Cover Story

Ray and Coach Ray McCallum
Ray Michael McCallum with his father Coach Ray McCallum.


UDM Titans score big with Coach Ray McCallum and son Ray Michael

Propelled by a pair of sunshine yellow-soled basketball shoes and the kind of spring-loaded hops that would make Terry Tyler proud, 18-year-old Detroit Country Day senior Ray Michael McCallum launched his slender 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame off the baseline of the Ohio State University basketball court on the evening of March 29 and smoothly elevated under the rim with a basketball securely cradled in his right hand. McCallum’s flight plan quickly guided him to the front of the orange cylinder, where he effortlessly twisted 180 degrees and threw down a rim-rattling, two-handed slam that caused thousands of jaws to drop in unison inside the jam-packed Schottenstein Center arena. Fittingly, the 2010 High School All-American Dunk Contest that was sponsored by McDonald’s had just been blessed by a crowd-pleasing Big McCallum Attack.

Excitement is building in Titan Territory

Was it any wonder that perennial-power basketball programs like UCLA, Arizona and Florida were in hot pursuit of the multi-talented point guard, who just a couple days earlier had singed the nets with 32 points in Detroit Country Day’s 71-47 thrashing of Lansing Sexton in the Michigan Class B title game?

As it turned out, the only college basketball coach McCallum was trying to impress that night in the ESPN-televised, above-the-rim highlight fest was the one who shared his DNA: University of Detroit Mercy Head Coach Ray McCallum—the dunker’s dad.

Most of the national recruiting web sites that predicted young Ray was headed to one of the legacy-laced, high-profile colleges out west or down south underestimated a vital intangible: the power of the McCallums’ strong-as-steel father-son bond.

“The recruiting process got a little awkward at times,” said Coach McCallum, smiling. “You had these coaches from prominent, top-10 programs calling me as a college basketball coach and telling me they wanted my son to play for them.

“I remember sitting in on the presentation from UCLA Coach (Ben) Howland. Now, when I grew up, who didn’t want to play for UCLA? At one time, they won 10 out of 12 national titles under Coach Wooden, one of the best coaches who ever lived. When Coach Howland left our house, I remember my wife Wendy saying, ‘Do you believe our son has a chance to go to UCLA to get an education and play basketball?’

“Ray worked hard to create those opportunities to play for the major programs that were recruiting him, and it was up to us as parents to help him evaluate every opportunity and support him with whatever decision he made.”

The decision came almost out of the blue on an April afternoon in the living room of the McCallums’ home.
“I had just returned from playing in an All-Star game and I was playing a video game,” Ray Michael remembered. “My dad and I were talking and I told him that I was going to come play for him. It was both a happy moment and a relief. Two days later, I made my official announcement (which was televised nationally on ESPNU).

“The thing I was looking for the most during the recruiting process was a place I could come in and contribute the best way possible. I wanted good players around me, guys I could fit in with, a good coach, and people I could trust. At the end of the day, I realized the University of Detroit Mercy offered all that and a chance for a great education—and it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play Division 1 basketball for my father. He knows my game better than anyone, and he made me the player I am today. I am only going to get better playing for him.”

The most impressive thing about young Ray’s game is this: If you listed his strengths, dunking may be No. 5. A gifted all-around player, he averaged 21.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.5 steals his senior season at Country Day. He also sparkled in the classroom, hitting the books to the tune of a 3.2 grade-point average.
In addition to the 32 points he scored in the Class B championship game, McCallum yanked down nine rebounds. Not bad for a 6-1 point guard.

“I’m aware of all the great players who have played here—John Long, Terry Tyler, all those guys,” said the young McCallum. “People have told me I have a chance to be as good as some of them. That’s why I’m here at Calihan every day, working hard, because I want to bring a championship to the University of Detroit Mercy. That’s my goal.”

The I-want-to-play-for-you-dad news was much more than an early Father’s Day gift for the senior McCallum.

“The best part about it for me was that I was going to get to continue to work with Ray and see him every day—that’s special,” said Coach McCallum. “I think Ray can make a difference quickly at this level. He has a great work ethic and he was a great leader at the lower levels.

“The toughest part is that I can be very demanding and critical, especially because I have such high expectations for Ray. That’s something he’s going to have to handle and there’s going to have to be a balance from my standpoint.”

The younger McCallum’s commitment to the Titans’ program was comparable to a blimp-sized syringe hovering over Calihan Hall and injecting a huge dose of adrenalin and excitement into a basketball program that was already on the upswing following a 20-win season in 2009-10.

“The landscape of Titan athletics has changed, and there is an unbelievable amount of energy and enthusiasm right now for men’s basketball,” said Daron Montgomery, UDM’s senior associate athletic director. “We’re confident that Coach McCallum is going to take the Titans to the next level—and his son’s decision to attend UDM puts our program on the fast track for success. 

“In the weeks since Ray Michael signed, there has been a sense of urgency among so many external constituents,” Montgomery continued. “We are increasing existing corporate partnerships and meeting with new partners each week who want to get involved with the Titan program before things take off.”

Early indicators are pointing toward an electric atmosphere in Calihan Hall once the season tips off in November.

“Our ticket office and sales staff were overwhelmed by inquiries in the days following Ray Michael’s signing. We sold more than 50 new season tickets in the month of May,” Montgomery said. “I can’t remember ever selling so many season tickets so far in advance of the basketball season. There is clearly a rejuvenated interest and buzz surrounding the program.”

