Ever silence 14,000 fans at once? He has
LARAMIE – Brett McFall lifted his right index finger and pressed it gently up against his lips as he jogged down the court.
A grin creased his face.
The sharp-shooting senior just sank a 3-pointer from 22 feet out, silencing – both figuratively and literally -- the once-raucous 14,000-plus fans inside The Pit that February night in 2001.
That dagger, along with five McFall free throws in the final 45 seconds, led to the Cowboys 82-78 win over New Mexico.
That same smile resurfaced nearly 18 years later.
“That was icing on the cake,” McFall said Thursday afternoon at Laramie Junior High School, where he is putting on a basketball camp for kids ages 8 to 14. “When I left the court, I got hit with something. They were throwing stuff at us. Ugo Udezue got hit in the ankle bone by a battery, which really hurt. Someone else got hit, too. So, we ran to the locker room.
“That was a great place to play. They love their basketball. But we were making a run – and we were cocky and having fun.”
The brash style of Steve McClain’s team reared its head again on a Big Monday against Utah in 2000. With the nation tuning in, the Cowboys looked unstoppable.
The exclamation point, once again, came off the fingertips of the smallest guy in the gym.
With 12:22 remaining and Wyoming cruising with a 26-point lead, this happened:
“That night, the TV broadcaster said, ‘there aren’t many teams in America that could come in and beat Wyoming tonight,” McFall laughed, discussing that 88-61 romp of the No. 25 Utes. “(Utah head coach) Rick Majerus was miserable that night. That definitely was a fun bunch.”
It all seems so long ago, McFall admits. A kid at camp hammered home that point when he told McFall that he went to college with his mom and that he was his father’s favorite player.
When he started this camp 16 years ago, he said, the kids knew who he was. Now, the 25-plus girls on the court are just taking instructions from a guy with a whistle and a booming voice.
“It’s been a funny transition,” the 40-year-old says. “Where has the time gone?”
McFall, all 6-foot, 180 pounds of him, used to zig and zag all over the court. Wearing a jersey and shorts that were two-sizes too big. Some nights he had the appearance of a middle schooler weaving through the legs of giants in the paint.
McFall, who is entering his 10th year as the head basketball coach at Shawnee Mission South High School in his native Kansas, brought six of his graduated seniors on this trip to Laramie with him.
They have heard the stories about the dishes to Josh Davis and Marcus Bailey. They know their coach played in three NITs. The fundamentals of a Larry Shyatt team are on full display in their home gym in Overland Park.
McFall has won more than 150 games at the high school level. In 2013, he led the Raiders to an undefeated 5A State Championship. He has coached 62 Division-I players in his career, including NBA player Willie Cauley-Stein.
“He’s extremely intense,” Shawnee Mission South guard Ontario Bingley said. “He’s a real good coach and a really good guy. He wants the best for his teams. He can coach through any situation. Honestly, he’s the best coach I have ever played for.”
Skyler Rhoades, who averaged 17 points and nine rebounds a game last year for McFall, echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“I feel like he’s the best coach in Kansas,” said Rhoades, who along with Bingley is going on to play at Johnson County Community College next season. “Some people think he’s mean, but when you are around him, he’s trying to prepare you for life and the future. He’s made me a better player and a better man.”
Five of McFall’s six seniors earned basketball scholarships after the season. The Raiders finished fourth at state.
He admits that he tries to emulate some of Shyatt’s teachings, but if he’s being honest, he says, he has plenty of experience sitting next to him on the bench in his father, John McFall.
“He’s been coaching for 51 years now,” McFall said of his dad. “He is in the Kansas Hall of Fame. He is one of the best to ever do it in the state. So, pretty much everything I’ve learned it’s been from him.”
Fundamentals are a major key to cracking McFall’s lineup. Boxing out, playing solid defense and making the head’s up play will get you far in his system. He even stops mid-interview to coach up one of his three daughters he brought on the trip. He has six girls total.
Enough for his own basketball team.
“And even a sub,” he adds with a grin.
His coaching techniques bare zero resemblance to the ones McFall played under during his final three seasons in Laramie.
Even his players can attest to that.
“He’s sat us down after school and we have watched an entire Wyoming game,” Rhoades chuckled. “We mainly watch the offense. Their defense – they gave up a whole lot of offense.”
Of course, he is referring to McClain’s run-and-gun mentality at UW. He wanted to outscore everyone. He wanted to use 7,220 feet of elevation to his advantage. McFall said that offense was fun to play in, but in hindsight, there is a reason the Pokes never made the Big Dance in his career.
“We just didn’t pay attention to details. We didn’t focus a lot in practice on the little things that win basketball games,” he said. “We were always a bubble team. The thing I realize as I have gotten older there’s a big difference between a 19-11 team and a 22-8 team.
“One is in the NCAA Tournament. The other is in the NIT.”
In March of 2002, the season after McFall graduated, the Cowboys made it to March Madness for the first time since 1988.
They didn’t just make it, either. They made a splash, knocking off the sixth-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, 73-66. That game took place in, you guessed it, Albuquerque.
McFall didn’t watch the game. He was playing professionally in Europe. He said he saw it crawl across the ticker on ESPN. He claims his emotions were of nothing but pure joy. Those players on the court were his former teammates.
Did it hurt that he never played in the NCAA Tournament? Of course.
But when he got back to the states and was able to watch a VHS tape of the game, he said it almost felt like he was a part of it.
“It was awesome,” McFall said. “Of course, all my friends in Kansas City said all the team needed to do was get rid of the senior and of course they make it.
“I was so happy for them. When they drew Gonzaga, I knew they could beat them.”
Two years later, McFall found himself in a unique position.
After one season in the Netherlands, he joined the traveling All-Star team, EA Sports Southwest. The squad went around the country playing exhibition games against some of the top Division-I programs.
In 2003, McFall and his new teammates found themselves inside the Arena-Auditorium.
“We were warming up and the horn sounded to go to the benches,” McFall smiled. “I took four of five steps toward the Wyoming bench. That was awesome. The crowd gave me a standing ovation.
“That was special.”
Even the most hardened Wyoming fan might be surprised to find out that McFall started just one game at UW. It was his last one, a senior day tilt with New Mexico. That never bothered him. He played enough minutes to still be in the school’s Top-10 in assists (10th-307) and No. 1 in 3-point field goal percentage in the 1999-2000 season, where he made 57 of 124 shots.
When McFall left UW, he was in the record books for steals, three-pointers made and three-pointers attempted, too. He was also selected by Mountain West coaches as the 2000 “6th Man of the Year.”
McFall laughed and said he knew he had made it when he drew the ire of Mark Tichenor or “Snake” a rabid New Mexico fan covered in tattoos, who sits at the end of the visitor’s bench. He screams, taunts and does his homework, according to McFall.
“He was on us the whole game,” McFall laughed. “He knew about your mom and everything.”
Former Lobos head coach Fran Fraschilla once told McFall he was the “most hated man in New Mexico.” He added that he could play for his team any day. So did Utah’s Majerus.
Those compliments mean everything to McFall.
But in 2003, when he was making the rounds with his EA Sports team, McFall found himself in an all-too-familiar place – The Pit.
And there was Snake.
McFall was booed mercilessly by the New Mexico faithful that night. It was well deserved. And in typical McFall fashion, he broadly smiled and waved to the crowd.
“Going through the starting lineup was the exact opposite of what it was like in Laramie,” he said. “But, in the end, even Snake shook my hand. Now that was awesome.”
(This article was originally published in the summer of 2019)