Kevin Magee, a mythic figure lacking only titles

Jan 25, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir StankovicIf a player loses four finals in European competitioms three of them in the top competition, maybe someone could wonder what is he doing in a series dedicated, basically, to the great players of the past, who normally hold trophies in the three continental competitions. But the case of Kevin Magee (born Gary, Indiana on January 24, 1959; died Amite, Louisiana on October 23, 2003) is the "exeption that confirms the rule".

Also, the title of this entry is not perfectly accurate because even if Magee didn't win a continental trophy, he did win a national one with CAI Zaragoza, the Spanish King's Cup in 1983. Also, if in a survey in Israel about a club like Maccabi Tel Aviv, a player is chosen as the "best foreigner ever to play in the club", there is no doubt that Kevin Magee deserves to be considered among the best. From a personal point of view, I didn't see Magee many times live, but a couple games on site plus many times on television are enough for me to consider him one of the greats.

A mistake by Phoenix

After his brilliant years in high school and Saddelback Junior College (29.3 points averaged in the 1979-80 season), Kevin Magee followed his coach Bill Mulligan to University of California-Irvine in the NCAA's Division I, also with excellent scoring averages: 27.5 (1980-81) and 25.2 (1981-82). His 46 points against Loyola Marimount and 25 rebounds against Long Beach State are still records. After his first year at the university, he was chosen for the USA Team at the University Games in Bucharest. In the final, with his 27 points, the USA defeated the USSR by 91-87. Magee also led that team with 7.1 boards per game.

In the 1982 NBA draft, he was picked by the Phoenix Suns with number 39, but after the summer camp the club could not offer him a guaranteed contract until September. He didn't want to wait to start playing and he accepted an offer from Italy he could not refuse: he would play with Cagiva Varese, a multiple European champion then looking for someone to fill in for a living legend, Dino Meneghin, who had moved to Milano two seasons prior. His debut could hardly have been better: 28 points and 17 rebounds against the European champion, Ford Cantu.

After a great season in Italy, Magee wanted back in the NBA, but in October of 1983, the Suns made the same mistake for the second time: they cut Magee and forced him to go back to Europe, but this time to Spain, where he joined modest CAI Zaragoza, a club that was growing season after season. For the 1983-84 season, the city of Zaragoza was awarded with the organization of the Spanish King's Cup tourney, which was to feature a Final Four format for the first time. However, unlike now, the host team had to earn its way into the final phase. The key game was against Real Madrid. Only three days after his arrival to Zaragoza, Magee helped CAI with his 14 points and 14 rebounds to defeat Real Madrid for the first time, 83-82. In the Final Four, played on November 30 and December 1 of 1983, CAI Zaragoza defeated Joventut Badalona first (87-83 with 36 points, 17 rebounds and 2 blocks by Magee) and FC Barcelona later in the title game (81-78 with 19 points by Magee plus 18 by Jim Allen, with whom Magee formed a great duo).

That same season, CAI Zaragoza played the Korac Cup and reached the semifinals. Magee shined: 34 and 23 points against Tours, 23 and 37 against Trieste, 26 and 30 against Sibenka. But in the semifinal, despite Kevin's 28 and 27 points, Crvena Zvezda eliminated CAI Zaragoza by 130-100 in Belgrade (that was the first time I saw Magee live) despite a 108-87 in Zaragoza.

An idol in Tel Aviv

Despite its ambition and growth, it was clear that CAI Zaragoza would not be able to retain such a big star. Enter Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel, who appeared on the scene with a superior offer. The media at the time talked about 250,000 dollars for Kevin Magee and Lee Johnson, a dream duo that had to put Maccabi back to the top in Europe.

The six following years, Maccabi won six national league titles plus five Israeli cups, but the most coveted title, that of the Euroleague, it never got back. In three straight finals, Maccabi was always the loser: 1987 in Lausanne against Tracer Milan (71-69), 1988 in Ghent against the same opponent (90-84) and 1989 in Munich against Jugoplastika Split (75-69). I saw Magee twice in the 1987-88 season, first in Belgrade where Maccabi fell to Partizan with young Vlade Divac and company by 85-77, and later in Tel Aviv with a 98-84 Maccabi win, although both teams had already qualified for the first Final Four.

Magee was not a tall player, officially he was 2.03 meters, but his rebounding abilities were immense. He was a strong player, and he liked contact where his physical potential granted him superiority over the opponent. But he also had a good shooting hand from the midrange. He normally reached double-doubles, meaning he was a life insurance for his team. Maybe he wouldn't have his best day sometimes, but that didn't mean he was having his worst day, because he was never below a certain standard.

In the Euroleague of the time, Magee scored 2,081 points for Maccabi. Above him there are ranked only two other Maccabi legends - Micky Berkowitz (3,588) and Doron Jamchy (3,262). He was an idol among Maccabi fans and nobody even blinked when, in a survey long after his departure from Tel Aviv, he was still chosen by fans as the best foreigner to have ever played in Maccabi, even ahead of Earl Williams.

A tragic accident

For the 1990-91 season, Magee was back to Spain to play with his CAI Zaragoza again. In a new attempt to win a continental trophy, he led his team to the Cup Champions Cup final against PAOK Thessaloniki, played on March 26 of 1991 in Geneva. It was a shameful game because of the violent behavior of the Greek fans. On the court, Zaragoza was a better team for 30 minutes, but with 2 minutes to go the score was 72-72. Some mistakes down the stretch cost CAI the final win.

For Magee, not even the fourth was the charm. He finished the season with 406 rebounds, the best one in the Spanish League, and then he moved back to Italy to play with Reggio Emilia. In his two Spanish League stints, he played 57 games, averaging 24.6 points and 12.1 rebounds, while in the Italian League he played 65 games to average 23.8 points and 14.1 rebounds. His next stop would be Racing Paris, where he also earned honors as best rebounder in the French League while his last team would be Maccabi Rishon in 1993-94. He retired at 36 years old and was back to the United States where, in 1996, the University of California-Irvine retired his jersey.

From then, he was dedicated to his business and his family, as he had three kids. In the summer of 2003 his family moved from California to Louisiana. It was there where, driving back home from work on October 23, that Magee was involved in a car crash that not even the big fighter like him had a chance against. For us who were lucky enough to know him through his great points and rebounds, the memory of a great player who maybe lacked titles but was still one of the greats, will remain.