McNamara, NBA star and coach, leaves legacy
May 7, 2020
Local coach, filmmaker, and former NBA player Mark McNamara, 60, died of heart failure on April 27 in northern Nevada as he prepared to return to Haines for the summer. He'd lived here part-time for 17 years.
In a 2019 interview in Forbes magazine, McNamara said that after a genetic condition left him short of breath and an enlarged aortic root led him to understand he might not live long, he fulfilled a lifelong dream to live in Alaska. He chose Haines for the solitude the mountains and ocean provided. In a 2016 Chilkat Valley News feature, McNamara said what happened next was a surprise. "I moved to Haines because it was wild. The town turned out to be a huge bonus."
In his 2012 Haines High School commencement address, McNamara told graduates that after camping at Chilkat State Park for weeks with a friend while hunting for property, his buddy told him he needed a shower. (He would eventually purchase 50 acres at remote Glacier Point and put up a yurt.) He drove to town, saw a kid with a basketball walking into an open gym and figured a shower couldn't be far away.
Will Egolf was on the school court when McNamara ducked his nearly seven-foot frame inside the door, and asked if he could join the pick-up game in progress. Egolf was a standout at Juneau-Douglas High School with plans to play college ball. "He schooled me. He blocked my shot, and frankly, I needed it," Egolf said. After the game, McNamara volunteered to coach him. "He guided my parents through the recruiting process and set me up for Division 1 level play," said Egolf, who played varsity hoops at Bradley University.
In his speech, McNamara relayed how, after rumors of his appearance at the gym surfaced, "Everywhere I went this lady stalked me." Ann Fossman, wife of Haines' boys coach Steve Fossman, hoped he'd help the team. McNamara had turned down pro and college teams, but Ann and Steve convinced him to become a part-time assistant coach for the Glacier Bears, who went on to win two state championships. McNamara also mentored Fossman's son, Kyle, in his own playing and coaching career at University of Alaska-Anchorage.
"We talked basketball for hours and hours," Steve Fossman said. The Haines High grad and commercial fisherman welcomed having the former pro as his assistant. "He would not step on toes. We had a good relationship. Mark definitely had things to say off the court, and I had no problem with that. For me it was special, hearing what he had to say. He had so much expertise and knowledge." McNamara was interested in helping the students become a team, and taught them that every player had an important role.
McNamara also volunteered with the school volleyball and debate, drama, and forensic teams.
"Mark had this incredible resume and skill set and yet he was so approachable," Egolf said. His interests included karate, skiing, filmmaking, acting. He was a stand-in for Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca in the movie Return of the Jedi and spoke fluent Italian and Spanish. Mostly, he was kind and helpful, Egolf said.
According to Lauren McNamara, her brother was "an environmentalist first and foremost."
She wrote that he was especially proud of the documentary "Toxic Treasure," that he and business partner Mario Benassi produced about the threat to the Chilkat River Valley from a proposed mine.
"There isn't a film we made in Haines in the last 12 years for Takshanuk, Chilkat Indian Village, Chilkoot Indian Association, Lynn Canal Conservation, that Mark didn't have a hand in," Benassi said.
After the 2018 drowning of Benassi's 23-year-old son Mario Jr., McNamara was moved to create a tribute from found video clips. "Soul Tribe, the Ascension of a Sound Healer," earned him the 2020 Toronto Alternative Film Festival Best Director award.
"Mark felt he had been given a lot of opportunities in life, and he wanted to give something back, and he picked Haines," Benassi said. Kyle Fossman agreed. "Mark always said, you have to give back, and so I'm doing that now."
Mark McNamara was born in San Jose, Calif. on June 8, 1959 to Cliff and Barbara McNamara. He enjoyed the beach and the family cabin on the Russian River, where he discovered a lifelong love of wilderness. He graduated from Del Mar High School, played basketball at Santa Clara University for two years and transferred to UC- Berkeley. He set numerous college records, and his career shooting rate of 66.2 percent still stands.
McNamara graduated in 1982 with a degree in Political Economics of Natural Resources, the same year he was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, 22nd overall in the first round of the NBA draft. He helped guide the Sixers to an NBA championship. Years later, he let friends in Haines try on his ring. His decade-long pro career also included stints with the San Antonio Spurs, Kansas City Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic.
McNamara was chosen one of 30 players on the Golden Bears All-Century Team in celebration of 100 seasons of Cal basketball. He was inducted into the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016 and invited Steve and Ann Fossman as his guests.
Before coaching in Haines, McNamara coached the Toronto Raptors and in semi-professional leagues in the U.S. and Europe, as well as coaching college and NBA players privately.
When health issues ended his big-league career, he went back to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, serving on the ski patrol at Dodge Ridge ski area. During his years in Haines, he returned seasonally to the Sierras and to Bakersfield, where he had close friends.
Jeremy Taylor met McNamara skiing and traveled to Haines with him. Like McNamara, he stayed. Taylor said that when local youths expressed a desire to be NBA stars, McNamara would say, "You don't want to do that. You may have more money, and fame, but it's a different life. Living in Haines is so much nicer."
In McNamara's graduation speech, he told a story about how being cut from an NBA team lead to playing in Italy and one of the best years of his life. After contracting typhoid fever in Spain he was sent home. Picked up by the Lakers' bench, he had an unlikely, late-career highlight when as a last-minute sub, he stole the ball from Michael Jordan and tossed the game-winning assist in a buzzer-beating tie-breaker.
A life-shortening heart condition sent him to Haines where he found a home. "Thank you for the gift you have given me," he said to the class and the community gathered in the gym. "And I wish you good luck and bad luck."
His parents preceded McNamara in death. A celebration of life will be held when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Memorial donations may be made to Takshanuk Watershed Council at HC Box 2008, Haines, AK 99827 (takshanuk.org) and Lynn Canal Conservation, P.O. Box 964, Haines (lynncanalconservation.org).