, thanks to the administrative team here, we’ve been able to run with it. I think it’s been a huge success. Everybody has really enjoyed it and it’s a great way to kick off fall alumni weekend.”
DA’s regional alumni program has grown under McKenna’s leadership, with alumni networking events in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore, New York, Charlotte, Washington and Atlanta. There’s a possibility of expanding to Dallas and South Carolina next year.
“We want to have people connected wherever they live, in this country or globally. Social media, an alumni e-newsletter and the DA magazine keep people informed. A goal of DA’s strategic plan is to keep alumni connected once they leave here. My number one goal is to continue to grow that. Alumni giving was at all time high last year, and we want to grow participation this year.”
McKenna has seen the alumni program become stronger and the boys basketball team go 23-6 this year, sharing the conference championship with Ravenscroft, but he’s experienced hard times, too.
“I always tell people it’s easy to be happy when you’re winning, but it shows people’s true character when things are tough. We’ve had some tough times around here. Not so much with wins and losses, but with some other outside things. Our guys have really grown from that, and I have grown from it and have become a better coach, just become a better person.”
A serious automobile accident in 2015 that involved three of his players was “one of the toughest times, if not the toughest time, of my 23 years of coaching.” The phone call from a player’s mother, telling him he needed to get to the hospital, is seared in his memory.
“We had that early situation of everybody coming to the hospital, players and parents, and the uncertainty of trying to be strong for the kids and their parents but also knowing these kids spend a lot of time with me and I obviously was very emotionally attached to what was going on. And then going forward, we had to be able to deal with having a basketball season. As a group, we decided that we were going to come together and be tighter than we had ever been and really be there for one another, play for those three guys.
“The school community was unbelievable in the support they showed, not only for the basketball team but to the three families. To this day, I still talk to the three families about that. The support they received from the Durham Academy community was unbelievable.”
All three players recovered and are in college now, and for one of the three, that seems like a miracle.
“For me personally, and for our coaching staff, to see where he was and where he is now is very special. He was in a coma for more than a month, and then went to Atlanta for rehab at the Shepherd Center. He wasn’t able to walk, talk or eat, and he can do all those things now. It’s a miracle, it really is.
“That experience, to this day, if things are going bad on the basketball front or work front, you kind of look back upon that and it puts things into perspective of what’s important and why I do what I do. The wins are great, but it really is about these kids developing lifelong relationships with me and the guys on the team.”
It all goes back to “family,” and for McKenna, Durham Academy is truly a family affair. He met his wife, Holly, when she was a guidance counselor at Good Counsel, and she is now part of DA’s admissions office. Their children are also part of the DA family, with Marlee at the Upper School and Drew at Middle School.