Coach On The Rise

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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>> Press Release: Austin Toros Hire Ken McDonald as Head Coach

Coach On The Rise

There’s a story about Ken McDonald, the Austin Toros new head coach, that speaks to his ability to develop remarkable but unrecognized talent. It begins in Kentucky, spins across the U.S., touches down in Mexico, heads for Spain and centers on an unrecruited ballplayer from San Antonio.

We begin in the fall of 2008. McDonald has assumed head coaching duties of Western Kentucky, a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 the previous season. The Hilltoppers are missing three starters, all their top scorers, and one returning bench player wonders if he might be better off elsewhere.

Orlando Mendez-Valdez, a senior guard from an impoverished neighborhood in San Antonio, didn’t play much on the Sweet 16 team. He approaches McDonald, so new he hasn’t had time to hire an assistant, and says he’s not sure he belongs.

“We’re really going to miss your four points a game,” McDonald says, half-joking, half-serious.

Mendez-Valdez looks puzzled. Nothing comes easy for him. He won Player of the Year honors at Lanier High School in San Antonio but received no scholarship offers. He spent one year at a prep school and worked hard for three seasons at WVU but didn’t get many minutes. Is the new coach going to overlook him, too?

“Let’s get in the gym and let me show you what my plans are for you,” McDonald says. “Give it a week. I want you to be a big part of this.”

Mendez-Valdez can’t believe what he’s hearing. McDonald explains the offense he wants to install. Says he wants to run screens for Mendez-Valdez. “Who else do you think is going to score on this team,” McDonald asks. “You’re the second leading scorer coming back.”

The kid becomes the unanimous Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and leads WKU to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “By the end of the year, he’s playing like Steve Nash,” McDonald says. “Unreal. He just carries us. We win the conference outright. We win the conference tournament. He almost brings us back against Gonzaga for a chance to go to the Sweet 16. We were down by nine points with a few minutes to go. We came back to tie the game. The kid is incredible.”

In one season under McDonald, Mendez-Valdez went from overlooked reserve to Player of the Year. “He revived my career,” Mendez-Valdez says. “He made me believe I belonged.”

Once, long ago, someone believed in McDonald. Ever since, he’s become a zealot about coaching and developing raw talent. McDonald grew up poor in North Providence, Rhode Island. He stood 6-4 in high school and possessed a fine shooting stroke but went unrecruited. A local college coach who lived nearby once got him an invite to a five-star basketball camp. McDonald’s mother laughed. She had six kids to feed and clothe.

McDonald enrolled at Community College of Rhode Island and impressed with a slew of scoring records. He played in two National Junior College Athletic Association tournaments and drained nine three-pointers in one game. He worked a few camps for the head coach at nearby Providence College. The coach offered a scholarship. Rick Barnes believed in him. So did Barnes’ two assistants, Fran Fraschilla (now an ESPN analyst) and Larry Shyatt (the head coach at Wyoming).

“I was not the most talented player coming out of junior college,” McDonald says. “But going to the Big East was a dream of mine. And it only happened because people took me under their wings. Rick Barnes and his staff were big on development. They developed me to where I could play college basketball and got me turned onto coaching.”

McDonald followed two seasons at Providence, where he averaged 5.6 points in 50 games, with one in Ireland. Then came the call to coach. Barnes needed an assistant. McDonald spent eight of the next 14 seasons under Barnes -- four at Clemson, four at the University of Texas -- and enjoyed the ride (working with Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge) before taking over at WKU.

Sixty seven victories and one trip to the NCAA Tournament later, he was back in Texas, assisting Taylor Jenkins with the Austin Toros. McDonald embraced the pro game -- the draft, the trades, the ever-changing rosters -- became a quick learner and shined on the fly. The fit was a good one. His job is to prepare players for the NBA.

“It’s all about player development,” McDonald says. “I love being on the court helping players get better. It’s always been a passion of mine.”

One product of that development is playing pro ball for another country. Earlier this month, Mendez-Valdez helped Mexico win the FIBA Americas championship for the first time and qualify for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. He dropped 22 points on Jamaica, made all-tournament honorable mention, and helped Mexico upset Argentina and Puerto Rico.

“My favorite player of all-time,” McDonald says.

Mendez-Valdez: “A lot of the credit is due to him -- the way he coached me, the things he let me do on the court, his patience with me.”

Back at WKU, McDonald made a personal connection with Mendez-Valdez. The coach shared his own story of poverty, of going unrecruited, of searching for a place to belong. On the common ground of suffering, a bond formed. From there, a game blossomed and a reputation grew.

The portrait now emerging is what player development looks like under McDonald.

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