McKnatts, Grace Christian, Making the Most of a Start from Scratch

Starting a basketball program from scratch is tough. That’s especially true for Franklin’s Grace Christian Academy, all of 180 high school students, and just three years into TSSAA play.

Consequently, Grace Christian has had its struggles this year. But that’s not to say that this season hasn’t had its moments.

One of those came on Jan. 9, when Mason McKnatt scored 32 points in an 85-55 win over RePublic.

Any win is memorable for a 5-11 team. But this one particularly stood out for McKnatt, a sophomore who went over 1,000 points in his career that evening, something he anticipated before the game.

“It was kind of a relief because I didn’t have to think about it and I could start playing my game again, get focused on the game entirely and put the points away,” McKnatt said.

It was especially sweet for McKnatt, who’s been there from the program’s foundation. And he’s not the only one in the family who can say that.

Grace Christian's Mason (left) and Len McKnatt.
Grace Christian’s Mason (left) and Len McKnatt.

In the beginning

Mason’s father is Len McKnatt, who coached him in the school’s first varsity games in 2015-16.

Yes, that means Mason suited up as an eighth-grader. He’d played three years of middle school ball at Battle Ground Academy, and TSSAA rules prohibit a fourth. Varsity was his only potential route.

Still, suiting up one’s eighth-grade son for varsity work is a potential way to kill credibility—especially when he’s 5-foot-6 and weighs 100 pounds.

“You do worry a little about you don’t want someone to be totally overwhelmed,” Len said.

It helped that GCA had a good foundation. The Lions had Jake Johnson, a 1,000-point scorer who went on to play at Covenant College, along with Illinois State signee Demontay Dixon, now a 6-foot-9 star at Summit.

“I could miss every shot and we’d still have a chance to win because we had three or four other scorers,” Mason said.

Mason removed the doubt of whether he belonged rather quickly in the first game he played, coming against Pickett County. As Len recalled, Mason scored “about 10 or 11” that night.

“(Pickett County) had a good team and it was back and forth and we threw him in there in the game,” the coach said. “He came out and probably missed a shot or two but he hit some huge shot for us and it was good to see him playing and competing, and I think that released a little pressure of not knowing what to expect, and ‘Hey, I can play, I’m not out of my league.’”

Mason scored over 200 points that year. He also he a game-winning 3-pointer to knock off Richland in a district tournament game, as well as a buzzer-beating 3 to end the first half.

No special treatment

Regarding Mason’s milestone game, the only celebrations between father and son came privately later that night.

“We were in a dogfight. I don’t really remember the score,” Len says, when asked about the moment. “We were down two or three, or up two or three, when he got his eighth point, which put him at 1,000 early in the second quarter.”

“It was really all about the game. We didn’t stop the game or anything like that.”

Being the coach’s son affords no special treatment.

“It’s fun sometimes and not fun sometimes,” Mason says. “We get into it from time to time in the middle of games.”

“He doesn’t get any passes,” Len says. “He hears all my frustrations. A lot of it is taken out on him, unfortunately.”

That led to a funny exchange between the two at a time earlier in the season. It came during a two-week span on the bench, where Mason was due to a wrist injury.

“When I was hurt earlier this year, and (Len) got on to us bench players for us not handing out water bottles,” Mason remembered, “I said something smart-alecky like, ‘Since no one else will hand out the water bottles, then fine, I’ll do it,’

“And what did you say?” Mason asked his father.

“Oh, you want a Purple Heart because you’re going to hand out water bottles to your teammates?” Len responded.

Basketball’s in the blood

Two weeks on the bench helped Mason better understand and appreciate his dad’s role as coach. That said, Mason had a front-row seat to his father’s job long before playing for him.

Before Len came to GCA, he spent 19 years at Battle Ground Academy, winning the boys’ Division II basketball title in 2014. Two months later, they both left for Grace Christian. Before that, Len played at Memphis’s Christian Brothers University before spending a year on staff there as a graduate assistant.

“A lot of people say I’m a different person on the basketball court. I’m very passionate about what I do. To (Mason’s) advantage, he’s seen me coach since I was a little baby. He knows I was tough on those BGA teams that were very good. We have a young man (Nathan Moran) that was on our state championship team (who’s) the point guard at Lipscomb. Mason knows I was very tough on him and boisterous. Mason’s seen me with him and knows I was tough on other kids as well.”

Len picked up on Mason’s love of hoops early.

“He picked up a basketball before he could stand up. … He was one of those kids at two or three, you could sit him in front of the TV and he was going to watch. The other ones are running around, he’s always enthralled, and he was the same way with baseball at an early age,” the coach said.

The struggle for balance

Both established that Mason gets no special treatment as the coach’s son. But is it equal treatment compared to his teammates?

Len admits he struggles with the idea he may be too tough on his son, a counter-measure he admits to taking over perception that people think he takes it too easy on Mason.

“I probably (am tougher on him) subconsciously,” Len said. “I was kind of raised that way as well though. My father was always pretty tough on me and demanding. I think part of that is just my upbringing and the person I am as well, and you figure hey, if they figure you’re getting on your son worse than everybody else… And I’m sure you’ve seen the other way, where you think, ‘Hey, he or she’s playing because dad’s the coach. And I think about that an awful lot.”

“That’s where I’ve failed as a father,” he adds later. “I’ve never asked him that type of stuff. He could fill you in. For all I know, they could have had him hanging up in the locker room by his underwear. He never would have told me, and I wouldn’t have found out. He probably has a lot better stories than I do.”

A father’s silent pride

But don’t think for a moment that there’s not a proud father beneath it all. Among Len’s favorite times are silently helping his son go through shooting workouts in the gym. Watching him grow as a person and a player have also provided some of his prouder moments.

“He had some health issues as a young man… just seeing how he’s persevered (has been gratifying),” Len said. “When I was the high school coach at BGA, he was in seventh grade but he was playing up on our middle school team. I can remember going to a game at Lipscomb and they were very talented and he didn’t play much, but they put him in near the end of the game and we were losing, and he hit a 3 at the buzzer, I think, to send it to overtime. And then they left him in and he played in overtime and I think he hit a game-winner.

“I was pretty proud (of) this little bitty seventh grader who really stepped up and hit some big shots for his teammates.”

The basketball part has come full circle, too.

“(Mason’s) role has changed from a stand-still shooter to being a primary ball-handler, but also us needing him to score, whereas the first year he could stand out and shoot it whenever everybody ganged up on Jake or Demontay inside.”