Stan McKenzie Makes Case for NBA Defense, 1970

[Stan McKenzie passed away last July. He played seven seasons in the NBA, his career running from 1967 to 1973 with stops in Baltimore, Phoenix, Portland, and Houston. Though the 6-foot-5 swingman was never a star, he was a class act who went on to serve in an international leadership role for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

Here’s a rare profile of him during his NBA days. It ran in the Hollywood Sun-Tattler, his hometown newspaper, on May 27, 1970 under the byline of columnist Ed Plaisted.

Plaisted catches McKenzie en route to Portland, his second NBA expansion team, and entertaining high hopes for a breakout season. Those hopes never happened. While McKenzie had several big nights for the Blazers, he never had enough minutes. Coach’s decision. “People who complain because I don’t play him more don’t understand,” exclaimed Portland coach Roland Todd after McKenzie lit up the NBA champion New York Knicks for 20 points in the fourth quarter. “He couldn’t keep up that pace longer than he does. This way, we have McKenzie when we need him.”

As a “have him, when we need him” bench player, McKenzie stayed ready, rolling with the NBA punches and their often-nightly indignities. His forte would remain defense, and all the jostling placed a constant strain on his knees, ankles, and back. McKenzie logged just over two seasons in Portland, then landed in Houston for a season, where he blew out his knee. On November 7, 1973, while still working out the kinks from knee surgery, McKenzie was waived by the Rockets to make way for journeyman center George Johnson, who’d finally recovered from the jaw he shattered in training camp. Here’s to Stan the Man. Here’s to the fond memories!]

Stan McKenzie is an unusual pro basketball player. The Hollywood, Florida native likes to play defense. 

“I usually get assigned to cover our opponents’ top scorers,” said Stan the other afternoon during a visit to his parents’ home in western Hollywood. “It is a good deal of responsibility, and I have to get myself psyched up before each game. 

“It makes me mad to hear some fans complain that we don’t play defense in pro basketball. That’s a lot of bull. If we didn’t play defense, teams would be scoring 200 points a game.”

McKenzie, a 25-year-old National Basketball Association veteran of three seasons and two teams, was selected in the league’s expansion draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder played his first season with the Baltimore Bullets and the last two with the Phoenix Suns.   

During last month’s NBA playoffs, McKenzie and his Phoenix teammates almost upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Division playoffs. One of the reasons for the Suns’ surprising play against the Lakers was the defensive job McKenzie did on Jerry West. 

“I think I’ve had a heck of a night on defense if I can hold a player like Jerry West to 15 or 20 points a night. Maybe I’ve done a good job if I hold him to 25 on another night. 

“With guys like Jerry West, a 25-point night might be a subpar one when you realize that some nights he can score 30, 40, 50, or more. I know I can’t shut out the Jerry Wests in the league, but I know I can cut down on their scoring and thus contribute to our cause.”

McKenzie told me that every pro basketball player has his habits. Take West as an example. “West likes to go to the right side of the baseline to take a jump shot. So I try to cut off the baseline. He will often fake the shot before he gets to the baseline, but I know better. I go with the first fake, then prepare for the jumper. I try to get my arm up high to disturb him.”

West, the Lakers’ 6-foot-3 guard and veteran of 10 NBA seasons, led the league in scoring with a 31.2 average—only the third backcourtman in the 24-year history of the league to do so—and came back with virtually the same average for Los Angeles’ 18 playoff games. 

Stan McKenzie, although a Hollywood native, attended Miami’s Northwestern High School instead of Attucks in Dania for personal reasons. He went on to New York University, where he led the Violets into three National Invitational Tournaments in Madison Square Garden. In all three trips, Stan was selected to the All-NIT team. 

He graduated from NYU in 1966 and took a year off to tour the world with an amateur basketball team. His rookie season was 1966-67 with the Bullets, where he played in 50 games and scored 204 points for a 4.1 average.

Earl (The Pearl) Monroe was Stan’s roommate at Baltimore. “Contrary to Earl’s press clippings,” explained Stan, “he was a real quiet guy as a roommate. And he is one of the superstars of the game. I learned a lot from him as a rookie.”

The expansion team Suns drafted McKenzie on May 6, 1968, and he played in Phoenix for two seasons. In 1968-69, he played in 80 games, scoring 747 points for a 9.3 average. This past season at Phoenix, Stan played in 58 games, scoring 220 points for a 3.8 average. 

At midseason, Phoenix coach John Kerr resigned. The Suns are still shopping for a replacement. How did Kerr and McKenzie get along? “We had no problems,” said Stan. “I figured I should be playing more, but that is only my opinion. John was a wonderful person, but the team just couldn’t jell. Maybe it was a breakdown in communication.”

“Anyhow I’m looking forward to playing for Portland. I haven’t talked to the new coach (Rolland Todd of Nevada at Las Vegas) yet, but the general manager believes I can play a lot next season for them.”

Before visiting Portland, Stan McKenzie will tour American military bases in Vietnam with four other NBA players—Mike Riordan of New York, Guy Rodgers and Greg Smith of Milwaukee, and Paul Silas of Phoenix. 

“We will play games with our servicemen,” set Stan. “Last year, the NBA sent a three-man group, and it averaged 30 games a day against military teams. It is a big thrill for our GIs to say they played against a pro. And it is a big thrill for me to visit our servicemen.”

Phoenix’s Stan McKenzie (left) shadowed by Detroit’s Dave Bing.

Last season, McKenzie set an NBA record by making all 15 free throws in the fourth period against Philadelphia on February 15. Stan made 39 free throws in a row, and his goal is to surpass the 56 straight record held by Bill Sharman, the former Boston Celtic star now coaching the Los Angeles  Stars in the rival American Basketball Association. 

“I think I can break Sharman’s record,” insists Stan. “But I have to play more than I did last season.”

McKenzie’s secret for free throw accuracy is not his shooting style. He uses the standard one-handed push shot. Rather, it’s in the timing. “I take five seconds to prepare before I shoot a free throw,” he explained. “You have 10 seconds to get off a free throw, so why rush? It also gives me a chance to recuperate, sort of catch a second breath.”

But Stan McKenzie’s real ambition, or goal, is to coach a pro basketball team. “That’s another thing I like about going to Portland,” he said. “The general manager said I can help in the coaching. I’m not a clubhouse lawyer. If I ever get a chance to coach, it will have to be with a team I haven’t played on.”

Meanwhile, Stan McKenzie will take his wife to Oregon to find an apartment before flying off to Vietnam. 

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