Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Mikh McKinney is a spark for Hornets

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Mikh McKinney is a one-man play, a wiry 6-foot-1, 165-pound point guard who doesn’t run sprints; he runs marathons. He operates like one of those late-night infomercials in full screech. On any given night, the Sacramento State junior harasses opposing ballhandlers, yanks rebounds from 7-footers, unleashes outlet passes reminiscent of Kevin Love, pulls up for three-pointers in transition, slithers between defenders and hurls himself onto the court for loose balls.


What about this?

McKinney, 22, is the most talented player Brian Katz has ever coached. The Hornets’ coach said it isn’t even close, and his Big Sky Conference colleagues agree. On Monday, McKinney was named a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection – a first for a program competing in its first conference tournament since 2006.

“Mikh (pronounced Mike) is the ultimate Sac State underdog,” Katz said with a quick laugh. “He’s like our gym. You look at him, and you see how (slight) he is, and you think, ‘No way.’ But then you watch him play. He is an athlete, gymnast and contortionist all in one place. He has the ability to manipulate the ball, jump off the wrong foot, release his shot from funny angles, with tons of spin on the ball. That’s the stuff you can’t teach.”

McKinney, admittedlya late bloomer, is one of those athletes who gets off to a bad start, only to recover and blow past the competition. His teammates are still hurrying to catch up. During Saturday’s victory over Montana State that clinched a tournament berth, McKinney and fellow guard Dylan Garrity, an all-conference honorable mention, passed out textbooks on running the fast break, several ending with dunks and alley-oops.

“I tell our assistant coaches, ‘If I start calling too many plays, tell me to shut up,’ ” Katz said. “If you want to play fast, it’s all about your guards. Sometimes you just have to sit down and enjoy the show.”

Katz will be the first to enter the confessional; he didn’t see this coming. While he always liked McKinney and followed his progress at Ohlone Junior College in the Bay Area, he had reservations about the versatile guard’s slight frame, academic progress and emotional maturity. McKinney, who is on schedule to graduate with a degree in sociology, not only agreed with Katz’s assessment, he credits his Ohlone College coach, John Peterson, with turning around his life.

McKinney – raised by a single mother, Leah Mercado, who runs a wellness and massage center in Fremont – described himself as a rebellious youth, consumed by anger and resentment directed toward teammates, teachers and coaches, and most of all his father, Phranklin.

“I had a love-hate relationship with my father because he wasn’t always around,” McKinney said. “I felt like I was the man of the house with my mother and my younger brother. When I got to JC, coach Peterson told me that was the source of my anger and encouraged me to confront it. It was eating me up, holding me back. When I approached my dad and told him how I felt, it was like a weight taken off my shoulder.

“I have always said that my mom is my best friend, and now I can say my dad is one of my best friends, too. It feels good. We talk all the time. I needed my father to help me become a man.”

Outside the Hornets’ gym late Saturday, McKinney, who is half Filipino, proudly introduced his extended family. The dynamic these days is one of ease and comfort. His mother, father and her parents routinely drive together to Sacramento to catch his act. And it is quite an act.

McKinney, who has long arms and legs and wears kneepads to break his frequent falls, is that rare combination of athlete/entertainer. He never stops moving, never seems to tire. With his dark, thin beard, warm eyes and expressive, animated features, he bears a resemblance to former Kings swingman Francisco Garcia.

“I just love to play,” McKinney said. “I always think about Allen Iverson, how he wasn’t very big, but he put his body on the line. What I’ve learned is how to get my teammates involved, how to make them better. Then I get my own offense. I pride myself on that. I owe a lot to coach Peterson, because he coached me hard and made me realize some things. And now I’m doing pretty good, really helping the program.”

Especially good for Katz and the Hornets? McKinney and Garrity are juniors. With an improving talent base that includes former Casa Roble High School standout Eric Stuteville and Nick Hornsby, and after all those seasons of futility and frustration, the Hornets are starting to sting a little bit.


• What: Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament opening round

• Who: Sacramento State vs. North Dakota

• When: Thursday, 1:05 p.m.

• Radio: 105.5