“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Kevin Magee – A mythical figure lacking only titles
If a player loses four finals in European competitions – three of them at the top level – maybe someone could wonder what that player is doing in a series dedicated, basically, to the greats of the past, stars who normally lifted trophies in the best continental competitions. But the case of Kevin Magee is the exception that confirms the rule.
Also, the title of this entry is not perfectly accurate because even if Magee didn’t win any European trophy, he did win a national one with CAI Zaragoza, the Spanish King’s Cup in 1983. Nonetheless, when surveys are taken to name the best foreigner ever to play at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Kevin Magee’s name always deserves strong consideration. From a personal point of view, I didn’t see Magee often in person, but a couple games live plus many on television are enough for me to consider him one of the greats.
A mistake by Phoenix
After his brilliant years in high school and at Saddleback Junior College (29.3 points in the 1979-80 season), Kevin Magee – who was born in Gary, Indiana on January 24, 1959, and died in Amite, Louisiana on October 23, 2003 – followed his coach Bill Mulligan to University of California-Irvine. Magee had excellent scoring averages: 27.5 points per game in 1980-81 and 25.2 in 1981-82. His 46 points against Loyola Marymount and 25 rebounds against Long Beach State were school records. After his first year at the university, Magee was chosen for the USA team at the University Games in Bucharest. In the final, the USA defeated the USSR 91-87 thanks to 27 points from Magee, who also led the team with 7.1 boards per game.
In the 1982 NBA draft, Magee was selected by the Phoenix Suns with the number 39 pick, but after the summer camp the club could not offer him a guaranteed contract until September. He didn’t want to wait to start playing and he accepted an offer from Italy that he could not refuse. He would play with Varese, a multiple European champion which was then looking for someone to fill in for a living legend, Dino Meneghin, who had moved to Milano two seasons prior. Magee’s debut could hardly have been better: 28 points and 17 rebounds against the European champion, Ford Cantu.
After a great season in Italy, Magee wanted back in the NBA. But in October of 1983, the Suns made the same mistake for the second time: they cut Magee and forced him to go back to Europe. This time he would go to Spain, where he joined modest CAI Zaragoza, a club that was growing season after season. For the 1983-84 season, the city of Zaragoza was awarded with the organization of the Spanish King’s Cup tourney, which was to feature a Final Four format for the first time. However, unlike now, the host team had to earn its way into the final phase. The key game was against Real Madrid. Only three days after his arrival to Zaragoza, Magee helped Zaragoza with 14 points and 14 rebounds to defeat Real Madrid for the first time, 83-82. In the Final Four, played on November 30 and December 1 of 1983, Zaragoza defeated Joventut Badalona 87-83 in the first game, with 36 points, 17 rebounds and 2 blocks by Magee. Against FC Barcelona in the title game, it was even closer, but Zaragoza won 81-78 with 19 points by Magee and 18 by Jim Allen, with whom Magee formed a great duo.
That same season, CAI Zaragoza played the Korac Cup and reached the semifinals. Magee shined, with 34 and 23 points against Tours, 23 and 37 against Trieste, 26 and 30 against Sibenka. But in the semifinal, despite Magee’s 28 and 27 points and Zaragoza’s 108-87 victory at home in the first leg, Crvena Zvezda eliminated them with a 130-100 triumph in Belgrade, which was the first time I saw Magee live.
An idol in Tel Aviv
Despite its ambition and growth, it was clear that CAI Zaragoza would not be able to retain such a big star. Enter Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel, which appeared on the scene with a superior offer. The media at the time talked about $250,000 for Kevin Magee and Lee Johnson, a dream duo that had to put Maccabi back to the top in Europe.
During the next six years, Maccabi won six national league titles and five Israeli cups. But the most coveted title, that of the EuroLeague, it never got back. In three straight finals, Maccabi was always the loser: 1987 in Lausanne against Tracer Milan (71-69), 1988 in Ghent against the same opponent (90-84), and 1989 in Munich against Jugoplastika Split (75-69). I saw Magee twice in the 1987-88 season, first in Belgrade where Maccabi fell to Partizan with young Vlade Divac by 85-77, and later in Tel Aviv with a 98-84 Maccabi win, although both teams had already qualified for the first Final Four.
Magee was not a tall player – officially he was 2.03 meters – but his rebounding abilities were immense. He was a strong player, and he liked contact because his physical potential granted him superiority over the opponent. But he also had a good mid-range shooting touch. He normally reached double-doubles, meaning he was like life insurance for his team. Maybe he wouldn’t have his best day sometimes, but that didn’t mean he was having his worst day, because he was never below a certain standard.
In the EuroLeague of the time, Magee scored 2,081 points for Maccabi, a total that ranks among the club’s best. Magee was an idol among Maccabi fans and nobody even blinked when, in a survey long after his departure from Tel Aviv, he was still chosen by fans as the best foreigner to have ever played in Maccabi, even ahead of Earl Williams.
A tragic accident
For the 1990-91 season, Magee was back to Spain to play with his CAI Zaragoza again. In a new attempt to win a continental trophy, he led his team to the Saporta Cup final against PAOK Thessaloniki, played on March 26 of 1991 in Geneva. It was a shameful game because of the violent behavior of the Greek fans. On the court, Zaragoza was a better team for 30 minutes, but with 2 minutes to go the score was 72-72. Some mistakes down the stretch cost Zaragoza the final win.
For Magee, not even the fourth time was the charm. He finished the season with 406 rebounds, the best rebounder in the Spanish League, and then he moved back to Italy to play with Reggio Emilia. In his two Spanish League stints, he played 57 games, averaging 24.6 points and 12.1 rebounds, while in the Italian League he played 65 games and averaged 23.8 points and 14.1 rebounds. His next stop would be Racing Paris, where he also earned honors as the best rebounder in the French League. His last team would be Maccabi Rishon in Israel in1993-94. Magee retired at 36 years old and moved back to the United States where, in 1996, the University of California-Irvine retired his jersey.
After that, he was dedicated to his business and his family, as he had three kids. In the summer of 2003, his family moved from California to Louisiana. There, while driving back home from work on October 23, Magee was involved in a car crash against which not even the big fighter like him had a chance, and he died. For we who were lucky enough to know him through his great points and rebounds, there remains the memory of a great player who maybe lacked titles, but was still one of the greats.