by Denny Seitz
Tatum McKee can’t recall ever being on a basketball court with a player who was faster than she. A blur of adrenaline, instinct and competitiveness, McKee impressed teammates and foes alike this summer on her AAU team, racing past players on the way to a driving layup, ratcheting up the intensity of a game by harassing opponents while playing defense, and never seeming to get tired.
The Tasmanian Devil meets the Energizer Bunny – that’s McKee, North Mecklenburg High’s 5-foot-10 guard who used last summer to reel in her natural abilities, hone her skills and become the scorer the team was searching for to replace the graduated Lauren Lewis.
McKee knows one speed, and it’s wide open.
Her speed and quickness even impressed Butler High girls basketball star Cierra Burdick, an All-American who played against McKee last summer. Burdick has signed a National Letter of Intent with one of the nation’s top women’s basketball programs, the University of Tennessee, so her perspective on McKee speaks volumes.
But anyone who’s seen McKee play would attest to her speed. Her teammates have even begun trying to raise the graduation standards for Vikings’ student-athletes. “They want to make it so you can’t graduate unless you can beat me in a race, down and back,” she said.
Is there anyone in the school who would graduate, given such lofty requirements?
Speedy point guard Shivaughn Wiggins, who led the North Meck boys team to a second-place finish in the I-MECK 4A conference’s regular season, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think so,” Wiggins said. “I don’t think I can beat her. Maybe Trey Long (who stars on the school’s football and track teams). But he might be the only one.”
McKee’s speed has made her a popular figure this winter, with the North Meck track, softball and soccer coaches all trying to convince her to join their teams, even though she hasn’t participated in any of those sports since she was much younger.
For McKee, it’s always been basketball and nothing else. Her love for the sport has kept her focused on improving her game, even amidst doubters. When she was at Bradley Middle School, she got cut from the team and had to get her basketball fix in recreation leagues.
North Meck girls basketball coach Jennifer Baker said there’s little that can deter her star player from chasing her dreams. Only once, Baker said, has a person actually succeeded in making McKee come to a screeching halt.
“Someone told her that she’d never be a basketball player,” Baker said.
The comment stung for a second, but that’s about all the time the North Meck honor student would allow for self-pity. In fact, she turned around the comments to make them positive.
“I convinced myself it was kind of like a compliment, that I was a good athlete, not just a good basketball player,” McKee said. “I used it as motivation.”
Each year, she worked harder. Each year, she continued to get better. Her biggest gains came last summer, when she was rarely without a basketball in her hands, competing in AAU leagues and attending several basketball camps.
Perhaps ironically, McKee says her greatest strides – the place where she learned to play under control and actually slow herself down a half-step on the court – came at a training center that goes by the name Accelerate.
Different instructors are at the camp on a rotating basis. McKee said she learned the most from Duke star Seth Curry and his brother, Stephen, the former Davidson standout who’s now a member of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
The Curry brothers gave McKee some drills that she’d never attempted, such as dribbling full speed down the court – while tossing a tennis ball up in the air with her other hand. That drill, and others like it, helped her improve her ball handling, conditioning and quickness, and it also honed her focus.
Three years ago, McKee could steal the ball from an opponent and go end-to-end with the ball so fast she’d literally run into the wall because she didn’t have time enough to slow down.
Even this year, there are still times when she’s racing down the court and it becomes obvious she’s going too fast to be able to shoot accurately or pass the ball to a teammate.
McKee makes Baker laugh, cry, curse and smile – all in the span of about three seconds.
“I’ll be yelling, ‘No, no!’ because she’s obviously out of control,” Baker said. “And sure enough, she’ll turn the ball over. But then, before you blink, she’s got the ball back, she’s driving to the basket, she’s throwing up a shot that’s clanging off the backboard … and then, there she is, racing out to midcourt and beating everyone to the ball. Then, she drives to the basket, makes a layup and is already in someone’s face, playing defense. And I’m watching and saying, ‘How’d that happen?’”
McKee’s natural athleticism has helped her plenty through the years. But her hard work during the past three off-seasons has helped her become more than just an athlete.
She’s a basketball player now.
“She’s as good an all-around player as there is in the I-MECK,” Baker said. “She poses matchup problems for teams. There aren’t too many 5-foot-10 guards who can move the way she does. And if you put someone small but quick on her, she’s usually four or five inches taller.”
Until this season, McKee said, she was unsure of herself and her abilities, making her reluctant to shoot.
Now, she’s not just a good shooter – as evidenced by her 50 percent success rate (38-for-76) from 3-point range – but she also is a versatile scorer, finding ways to get the ball into the basket even when her outside shot isn’t working.
Her overall shooting percentage is 55 percent, including 59 percent from inside the 3-point line. She leads the team, averaging 15.1 points and four steals per game. She also averages four rebounds per game.
With a position in the playoffs still very much in question, the stretch run of the season for the Vikings has been intense. McKee has been a vital part of the late-season push for the team, which had a 14-10 overall record heading into this week’s conference tournament. The Vikings, however, lost their first-round game to Lake Norman, 52-46.
No matter what happens the rest of the season, McKee’s transformation from “athlete” to “basketball player” has led to interest from several colleges, with a scholarship offer already in hand from Pfeiffer, and some growing interest from some other schools, including Davidson. Playing at the next level is something McKee says she will do.
Her attitude, personality and focus on team success have led to great things.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” McKee said.