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His game still cooks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bob McCann, basketball journeyman, is cookin'. Really cookin'. In fact, in his 14-year pro career, McCann never had this hot a hand.

The grill sizzles and spits as he flips burgers, wieners and all the fixings for a Philly cheese steak.

To his right, a toaster pings. McCann pivots, as if on the court, grabs the bread with a huge right hand and deftly builds a ham on rye.

These days, the former Washington Bullet is a cook at Vantage House, a high-rise retirement community in Columbia. For the past eight months, McCann has dished up lunch for many of the 300 residents and staff, turning what had been a sideline pursuit into a post-game career.

He has given basketball vernacular a culinary spin. When McCann moves to the basket, it is to deep-fry a batch of shrimp. When the former center feeds his wings, folks lick their chicken-lovin' fingers. And if McCann starts making turnovers, well, just grab a dessert plate and get in line.

His fans are the 80-somethings who queue up daily at the Vantage House CafM-i, where he serves sandwiches, soups and specials made to order for the most finicky of appetites.

"I call him 'The Very Large One,'" resident Ruth White said of McCann, who is 6 feet 7 and 300 pounds. "His hands absolutely fascinate me. I asked, 'What are you doing behind that counter? You should be playing basketball.'

"He smiled at me and said, 'I did.'"

Few pros can match McCann's checkered career. In 14 years, he suited up for 18 clubs. In six countries. On three continents.

Though a college star - he was the Milwaukee Bucks' No. 2 pick in the 1987 NBA draft - McCann struggled to hold a steady job, logging more game time overseas than at home.

The consummate understudy, McCann traveled the world, playing in Europe while praying for calls from NBA teams short of bench strength. There were whistle stops in Dallas, Milwaukee, Detroit and Toronto. Minnesota, the only club for which he started, kept him for an entire season.

So did Washington, in 1995-96. McCann played 62 games for the fourth-place Bullets, averaging 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds a game as a backup center and power forward. His career statistics were similar: 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds.

"Bob was a left-handed, wide-bodied overachiever who did more than what we ever anticipated," said John Nash, then Washington's general manager. "He was limited offensively, but a pretty good rebounder. Plus, he never complained. The other guys liked him; several of them campaigned, on Bob's behalf, to keep him the next season."

Instead, McCann wound up playing in France. He had already starred in Italy and Spain, and would end his career below the equator, on a basketball court in Argentina, in 2001.

At 37, he decided to be a globetrotter no more.

"Mentally, I just couldn't do it," McCann said. "The struggles I went through in the NBA, to achieve what I achieved, wore me out. When you don't have a [long-term contract], every practice is a game day to try and make the team.

"A guy like [Sacramento's] Chris Webber can come to practice and say, 'I'm going to loaf today.' I could never do that."

Crossover dribble

Retirement begged the question: What next? How would he support a family of four?

A communications major, McCann never finished college. So he turned to his longtime hobby: cooking.

At 10, he could rustle up a pot roast. By 12, he was baking cakes from scratch. Growing up, he knew as much about Julia Child as Julius Erving. After high school games, in Morristown, N.J., his teammates slept over. Then McCann fixed breakfast for the lot.

When her overgrown son wasn't shooting jumpers, he was underfoot in the kitchen, said his mother, Joann McCann.

"Every night, he'd come home from practice and make a cake," she said. "Bobby used so much flour, sugar and butter that I had to hide my cake pans."

Undaunted, he baked a pound cake. In a pot.

McCann earned All-New Jersey honors, then moved on to Morehead (Ky.) State, where his workmanlike, meat-and-potatoes game led the team in scoring and rebounding for three seasons.

"Bob was the best talent I had in 14 years of coaching," said Wayne Martin, who ran Morehead's program. "He was a load inside, all muscle, and a marvelous passer."

As a senior, McCann was named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, following the likes of Clem Haskins and Jim McDaniels.

"Bob had a tremendous physical presence," Martin said. "He played basketball with a lot of creativity; I imagine he cooks that way, too."

McCann was Morehead's meal ticket in more ways than one. Weekends found him bustling in the kitchen at his fraternity house, frying mounds of chicken, potatoes and pork chops for the gang at Alpha Phi Alpha.