UDM Athletic Director Keri Gaither had lofty expectations when she opened the search for a successor to former Titans Head Basketball Coach Perry Watson in 2008. With his emphasis on building the Titans’ program with young men who possess high character as well as elite skills, Coach McCallum has exceeded those expectations.

“The most important thing I was looking for in a coach was someone who would continue the rich tradition of Titan coaches who built the program on integrity, pride and an unwavering commitment to do the right things,” said Gaither. “The more time I spent with Coach McCallum, the more I was convinced he was the right man for the job.

“It takes a special kind of relationship for a son to play Division 1 college basketball for his father, but the McCallums have the kind of relationship that can make it work. The entire McCallum family—Ray, Ray Michael, Ray’s wife Wendy and their daughter Brittany—is such a close group, and everyone in their family, including Ray’s parents and Wendy’s parents, their nieces and nephews, have been a tremendous addition to the Titan family.”   

Signs of young Ray’s passion for hoops sprouted early, his dad reflected.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘ball, ball, ball,’” Coach McCallum said, chuckling. “From the time he was two years old, he took a basketball with him everywhere he went. I think he even slept with one.”

By the time he was 4, young Ray was such an accomplished ball-handler that he was a featured performer in the “Little Dribblers” performances during his dad’s teams’ halftime shows.

“He could have dribbled between his legs when he was four,” Coach McCallum said, “but his legs were too short.”

Once young Ray turned 5 and could reach a 10-foot-high rim with his fast-developing jump shot, the two Rays spent an increased amount of one-on-one time together on the court, honing the youngster’s skills, many of which he had acquired from his dad, a former Mid-American Conference scoring champion at Ball State University.

“I was just trying to develop his game, understanding he had a long way to go,” said Coach McCallum. “It was fun watching his progress, seeing him make strides. He was such a hard worker.

“I can still remember when he started making left-handed lay-ups. Then he was able to dunk in eighth grade. Then he made the varsity basketball team as a freshman in high school, won the state championship (at Country Day) as a senior and played in the McDonald’s All-American game.”

And now he’s a Titan, which pleases future teammate Eli Holman, a 6-foot-10 junior-to-be center who emerged as a Horizon League force in the paint last season. Holman, who registered 11 double-doubles as a sophomore, talked about the upcoming season like he would an imminent trip to an amusement park—with boundless enthusiasm.

“I’m very excited about the upcoming season,” gushed Holman, who averaged 11.8 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, his first as a Titan. “This is a hard-working group of guys with a lot of potential. We have guys here every morning at 6:30 a.m. shooting in the gym for three hours. We know that if we’re sleeping in, we’re falling behind the other teams that are up early, working.”

Holman first met the McCallums in 2007 when he was a highly-recruited freshman at Indiana University, the place where Coach McCallum served as an assistant. Holman quickly forged a strong bond with the two Rays and followed them north when Coach McCallum was hired at UDM prior to the 2008-09 campaign.

“Coach McCallum is an all-around great guy, both as a coach and away from the court,” said Holman. “He’s like a father figure to me, which is why I followed him to the University of Detroit Mercy. He treats everybody individually and shows no favoritism. I can’t say enough about how much respect I have for that man.”

Holman  admires young Ray like he would a high-achieving younger brother—a brother who will no doubt be distributing some needle-threading dimes his way the next two years.

“I was recruited heavily out of high school like Ray was, so I was able to give him some advice about what he’d be going through,” said Holman. “I never put any pressure on him to come here, nor did his dad or anybody else here. The only thing I told him was, ‘Make sure you follow your heart,’ and that’s what he did.

“Ray brings a great attitude, work ethic and a lot of energy to our team. He’s never had as much talent to work with as he’ll have this season. And I’ve never looked forward to playing with a point guard as much as I’m looking forward to playing with Ray. It should be fun.”

Young Ray’s back-court running partner will be sharp-shooting guard Chase Simon, who along with Holman earned Horizon League “All-Newcomer” status last season when he led the Titans in scoring (14.0 points per game). Add to the mix an ultra-talented recruiting class that recognized as one of the best of the “non-power conferences” and it’s easy to understand why Holman is so ecstatic.

How close are the Titans to returning to the national prominence the program enjoyed during the Dick Vitale/Terry Tyler/John Long era? Pretty close if you consider eight of their 14 losses last year were by five points or fewer, and two of those down-to-the-wire setbacks were to Butler, the team that came within a Gordon Hayward near-miss buzzer-beater of upsetting Duke in the National Championship game.

”We aspire to be where Butler is now—at the top of the Horizon League and on the national scene,” said Coach McCallum. “The encouraging thing for us is that we competed with Butler last year. We played them twice and were in a position to win both games (the Titans lost to the Bulldogs, 64-62, in overtime on Jan. 10; and 63-58 at Butler on Feb. 4). From those games, we learned how good we can be, how close we are. To do something like that in just our second year here, I think that is encouraging and positive for our program’s future.”

Young Ray’s second effort in the McDonald’s Dunk Contest was even better than his debut slam. Standing on the right wing behind the three-point arc, he tossed the ball high so that it bounced about five feet in front of the basket. He then swooped in—his yellow soles glowing as they elevated high off the hardwood—grabbed the floating sphere with both hands and jammed it hard through the cylinder as the crowd roared.

For now, electrifying Ray Michael McCallum-generated moments like that are reserved for YouTube.

Come November, they’ll be available for your live, high-definition viewing pleasure at Calihan Hall.

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