"They used to say, 'Too-Tall, can't even dunk the ball,'" he says softly.
Now he can jump and stuff the ball through the hoop while facing the basket or with his back to it.
"Now," he says with a chuckle, "now they say, 'Too-Tall, look at him dunk the ball!'"
Steve (Too-Tall) Kearney is 19 years old, wears a size 16 sneaker and stands 7 feet tall. He was given his nickname at Fairfax County's Marshall High School because "he was just too tall for basketball," according to a friend. Kearney, who used to hope he would get chosen into pick-up games, now has a basketball scholarship to American University.
The Steve Kearney basketball story stretches from Omaha to Falls Church to Palm Beach Junior College in Florida to Virginia Tech to American University. Along the way, he worked to overcome problems in coordination, confidence and skill.
"I grew so fast so suddenly, I was uncoordinated," Kearney explains. By the time he was in ninth grade, he was 6-3. When his family moved to Falls Church from Omaha before his junior year in 1974, Too-Tall was 6-6 and growing.
"When I moved into this area, I had never played on an organized basketball team before," Kearney recalls. "When I went out for the ninth grade team at my school in Omaha, the coach cut me and told me never to go out for a basketball team again."
The move East rekindled Kearney's desire to play. (WORD ILLEGIBLE[ he discovered, "When I stayed after school (at (WORD ILLEGIBLE] ) for a pick-up game, no one wanted me on their team, I was so bad. One day coach (Bob) Smith came down and told everybody, 'Too-Tall's in the next game.' So I got to play while he watched.
"I was still terrible, but when the regular season started, Coach Smith was always positive. He picked out anything good I did - if I would create a play, tip a ball - anything."
Kearney played unimpressively on the junior varsity as a junior and moved to the Marshall varsity as a senior. He played regularly but wasn't outstanding, except for the fact that he had grown two inches to 6-8.
"His whole problem," Smith says, "was that he had never played, so he had to think too much, rather than just react. That only improves with experience."
Several colleges, also figuring he would develop with experience, were willing to take a chance on the very tall, very dedicated Kearney when he graduated high school. Canisius, George Mason University, Frederick Community College and Palm Beach Junior College all made offers.
Kearney grew to 6-9 and headed south for what was "like a year of basketball camp" at Palm Beach.
"They told me a lot of things to get me down there," Kearney says. "They told me I'd play a lot, but when I got there they already had two older pivot men. I played a lot around Christmas and I really did well. But when I stopped playing as much and I only wound up averaging about five points per game."
Kearney says he doesn't regret his decision to go to Palm Beach because "I learned a lot of inside moves and moves facing the basket. My coordination picked [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
Kearney's growth on and off the basketball court did not go unnoticed and the long-awaited offer from a major college - Virginia Tech, was received and accepted.
Tech, which had a 19-8 record this year, play aggressive, high-caliber basketball and Kearney went on a weight-training program to meet their demands for strength. He improved his vertical jump, (take one step and jump straight up) to 31 inches and developed a jump shot from 15 feet to go along with his inside moves.
But two days before the regular season began, Tech coach Charles Moir called Kearney into his office. "He told me," Kearney said, "that I would see insignificant playing time' this year. He said I ought to think about red-shirting (not playing in order to save this year's college eligibility until he's older). He left the decision up to me."
Kearney reluctantly decided to red-shirt, but he continued to improve in practices with Tech. Enter American U. Actually re-enter American U.
"Steve was unknown as a senior in Northern Virginia," says American University coach Jim Lynam, who still sounds amazed at the turn of events that has brought Kearney to his gym.
"Last year, the coach at Palm Beach called and said he had a swing-man and a tall kid from this area we might be interested in. I told him we weren't in the market for a swing-man. He said okay, but told me to check back on Steve Kearney, the big kid.
"Since I had never heard of Steve while he was in high school, I called Red Jenkins (Woodson High School coach and a highly regarded judge of local basketball talent) about him. Red said Steve was going to work at his basketball camp in the summer and he'd get back to me."
Last summer rolled around and Jenkins called Lynam. "Red told me the kid had improved so much he couldn't believe it, so I went out to see him play," Lynam says.
Lynam saw Kearney play in a pick-up game with other local college players and was impressed. "We talked and Steve told me he had just signed with Tech, so I wished him luck," Lynam said.
Around Christmas last year, Lynam heard about Kearney's red-shirting, got permission from VPI to talk with him and signed him. Because he was a transfer student, Kearney could not play for American this year, but he "practiced with us every day," says Lynam, "and we were most pleased."
"He's going to be a good player," Lynam says. "I give a lot of credit to whoever helped him, especially his high school coach (Smith), and to him. He really wants to play. He would be in the gym practicing before they even mopped the floor for the rest of us."