A while back, I had perhaps the most enjoyable phone interview of my freelance career. On the other end of my line, all the way from Shawnee, Okla., where he is the head women‚??s basketball coach at Oklahoma Baptist University, was John McCullough, whose high school basketball number will be retired Saturday night when Lima Senior hosts Mansfield Senior High.
I‚??ll be covering John in more in-depth fashion as part of a bigger series on the four individuals honored with jersey retirements this school year by Lima Senior for ‚??Our Generation‚??s Magazine‚?Ě in 2010. In addition to McCullough, Joe Morrison and Gary Moeller already have had their numbers retired, and Bill Sharp will as well early next year.
While all are products of the Lima City School system and have achieved much in the world of sports, McCullough‚??s story may very well be the most compelling. As far as those who have played the game of basketball in Lima well enough to step onto a court in an NBA regular season game and earn a check playing with the world‚??s greatest athletes, the list begins and ends with one name, and that name is John McCullough.
Lima Central Catholic basketball coach Bob Seggerson was LCC‚??s junior varsity coach back in the early 1970s. Seggerson thinks there‚??s a valuable lesson in the high school late bloomer McCullough‚??s story for all who care to listen.
‚??With all the attention, especially in AAU basketball on very young kids nowadays, were John McCullough to have come up as a young basketball player now, he‚??d probably be overlooked.
‚??But, John showed what gauges a great player. He got better every year because he worked on the part of his game he needed to improve. Great players are never satisfied and are driven by sheer passion and hard work. That‚??s John McCullough, to my way of thinking, the poster player for how to succeed in athletic competition.‚?Ě
As I spoke with the self-effacing 52-year-old coach, who headed into this basketball season with a 194-77 record in his ten years at Oklahoma Baptist, I saw how that desire manifested itself in a way that had nothing to do with the sport John loves.
Toward the end of my interview, I wanted to gather some personal particulars. It was then John chuckled and said he did indeed have a wife, Stephanie, and a stepson, Stephen, and that the story behind how they came to him was somewhat unusual.
He told me that he‚??d actually met Stephanie his senior year at the University of Oklahoma, where he was in the process of capturing Big Eight Player of the Year honors while leading the Sooners into the NCAA tournament.
Recalls McCullough, ‚??I finally got the nerve to ask Steph on our first date, and she said yes. Well, on that same day, my basketball coach, Dave Bliss, called me unexpectedly and wanted me to fill in for another player who got sick and was supposed to show a potential recruit around campus.
‚??By the time I freed myself, I was almost two hours late for the date. When I got over there, she was in no mood to listen to explanations. She told me that just because I was this big basketball star I couldn‚??t treat people like that, and, while she said she liked me, she just couldn‚??t go out.‚?Ě
McCullough said he asked Stephanie on another date, but she couldn‚??t go because she committed to go to a fraternity party with another guy. Recalls the former Spartan No. 24, ‚??Well, she began dating him, and I graduated and pursued my dream to play pro basketball. I later found out she married the guy, and I felt that was the end of any chance I had with her.‚?Ě
McCullough went on to play professionally in the NBA, the Continental Basketball League, the European League and the World Basketball League, winning championships in Europe and the World Basketball League, before unlacing his playing sneakers for the last time at the age of 31 to pursue a coaching career.
Sixteen years after losing her to that frat guy, McCullough found out Stephanie was single again with a son.
‚??I was determined not to blow it a second time, so I took yearlong leave of absence from coaching at the University of New Mexico for the expressed purpose of dating Steph and persuading her to be my wife.‚?Ě
In 1995, McCullough did, indeed, take Stephanie as his wife and Stephen as his stepson. When I asked John how he convinced the now Mrs. McCullough to take a chance on him, he laughed and said, ‚??I convinced her I‚??d never be late again!‚?Ě
That‚??s the John McCullough, the son of proud parents Jack and Glenna, who will be feted this coming Saturday. It‚??s the John McCullough who believes in better late than never and lives by the credo, ‚??It‚??s not how you start but how you finish that counts.‚?Ě
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