With his team — three of whom were from Boston — Mackey instituted a frantic style of play, which he referred to as the "Run 'n Stun." In Mackey's system, he'd rotate 10 players who'd aggressively challenge teams, playing the entire length of the court with maximum effort. "We were gonna full-court press, on their case, in their face, take away their space," he says. "That's what we were gonna do and that's what we did." It worked. In just Mackey's second season, Cleveland State won 21 games, but was left out of the NCAA tournament.
"I was beside myself," he says. "We didn't even get into the NIT. I told the players: 'Cleveland State, no one had heard of the school. We got to kick the door down.' "
In the off-season, at an AAU game in Boston, Mackey found a key reinforcement. New York City playground legend Ken McFadden, better known as Mouse, could moonwalk while dribbling a basketball, but didn't have a high-school diploma. After getting his GED, McFadden matriculated to Mackey's backcourt.
With Mouse at the point, Cleveland State won 27 games in 1985–86, earning its first-ever NCAA tournament bid and an opening-round match-up versus Knight and his Hoosiers, who were ranked 16th in the country at the time. Mackey's crew of unknowns wasn't intimidated. "My kids had great confidence in themselves," he recalls. "They [Indiana] were ready for prime time and we were off-Broadway players. [My kids] wanted what Indiana had: the spotlight."
After defeating Indiana, and St. Joseph's in the next round, Cleveland State got it, as it became the first 14 seed ever to reach the tournament's Sweet 16. "We were a national story," says Mackey. "They wouldn't leave us alone."
Following a week of distracting interviews and pep rallies, Cleveland State squared off against the United States Naval Academy and consensus All-American center David Robinson. The game went down to the wire, but Cleveland State wound up losing by a point.
Soon after the dream season ended, things started to unravel for Mackey and the Vikings. Two months after the tournament, forward Paul Stewart, a Boston native, collapsed and died during a pick-up game. In 1987, the team was put on probation by the NCAA for recruiting violations. And in July 1990, Mackey's own life was turned upside-down when he was arrested outside a Cleveland crack house. It was revealed that he had been abusing alcohol and cocaine; days later, Mackey assembled his inner-circle to explain his misbehavior.
"It was very emotional," says former Cleveland State player Pat Vuyancih, now an assistant middle-school principal. "He was truly humbled. He was asking us for his forgiveness. He didn't have to ask for that." Cleveland State's administration wasn't as understanding, dismissing Mackey six days after the well-publicized incident. "I fired Kevin Mackey," said university president John Flower at a news conference, "but really he fired himself."
Mackey sobered up at ex-pro John Lucas's rehabilitation facility in Houston, and decided that he still wanted to coach. He took minor-league jobs wherever there was an opportunity, everywhere from Argentina to Atlantic City. He drank Diet Coke, won championships, and became known for his fiery pep talks. By Mackey's count, 37 of his former minor leaguers made it to the NBA.