He volunteered for the job. "Cooking relaxes me," he said.

It helped soften the setbacks that began in the pros. The 35th player chosen in the '87 draft (the No. 1 pick was Navy's David Robinson, who retired last year), McCann never lit up the league. But he set many a match to big-time barbecue grills. So many NBA stars sought his fare for their parties that McCann began a catering business on the side.

In hindsight, he says, all the time spent traveling in the name of basketball helped broaden his palate. "Everywhere I played, I picked up [cooking] tips," he said. "I learned a lot about seafood in Spain, and olive oil in Italy."

A recipe for mussels Italian-style, with tomato and basil, passed muster with McCann's wife and three children. (The oldest, 15-year-old Cartier, plays junior varsity basketball at Owings Mills High). At home, dad prepares the meals.

Praising man and food

Residents of Vantage House praise his short-order menu, notably the taco salads and prime rib wraps.

"I don't know a lot about cooking, but I know what I like," said Anne Bledsoe, a fan of the Reuben sandwiches.

Twice, since his arrival last year, residents have nominated McCann for Employee of the Month - as much for style as substance.

"He's as courteous as can be," said Barbara Hands. "A lot of the time, these [residents] are hurting; they're not always so sweet."

Or maybe they just sound crusty. One day recently, in walked Miriam Kramer. "What have you got that I can eat?" she asked. McCann coaxed her into a tuna on rye, with a bowl of chicken soup. As he ladled it up, they talked sports. McCann had played pro ball in Detroit with Isiah Thomas, who'd starred at Indiana University; Kramer's daughter attended college there.

Turning to leave, Kramer said of McCann, "He's the nicest man - but don't tell him I said so."

Turnover was high among cooks at the Vantage House CafM-i until McCann's hiring, said Jeff Whary, director of dining services. "People think he's the best thing we've put over there. It takes a special person to work with the elderly. Who'd have thought he'd be happy?"

Few of the patrons know his storied past, and McCann doesn't flaunt it. The NBA T-shirts he wears remain hidden beneath his gleaming white cook's garb.

"We didn't hear about the basketball until later," said Michael Laco, executive chef at Vantage House. "All I saw was his dependability. It's hard to find people with work ethics these days."

McCann's plan, as he nears 40, is to attend culinary school, earn a degree and open a restaurant unlike those of most athletes. Enter Bob McCann's place, he said, "and you'll know Bob McCann is really cooking the food."

Her son has finally found his true calling, Joann McCann believes.

"Trust me, he is his mother's son," she said. "His sandwiches look so pretty, you don't even want to eat them.

"Basketball was inside him, but cooking is what he needed to do."

A tidbit from the kitchen

Bob McCann's recipe recipe for barbecued spareribs

Take two ot three slabs (5 to 8 pounds) of lean pork ribs, wash and pat dry. Sprinkle generously with a dry rub of garlic salt, coarse black pepper and lemon pepper. Wrap in heavy foil and refrigerate overnight.

Place ribs on hot charcoal grill, being sure to keep flames from touching meat. Cover. At first, remove lid frequently to spritz coals with water, as dampening enhances smoky flavor, and to turn meat. Later, remove lid occasionally to turn meat as it browns. Cook for about two hours, until ribs are dark brown. Serve with Jack Daniels's barbecue sauce.

Bob McCann file

Born: April 22, 1964

Height: 6 feet 7

Weight: 245 pounds

College: Morehead State

Pro chronology

1987: Drafted by NBA's Milwaukee Bucks

1987-88: Played in Spain

1988-89: Played in France, Charleston, W.Va. (Continental Basketball Association) and Pensacola, Fla. (CBA)

1989-90: Played in Pensacola and Dallas (NBA)

1990-91: Played in Spain and Pensacola

1991-92: Played in Detroit (NBA)

1992-93: Played in Minnesota (NBA)

1993-94: Played in Italy

1994-95: Played in Rapid City, S.D. (CBA)

1995-96: Played in Milwaukee and Washington (NBA)

1996-97: Played in France

1997-98: Played in Sioux City, S.D. (CBA), Toronto (NBA) and Spain

1998-99: Played in Spain

1999-2000: Played in Spain

2000-01: Played in Argentina

2001: Retired

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