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Former Irvine Star Magee Finds a World of Difference Playing in Israel

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Times Staff Writer

Kevin Magee will pull on a new uniform and tie the laces on his old basketball shoes this afternoon. Then he will step onto a strange court with an all-too-familiar mission: Proving his worth as a player and, of course, providing an answer to the burning question . . . Kevin Who?

Magee was a two-time All-American at UC Irvine--and the subject of a national sports magazine article entitled “The Best College Basketball Player You Never Heard Of”--but he won’t be one of the more recognizable faces when the U.S. Olympic basketball trials begin today at Colorado Springs.

Magee, 29, remains a relative unknown outside Southern California. Unless, of course, you want to go way outside Southern California . . . halfway around the world, that is.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, Kevin Magee can’t walk to the neighborhood market without attracting a swarm of autograph-seeking fans. He is the star player on Tel Aviv’s Club Maccabi, one of the world’s most successful club teams. In the four years Magee has played there, Maccabi has been a European Cup finalist twice, losing to Tracer Milan of Italy--led by former National Basketball Assn. great Bob McAdoo--each time.

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“The kids come by the house and yell his name and ring the doorbell trying to meet him,” Magee’s wife, Melanie, said. “It can be a nuisance sometimes, but it’s really nice how he’s treated.”

Magee manages to put up with the adoration.

“I’m like a king over there,” he says matter-of-factly.

His reward is commensurate with his royal status, too. Last week, he completed the first year of a four-year, $1.1 million contract, a deal that is worth more than your run-of-the-mill-quarter-million-dollar salary in the States.

Magee and his family spend between eight and nine months a year in Israel. During that time, he pays for just three things:

--The bill for the telephone in his rent-free, five-bedroom home in an upscale Tel Aviv suburb.

--Gasoline to put in the new automobile the team provides.

--Food for his wife and two children (Jeremy, 5, and Brandy, 3).

The team also pays his son’s $7,000 tuition at an American school and provides travel expenses for his family and a guest.

“To be honest, when I first went there, I didn’t really know what Israel was,” Magee said. “I thought it was all sand and people riding camels. But Tel Aviv is real metropolitan, like New York.

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“And they take care of you pretty good.”

Magee doesn’t figure on getting any preferential treatment from the Olympic team coach, John Thompson, and his staff, though. He knows he’ll be just another 6-foot 8-inch power forward on the depth charts.

And he doesn’t understand why the International Olympic Committee considers him an amateur while the players in the National Basketball Assn., the Continental Basketball League and United States Basketball League are deemed professionals.

He just knows those are the rules, and he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I’m really excited,” Magee said. “It’s an honor to be one of the players selected, and it would be a honor to represent my country.”

Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan, who Magee says is “like a father to me,” was a little surprised when he found out how much the chance to play in the Olympics meant to Magee.

“I told him, ‘Kevin, they don’t pay you for this, you know,’ ” Mulligan said. “This is something he really wants to do.

“And money isn’t as important to him now. When they came over this weekend, he paid for the pizza and lasagna . . . and it was $37. Now, there’s a switch.”

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Magee may have more in the bank than most of the other players vying for spots on the team, but his wealth of experience in international basketball will be more valuable.

He averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds a game this season, and his style of play is perfectly suited to the physical nature of the international game.

“I think I’m a little ahead of most of the other players because I’ve played against most of the guys the Olympic team will face,” Magee said. “And there’s a lot of difference between the college game and the international game. The refs let you play, and that’s part of my game.”

Scoring and rebounding are integral parts of Magee’s game. Defense, however, never was--and still isn’t--one of his strengths.

“I’m the first to admit it,” Magee said, “but everywhere I’ve played, they’ve told me to score and rebound and stay out of foul trouble.

“I’m going to go into these trials concentrating on defense and not worry about my scoring and rebounding. That comes naturally. It will take care of itself.”

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Magee and Bobby Thornton, a former Anteater who is now with the Philadelphia 76ers, were exchanging elbows under the basket during a pickup game at Irvine’s Crawford Hall Tuesday. Magee muscled his way into the lane, took a pass and swished a 12-foot turnaround jumper.

“He looks like a man ,” Irvine assistant Tim Murphy said. “I think he’s going to intimidate some people (at the trials). He’ll be 10 years older than some of those kids. And he’ll get his points. I don’t care if David Robinson guards him, you can’t stop Kevin from scoring.”

Magee might have another advantage when he gets to Colorado Springs this afternoon. His season just ended last week, and he says he’s in the best shape of his life.

Mulligan said: “I can’t reveal my source, but, from what I’ve heard, I think he’s got a real good chance of making it.”

The Kevin Magee Story is old news in Irvine, Israel and few places in between--with the exception of Magnolia, Miss., where Magee led his South Pike High School team to a 32-1 record his senior year.

Magee was born in Gary, Ind. His father moved the family to Magnolia when he was 12 and his older brother was being pressured to join a Gary street gang.

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After high school, Magee enrolled at Southern Louisiana but left school three months later. “I wasn’t ready for college,” he says.

He went to work in a steel mill. He decided to try his luck at Houston but quit two months later. “I still wasn’t ready for college,” he says. He went back to the steel mill.

Magee decided to give college one more chance and worked out for Jack Holley, coach at College of the Ozarks. Holley liked what he saw, but Magee didn’t, so Holley recommended longtime friend Mulligan, who was then at Saddleback College.

Magee moved west in 1979, a friendship was forged, and both coach and player moved on to UC Irvine, where Magee played in the 1980-81 and ‘81-82 seasons. The rest is well-chronicled history in the Irvine record book.

Magee was drafted by the Phoenix Suns but didn’t make the team and ended up in Europe. He played a year in Italy and a year in Spain before finding fame and fortune in the Middle East.

It’s a good story, one of missed opportunities but few missed field goals. And one of those up-close-and-personal features during the Summer Olympics could make it a compelling bedtime story for millions.

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But Magee insists he’s not out to show the Suns what a mistake they made. He doesn’t want to impress anyone . . . except for Kevin, Melanie, Jeremy and Brandy Magee.

“There was a time when all I cared about was what other people thought of me,” Magee said, “but at this point in my life, that doesn’t really matter anymore. I just want to do good for Kevin Magee and his family. I just want to play to the best of my ability and help the team win.”

And, if he doesn’t make the team, he can always enjoy going to the market without being mobbed--for a few months, anyway.

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