Photo by Wade Payne, copyright © 2013 // Buy this photo
Hanging a right at the one stop light in the city of Rutledge, about 45 minutes northeast of Knoxville, Route 91 winds into the farmland of Grainger County. Five minutes up the road, a thick, white signpost lists off the mileage to a sequence of churches. A right at the sign snakes down to a T in the road, where bare trees let sunlight bounce off a chattering creek bed.
Turning left at the T, a hill climbs to a gathering spot. The sign reads: Jessies Market. There are four walls, one grill and a fresh pot of coffee. At Jessies, everyone is greeted by their first name and the homemade chili served in a Styrofoam bowl is criminally underpriced.
As a kid, Skylar McBee loved the breakfast at Jessies. The food was good. The get-together was better. Old-timers — the retired farmers and those dusty souls still on the grind — would sit and do what old-timers do: Tell stories, lie and laugh.
Leaving the restaurant one day, kicking up the gravel out front, 10-year-old Skylar looked up at his father and said, “Dad, I know what I want to do when I grow up.”
“Well what’s that, Skylar?” Doug McBee asked.
“I want to do what they do.”
Things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Maybe one day. But not today.
Skylar McBee will be greeted by a spotlight today.
After four years, 127 games played, 590 points and various mustaches, the Tennessee guard is waving goodbye to Thompson-Boling Arena. Senior Day brings Missouri (22-8, 11-6 SEC) to Knoxville and it’s no small affair. Tennessee (18-11, 10-7) is flirting with an NCAA tournament bid and the crowd is expected to spill over the brim of Thompson-Boling’s 21,678 seats.
The potential exists for a storybook ending to a career seemingly filled with tall tales.
McBee’s legacy starts with a wide-eyed walk-on arriving in Knoxville after spurning 12 or so Division I scholarships. Many thought he was crazy. Maybe he was. Whichever the case, he and his syrupy drawl traveled 35 miles down Rutledge Pike, promised a spot on the roster by former coach Bruce Pearl.
Four years later, McBee is finishing his third scholarship season. He’s played in one less game than guys named Chris Lofton and Allan Houston.
“It’s been a dream come true — his dream come true,” Doug McBee said, sitting in an athletic department office at Grainger County High School, where he works and coaches basketball and where McBee’s No. 4 hangs as the only retired jersey in the school gym. His 2,362 career points is second to the only other Division I basketball player to ever emerge from the town, former UT All-American A.W. Davis, “The Rutledge Rifle”.
McBee and his hometown are intertwined, but Rutledge is akin to any tiny Tennessee town. Greenback, LaFollette, Oliver Springs, Cosby. Pick one. McBee says he came to UT “naive and trusting,” because in Rutledge, “Everyone, for the most part, is going to do the right thing by you.”
Despite being one of the few Vols actually from East Tennessee, Doug McBee thinks his son has always enjoyed being seen as an ironic outsider. With that drawl in tow, he happily plays into the character, turning perception into reality. Last season’s mustache grew into this season’s goatee. Now McBee resembles an orange-clad Civil War reenactor.
When Jordan McRae, the Vols’ leading scorer who grew up just south of Savannah near the Georgia coastline, plopped down next to McBee on Thursday, he incidentally summed it all up. Looking over as McBee was asked, “Do you feel like you have to fight to be taken seriously?” McRae chimed in, “Pssh, with this look? Uh, yes.”
Eye-rolling back toward the question, McBee’s twang deemed McRae a “jokester.”
Never being anything else than who he is, McBee takes pride being a player that a lot of Tennesseans can “relate to and that looks, talks, thinks and acts like them.”
Which all relates back to why his career as a whole is a four-year Norman Rockwell painting.
Remember Jan. 10, 2010? No. 1 Kansas comes to Thompson-Boling Arena to face a UT team decimated by four high-profile suspensions. Thirty-six seconds remain. The Vols clinging to the unlikeliest three-point lead. An expiring shot clock approaching. Then, this happened
“Here he is a walk-on, who would even think he’d play in that game and that they’d actually throw him the ball in that situation,” Doug McBee remembered, now on the edge of his seat, arms flying, acting out the action. “Then, who would think he’d even get a shot off, let alone make it? A walk-on freshman? What are the odds of that? It was something out of a dream.”
The win over Kansas is obviously Doug McBee’s favorite in his son’s four years and he’s been to all of them — home and away. Sue McBee, mother hen, has missed just a handful of games, due only to working on mission trips in Haiti, a family hobby. In high school, Skylar got his hands dirty in Belize, Haiti, Dominican Republic and a South Dakota Indian reservation.
Those trips only contributed to a work ethic UT coach Cuonzo Martin raves about.
It’s the reason McBee plays 25.1 minutes per game despite only averaging 5.6 points.
It’s the reason he emerged from a town of 1,277 people to be a Division I player.
It’s the reason he proved a lot of people wrong.
“You know, people take this game so seriously,” he said. “And a lot of that is because it’s about money and guys trying to make it to the next level, trying to support their families. But at the end of the day, especially for me, it’s a game. That’s what it’s always going to be. I have fun with it.”
Fun that he hopes continues into the NCAA tournament. It would certainly fit the script.
Dad isn’t quite ready for today. He’s attended 134 straight Tennessee basketball games. He’s watched, coached and cheered Skylar, the youngest of his three children, for 22 years. Hedging the topic, Doug McBee said, “I just don’t know what this (Senior Day) is going to be like.”
Then, with a quick wince, he added, “But I do know I’m going to miss it.”
So will Skylar McBee, but he’s not going anywhere. He plans to stay local and “continue to play on some level, probably nothing serious or very competitive.” A career playing overseas won’t be pursued. He’ll take a job in the real world, maybe even shave.
Then, down the road, who knows?
“There comes a time when you can’t play anymore or it’s not in you to play anymore,” Skylar concluded. “I think I’ve reached that point. It’s time to start a new chapter in life. I’ve put it my time.”
Plenty of stories waiting to be told at Jessies.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.