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Just What Doctor Ordered

McKinney and UCLA found a prescription for success when a physician figured out that a medication was sapping the 6-8 forward's energy.

February 05, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

All through preseason workouts and the first half of UCLA's basketball season, sophomore forward Matt McKinney couldn't locate his energy.

A minute or two of hard practice was all it took before his legs and arms became dead weights and he dragged himself to the bench, chest heaving.

For most of his life, McKinney, 6 feet 8 and 222 pounds, had been a standout in two sports -- when basketball season is finished, he will play for UCLA's top-ranked volleyball team -- yet when it became clear how much the Bruins needed a smart, physical, sure-handed inside player, McKinney was helpless.

"I was scared," he said. "My assumption had always been that I would play professional sports after college -- either basketball or volleyball, either here or in Europe -- and all of a sudden I wondered if I could ever play again."

As the Bruins, 12-6 overall and 6-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference, try to build on their momentum with a game today at Washington, they now have an unlikely source of energy to tap in McKinney.

A year ago, he missed the basketball and volleyball seasons because of a broken bone in his left foot. It was a nagging, annoying, disappointing injury, coming as it did after McKinney had spent his freshman season as a redshirt working on gaining strength.

Although the break healed, as McKinney tried to push himself in training he found his body wasn't responding.

"It was kind of a gradual thing," McKinney said. "My energy just wasn't there, and I didn't know why. By the end of the summer I was really noticing it. At first I just thought I was having trouble getting back in shape after the broken foot. By the fall, it started to really worry me."

Al Scates, UCLA's veteran volleyball coach, watched McKinney at basketball practice.

"I was shocked," Scates said. "This kid who was always playing sports. I'd see him pull himself off the court after two minutes, talk to a coach for a second, then bend over at the waist with his chest heaving."

Basketball Coach Ben Howland periodically mentioned that McKinney was struggling and that there wasn't an explanation.

McKinney had dozens of tests and saw several doctors. While McKinney was told he could keep playing, he said it was hard not to think the worst.

"Sure, you remember those things happening; guys who died on the court. It's in your mind," he said.

It wasn't until about two weeks ago, McKinney said, that a UCLA cardiologist recognized a medication McKinney was taking for a chronic stomach condition had caused instances of lowered heart rates in some patients. A simple change in his prescription made a dramatic change in McKinney's life.

"I feel normal again," McKinney said this week. "I can go all out again."

Howland says McKinney and senior Dijon Thompson are his most physical players. In UCLA's comeback victory over USC last Saturday, McKinney played nine minutes and contributed four points and three rebounds. He did little things too. Set hard screens. Threw his body into scrums for rebounds. Used his broad shoulders to create space. Stood in the lane and caught passes even if opposing hands swatted at the ball.

Against Washington State, a perimeter-oriented team, McKinney played only five minutes and, like centers Michael Fey and Lorenzo Mata, spent the second half on the bench while the quicker, more active Ryan Hollins played his best game of the season in the Bruin victory Thursday.

And in the best of Bruin times, McKinney might not have received a UCLA basketball scholarship, but he arrived in Westwood because he caught former coach Steve Lavin's eye when Lavin hitched a ride with Scates for a recruiting trip to Santa Ynez to see a nationally ranked volleyball star and an all-league basketball player. It didn't take much to sell McKinney on UCLA.

"When he was 6 years old," McKinney's mother Lee Ann said, "Matt would go to Pauley Pavilion to watch UCLA. He had Coach Wooden's autograph. He always wanted to be a Bruin."

Although McKinney has been told he might have Olympic potential if he played volleyball full time, basketball has remained his passion. "Basketball is my main thing," McKinney said. "It always has been."

Before his medical mystery was solved, he had played only four minutes against Stanford and didn't play at all against Cal.

"It was so frustrating," McKinney said. "Now I'm starting my second season."

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