KIRKWOOD, Mo. — On the court back in his heyday, Jimmy McKinney's play on the hardwood spoke volumes, only speaking up verbally when needed. Now as a coach, he's stepped on the other side of the line.
"He's going to yell at you," senior Jaylen Phipps said with a grin.
Coach McKinney also makes them learn from their mistakes.
"If we mess up once, or do not pay attention, we're on the line right away," senior Dillow Stewart said.
Emotion mixed with compassion, the young Kirkwood Pioneers believe in McKinney and his coaching style.
"He knows what it takes to win," Stewart said.
"It's just tough love," Phipps said.
During a global pandemic, the Pioneers are off to one of their best starts in school history, even surprising themselves.
"I knew that there was going to be some type of change," Phipps recalls his first reaction to Kirkwood hiring McKinney. "But I ain't know it was going to be this much of a huge change this early."
In only his first season as head coach, McKinney is getting the most out of his guys, not just diving for loose balls and making sure they touch the line. But in the classroom and life.
You can credit his resume as one of the reasons why.
"He's a Mizzou legend," Stewart reflecting on the McKinney he recalls growing up.
"I just know from what I've heard, from this year, I heard that he done big things at Mizzou," said Phipps.
The two knew what they were told, but they didn't hear about it all.
Before college, in a historic Vashon basketball program, McKinney may have been the best Wolverine out of the bunch.
"I think of a winner, Jimmy was a tremendous ballplayer at Vashon," said journalist Earl Austin Jr.
Inducted to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame for his coverage of local sports, Austin Jr. has seen his fair share of memorable moments. But there's one McKinney moment, in particular, he said he'll never forget.
"They were playing De Smet in the championship game and De Smet had made a big comeback in the fourth quarter and maybe had taken the lead," Austin Jr. detailing the 1999-2000 Missouri state championship game. "And Joel Shelton fouled out."
Joel known as Joey or Joe was not only the star of Vashon's program McKinney's sophomore year, he was the mentor McKinney needed said former Vashon head coach, Floyd Irons.
"We called a timeout and Joe told Jimmy it's your time, it's time for you to take over and step up, I'm passing the torch on to you," Irons reliving that timeout. "The rest was history."
Young but ready, McKinney took over and delivered clutch bucket after clutch bucket helping seal the state title.
"That's when you knew a young man like that has the it factor," said Austin.
That 'it factor' took McKinney far. Under the guidance of coach Floyd Irons, McKinney and the Wolverines won three consecutive state titles from 2000-2002.
"Ahhh, it was probably the best four years of my life, if I can give a limb back, I would give a limb back," said McKinney reliving the glory days.
Not a member of the coaching staff at the time, Tony Irons remembers watching McKinney's rise to stardom at Vashon.
"As a basketball player, he's one of the best to ever come out of St. Louis," Tony Irons said.
With all he could do in high school basketball accomplished, McKinney took his illustrious career to the University of Missouri. There he scored more than 11,000 points, snagged 400 plus rebounds, and dished out 349 assists. While some called it a successful career, the competitor in McKinney thinks otherwise.
"Of course I wish I could've done things differently, I was used to winning," McKinney said.
During his four seasons in Columbia, the Tigers appeared in just one NCAA tournament. His dreams of playing in the NBA also vanished, McKinney was left disappointed, but he kept pushing.
"I think going through Vashon just kind of really prepared me for the mental state, overcoming adversity," he said.
Packing up his frustrations, McKinney landed thousands of miles away from home where he would play professional basketball in Germany for 10 years. But as he chased his dreams, another one came to fruition. McKinney had a son.
"I was like, I'm spending all my time overseas and I probably see my son two months, three months out of the year," said McKinney.
Bonded through the rock, McKinney and his son gravitated towards one another on the hardwood.
"He was on the Larry Hughes team and so they didn't have a coach and the team was pretty good, so I just decided to step in and start coaching and then that's how I start falling in love with coaching," he said.
His love from making plays transitioned into drawing them up, McKinney decided it was time to hang up the jersey and go back to where it all started, partnering with the next successful Irons coach at Vashon, Floyd's son, Tony.
"I reached out to him and was like man I need you to come back, just to be able to share your story with the players," said Tony Irons.
Alongside someone he calls a brother, McKinney helped Vashon to what would've been their second 3-peat in school history until COVID-19 stopped them in their tracks.
In the summer of 2020, McKinney went back to the drawing board to sketch his life's possibilities. Possibilities that are now blossoming. Seeking their first state title, the Pioneers are rolling, basking in lessons McKinney learned while at Vashon.
"He's making us work, bringing out toughness in each and every one of us each day," said Phipps.
While he admits he put his own spin on things, McKinney expects the Vashon and Kirkwood comparisons to come rolling in.
"To be honest, it's not a bad thing," McKinney said laughing. "Vashon won a lot, and hopefully we win a lot here in Kirkwood."
Win or loss, McKinney is just a respected man with an army full of support, and for him, this new coaching job is more than what you see at practice or a game. It's a lifestyle and a legacy he continues to build.
"He's brought out a different person in me, helps me talk more, be a better leader on and off the court," said Phipps.
"I'm extremely thankful, as a man, he prepared me for life," said Stewart.