August 16, 2009

Catching Up Down Under: Darnell Mee

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Coming out of Cleveland High School (Tenn.) in 1989, Darnell Mee had only one goal for his life story: Mee wanted to hear his name called by legendary college basketball commentator Dick Vitale. Twenty years later, Mee has had his name called in more accents than Dick Vitale's.

In mid-July, Mee ended his playing career at age 38, having spent the past seven years in Australia, playing in the National Basketball League. His most recent club, the Cairns Taipans, decided not to bring back Mee as their starting point guard this season.

"If I don't play this year, I'm not gonna play again," Mee said. "If I don't play, that's retired. There was some interest, but I don't know if there was enough to say, 'ok, I'm gonna stay around to see what happens.' I'm ready to move on and going to a different chapter of my life."

Mee's book has a number of stories that he's collected over his basketball career. There's the one where arrived in France to play for BCM Gravelines, told by one of the players there, former WKU teammate , that the town was bustling with things to do, only to find out that the town of about 12,000 consisted of primarily a factory and a bowling alley.

Then, there's the story of Mee's trip to China as part of an Australian travelling team. He and two other naturalized American teammates were given the celebrity treatment, ogled as they walked and ate. Each was asked up and down if each was indeed, Michael Jordan.

But few know of the story of Mee's travels getting off to a rough to start, to 1989, when Mee sat out his freshman season as a prop 48. That's the term given to student-athletes who fail to qualify academically. He'd gain a scholarship, but wasn't allowed to play or practice with the Toppers and lost that first year of eligibility.

Mee took it hard, but did find one sanctuary.

"They'd be on the road and I'd be in Diddle House all by myself," Mee said. "I was just there. The only thing that kept me going was intramurals that year. Someone asked me to play on their intramural team and that was my basketball life for my freshman year of college, winning the intramural championships that year."

That summer, Ralph Willard took over for Murray Arnold as head coach. Willard laid out the steps for Mee to be part of WKU's story.

"He came to me and was like, 'I see where you are and if you're gonna get in this program, you're gonna have to do it,'" Mee said. "I grew up over that summer because I had to work a job where I had to work 12 hours a day, plus go to summer school to get eligible and I had to work to pay for summer school because Western couldn't pay for it."

Mee rewrote his habits, academically and athletically. He helped bring the Toppers back to prominence, from a 14-14 mark his sophomore year, to 21-11 his junior year and 26-6 during the 1992-93 season as a senior.

He became one of the leaders of the team. He also kept his teammates in check, including Hall, a newcomer in 1991. Coming from Detroit, Hall had an arrogance, a cockiness that he was the best thing to come around, until Mee put him in his place.

"The first couple of practices, I'm blocking everybody's shots, I'm dunking on people, setting the tone and letting them know I ain't taking no mess," Hall said. "One day I jumped…he jumped higher, put me back in my place. He said it, too. 'All that trash talking, you're talking now, city boy.'"

WKU relied on Mee more than ever during his senior season. He was the go-to-scorer and lock-down defender, who always guarded the opposing team's best player. Mee's teammates also realized his importance.

"My job that year was to get him open, so I used to throw a lot of screens for him and make sure he got good looks at the basket," said former Topper forward Cypheus Bunton. "I had no problem in doing that, because I respected him as a player and I knew he was the guy that we needed and we could count on."

Mee's senior season culminated in WKU reaching the Sweet 16 with wins over Memphis State and Florida State. Mee shut down the Tigers' Anfernee Hardaway, followed by keeping the Seminoles' Charlie Ward in check.

"We never felt like we didn't belong, just because we were from Western," Mee said. "I think I can remember vividly doing an interview and one of the reporters asked me about being a Cinderella team. I was like, I don't think you can call a team with 25 wins a Cinderella team. We didn't feel like we were a Cinderella team, because if we'd felt like that, it would've taken two or three bad breaks and we were gonna fall apart."

But part of Mee's story, for anyone who knew him, was that as gifted as he was, he was tall and skinny. He was 6-foot-5, but weighed around 170 pounds, he said. After being drafted with the 34th pick in the second round of the 1993 NBA Draft, his new team tried to change that.

"It's funny, because once I got drafted and went to Denver, we tried so many drinks and all that," he said. "My body, I just couldn't put on weight. I got stronger, I just never got bigger."

