HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Kelly McCarty wore his No. 11 Denver Nuggets jersey to places that kids can only dream of, from the Boston Garden to the Staples Center. The Quitman, Miss., native was a four-year standout at Southern Miss before embarking on a 15-year professional basketball career, but he admits that nothing was more intimidating than being inside Reed Green Coliseum on May 12, 2017.
"I had no clue what graduation from college would feel like," McCarty said. "I was more nervous than in any big game I played in when I heard my name called and walked across the stage. It was an experience I'll never forget. I'm glad my wife and kids were there to see me receive my degree."
Bachelor's degree in liberal arts. Minor in coaching administration. McCarty's last time in a Southern Miss classroom was in 1998, in which he led the NIT-bound Golden Eagles in scoring, shooting percentage, rebounds, blocks and steals. He still maintains the No. 17 spot on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,390 career points.
McCarty was no stranger to basketball success, starring at Quitman High School just northeast of Hattiesburg. He credits then-Southern Miss assistant and current Hinds Community College head coach Ralph Moore as the "deciding factor," in the recruitment to M.K. Turk's program, coming to as many games as possible and meeting the family at his house several times to show his desire for McCarty to become a Golden Eagle.
"That was big because I was playing with [future No. 2 overall draft pick] Antonio McDyess, and it was easy to look off the other players on the team and focus on him," McCarty said. "My family didn't grow up wealthy, but we weren't at the bottom of the barrel. My options were Notre Dame, Villanova, Colorado State, and with me going that far away, I wouldn't get to play in front of my mom, dad, brother and sister. Coach Moore was a big part of me signing and being closer to home."
Moore said he was not surprised to see McCarty play in the NBA, and still likens McCarty to being a sponge that "could absorb whatever you wanted."
"His mom was a great influence in his life," Moore said. "Kids always pursue their careers, but you just knew that Kelly would come back one day [to finish school]. It doesn't surprise me at all."
The fall of 2013 was the dawn of a new era. McCarty chipped away at his final 36 required hours, taken online while he balanced his family life and business at the UWIN Training Facility in Huntsville, Ala. Moreover, his previous major, Film, TV and Radio Production, had since been discontinued at the university.
"It was not a lot, but it was since I would have to stay a whole year to finish those hours," he said. "To be outside the game, and not playing for a year on a high competitive level, it makes you irrelevant trying to get back in. I could just do two or three hours here and there and that made the process a little longer. In my mind, I always knew I wanted to finish my degree. I would have loved to do it earlier, but when I left college in 1998, online school wasn't available."
Everything happens for a reason, or so they say, and while that was a slight inconvenience, it was still all the right timing for McCarty's life journey.
"Honestly, making it to the NBA was a dream, but it was a dream that showed the bubble was very small," he said. "For me to actually make it, all the pieces had to line up right and thank God they did. My great friend, Antonio McDyess, from home was a lottery pick and was with the Nuggets, Phoenix, and then back to the Nuggets and got me a workout with them."
Shortly thereafter, Kelly was in the Mile High City with the likes of head coach Mike D'Antoni, a young Chauncey Billups, Nick Van Exel and many other NBA luxuries that made for an "absolutely priceless" experience.
"It really helped propel my career from thereon," McCarty said. "Having the NBA to your name, no matter who looks at your stats to have those three letters on your name and resume, there's some pedigree. It helped me get my foot in the door overseas and take off as a player."
The stars did not quite align in the NBA for McCarty in the long term, but in a moment's notice, he was ready to embark on a Magellan-esque journey for the next 15 years.
First stop: Israel.
"It was a place where on the television and in the news, everybody that kept up with world issues was saying to not go there," McCarty said. "For me, to get a call that I had a job opportunity in Israel and I had to go there, it was kind of nerve-wracking for my parents, fiancee, and for myself I just wanted to play basketball. Once I got there, I realized TV can paint such a picture and make you think things that aren't always there."
The biggest concern was out the window, and the only thing left for McCarty to do was to play the sport he loved.
"Basketball was something I was oblivious to," he said. "I had no idea this type of ball was played outside the states. It took a while to settle in, but I had great teammates on my first team in Ra'anana, Israel, and it was a beautiful city with beautiful people who embraced me as a foreigner. My teammates and coach made my time there really special, and it created a desire in my heart to play there more."
McCarty ended his tenure on a true high note with the EuroCup Finals MVP honor in 2004 with Hapoel Jerusalem. Speaking of the globalization of the game, an acquaintance he made in Israel was the driving force for his next destination, a place in which he'd spend the next decade.
Next stop: Russia. And as Kelly remembers his Christmas traditions, it was out with the shorts and in with the fur coats.
"My opportunity in Russia came via David Blatt, who coached Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Russian national team and in the Olympics. I played against his team in Israel several years, and when he got a job in Saint Petersburg, that's what took me there. It was an awesome opportunity, and I'm truly grateful."
McCarty wasn't in these countries for work conferences, vacations or honeymoons, but rather his profession and livelihood. It would take a lot more than the bare minimum to not only survive, but to thrive in the manner he did, so he took it upon himself to make the most of it all.
"The language barrier was one of the things I had to overcome," he said. "Being in Israel initially, most Israelis speak English, but Hebrew is the native language. They are more comfortable with it, but I was in a good situation because I played on higher level teams where most of my coaches spoke English. A lot of the players, however, didn't speak English. It did require myself learning some Hebrew. I gotta say, it's hard to learn, but as hard as it is to speak it, reading is almost impossible. I did get locker room language and could speak it on 5- or 6-year-old level, so I could maneuver around the city and ask questions and understand words when spoken to."
As for going up north?
"Russia was a little different," McCarty said. "They don't speak English as much, but with that said I'm the kind of person who wants to know what's being said or talked about with teammates, so I took it upon myself to learn the Russian language, and I found out that it was one of the hardest languages to learn coming from English to Russian. It took me about four or five years to graze the surface of learning the dialect and alphabet, and once I learned the alphabet, Rosetta Stone was a good friend and now I can speak it pretty fluently. It's not perfect, but if I know the topic of conversation I can pretty much hold it with anyone."
Current assistant coach Chris Croft has known Kelly since they were both undergrads, both as a senior student manager and as a grad assistant.
"Kelly was always one of my favorite players," Croft said. "A great guy, great person and an infectuous personality. He always wanted to get extra shots up at night and I would rebound and pass for him in Reed Green [Coliseum]. He had a very hard work ethic and was grounded and we are so happy he became a Golden Eagle."
Southern Miss currently has as true a family affair as one could imagine on the bench, with assistant coaches Chris Croft and Clarence Weatherspoon as well as director of basketball operations Kyle Roane all boasting degrees from the school. Croft says it was a goal of the program to get themselves and head coach Doc Sadler in contact with all former players "to let them know that they are always welcome and a part of this thing as long as we are here."
Roane, who made his return to Hattiesburg as an assistant under new head coach James Green in 1996, remembers how seamless McCarty's transition was despite dealing with a coaching staff change with credit to his "tremendous amount of character." But above it all, 2017 spring commencement was a mark of everything coming to fruition.
"You fast-forward almost 20 years later and to see him graduate, it's not just Kelly, but the whole McCarty family - his wife, son, mother, everyone - enjoying the benefits of him choosing Southern Miss and fulfilling his obligations to graduate," Roane said. "He played on NBA rosters and overseas and is back to finalizing this opportunity."
Kelly McCarty is a Southern Miss graduate, and yes, that sentence can be translated in both Hebrew and Russian.