Mee weighs around 200 pounds today.

To the Nuggets, Mee had more use as a point guard, a position he'd never really played at WKU. But Mee took to it rather fluidly. He averaged 9.2 points through 38 games.

Towards the latter part of that stretch, Mee began having pain in his left leg. After an X-ray came back negative, he and the team shrugged it off as shin splints. But in that 38th game, at Minnesota, Mee went up for a layup and felt shocks searing through his leg.

Unaware of Mee's last pains, coach Dan Issel met with Mee the next morning over breakfast to inform him that he was gonna be worked more in the lineup. On the team's return to Denver, X-rays revealed a stress fracture.

Mee had a metal rod placed in the leg, which normally, would've ended his season. Three months later, however, he was back playing, as the Nuggets made the playoffs. Mee saw action in three games, but afterwards, with doubts of Mee being fully healed, Denver drafted Michigan's Jalen Rose to replace him.

Mee made it back for two games the following season, but not being fully recovered and having little time to catch up with the team, his NBA chapter was over. He was released.

"It's interesting, because it's almost, once you get there, you've gotta work to stay there," Mee said. "That's what I think a lot of young people don't understand, is getting there is one thing, staying there is the hard part. You get there, you're a rookie and that next year, you've got a whole new crop of rookies that are just as hungry as you were when you were coming out, trying to get in."

At the time, the CBA was the unofficial minor league for the NBA. Wanting another crack at the NBA, Mee went to the CBA's Yakima Sun Kings. But after one season, Mee said he believed that was not the right avenue. Instead, he sought out basketball overseas and landed in Australia's NBL for the Canberra Cannons.

The next year, Hall put in a word to his team in France, the BCM Gravelines, that Mee would be a good fit. Hall, Mee and their former WKU teammate Deon Jackson, who was playing for another nearby French team were each other's saving grace. Teams were allowed two Americans per team and Mee and Hall relied on each other, as well as visits from Jackson to pass time, when they were tired of the bowling alley.

"All three of us stayed together, all the time," said Hall, now a center for Germany's Artland Dragons. "That helped our friendship even more, because we stayed up playing Nintendo or something like that until five or six o'clock in the morning, playing Madden because that's the only entertainment we had, was each other."

After one season, Mee went back to Australia, spending three seasons with the Adelaide 36ers. He added other overseas chapters after that, playing for Italy's Kinder Bologna, back to Adelaide, then for Germany's Bayer Leverkusen. Mee then found a stable residence in Australia, playing for the Cairns Taipans one season, then the Wollongong Hawks for two and back to Cairns for four seasons, the last being last season.

Australia was a place that his wife, Freida, his 13 yr old daughter, M'Kenzie and his eight-year old son, felt more at ease. Mee is also a dual-citizen of both the United States and Australia.

"In Australia, they spoke English, the weather was great, they treated you pretty good, it was just more comfortable, especially when you have a young family," Mee said. "The European thing is harder to do if you have a young family and if you're gone all the time and your wife and baby are stuck in this town. When you don't speak the language, it kinda hampers what can be done."

Mee established himself as an integral part of his Australian teams, manning point guard and getting his teammates involved. He was also a fan favorite. After last season, a Facebook group was started, titled, "We Want Darnell Mee back in Taipans Colours Next Season!!!"

Alas, It wasn't enough, with the Taipans' announcement signaling the end of his playing chapter. But Mee has had the next chapter in his mind for a while now, stretching back to WKU.

He's still currently in Australia, but Mee plans on coming back soon to get into coaching. He said he's looked at high school jobs and showed interest in the recent opening at Warren East, until it was filled. Mee said he still needs to finish his degree. Right now, he's two classes and an internship short.

"He has a lot of knowledge about the game and I'm sure the other kids can soak up that knowledge that he has," said Bunton, now an assistant coach at South Carolina. "And for the simple fact that he's been doing something what a majority of these kids would wanna do and that's play basketball for money. Just the experience he has would help any program tremendously."

Basketball has defined Mee's story. The playing portion has readied him for what's next.

"I feel like I've already been a coach, because as a point guard, even though some today have kinda cut out the role of a point guard, I've always thought the point guard is kind of an extension of the coach on the court," he said. "To me, it seems like a natural progression to go from playing into coaching."

Mee's basketball story continues.


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