The Holmes family has made quite an impact at Indiana University as brother and sister play key roles on the women’s basketball team
By Danny Priest
Mic’d Up With Mackenzie Holmes
The trek from Gorham, Maine to Bloomington, Indiana is not a short one. A total of 1,092 miles separates the sleepy east coast town from its lively midwestern counterpart that’s home to the University of Indiana.
On any given weekend during the winter, if the women’s basketball team is playing at home, there’s a good chance at least four residents from Maine are inside the fabled Assembly Hall.
Mackenzie Holmes is the one grabbing the headlines. Last season, the 6-foot-3 center was an Associated Press All-American Honorable Mention, a member of the NCAA All-Regional Team and first-team All-Big Ten.
Holmes led the Hoosiers in points (17.8 per game), rebounds (7.6), and blocks (3.0 per game, which also led the Big Ten) as Indiana finished 21-6 record and the Elite Eight, where it fell to eventual champion Arizona.
Sitting behind the basket or close to the Hoosier bench is Holmes’ older brother, Cameron. The sports marketing and management student is a member of the Hoosier practice squad and also handles some managerial roles for the team.
Further in the crowd you can find Denise Payette-Holmes, or put more simply, mom. The former player and coach often sits alone at the games. Reserved, focused on the outcome, and proud to see the impact her daughter and son are making on the program.
Also planted somewhere in the crowd is dad, Lenny Holmes. A former player and longtime coach, he feverishly supports Mackenzie and her teammates. He might be caught giving an earful to a referee, but at the end of the day he’s a proud dad first and a passionate fan second.
There are a lot of famous families when it comes to basketball. Everyone knows the Currys, Rivers and Thompsons, but a family such as the Holmes represents how much impact the game can have on people.
The love and passion for the game is why Lenny and Denise make the trip from Maine to Indiana as often as possible. It’s what made Mackenzie and Cam want to attend the same college. Basketball is what keeps them connected and opened the door to make the leap from a quiet town just outside Portland to one of the most regarded college basketball programs in the NCAA.
Years ago, it likely never seemed conceivable that Mackenzie and Cam would battle with each other in practice preparing to face the likes of Michigan and Ohio State.
In fact, when the two were young, their parents did all they could to keep them from playing each other 1-on-1.
“The two of them were wild,” Lenny said. “We’d let them shoot together, but we’d say we’re not going to let you play together. Nothing good was coming from it.”
Though Lenny and Denise divorced when their kids were young, both were still heavily involved with raising the children. Naturally, they took a liking to the game of basketball. Cam, who is two years older than Mackenzie, got the shooting touch from his mom, but had to work like his father did coming up.
“I never had it easy growing up,” Cam said. “I was never the most gifted athletic kid and despite my parents both playing basketball, I was never the quickest, strongest or fastest. I had to work to get to the point I’m at today.”
Lenny played his high school ball at Presque Isle High, nearly as far north in the state as one can travel. His basketball journey took him to the University of Maine Machias, where he played college ball and after he finished playing, he immediately got into coaching.
His love for the sport developed because his competitive drive forced him to always want to get better. Unlike a lot of sports, basketball was a game where Lenny didn’t need anyone else to help him get better.
“When I talk to my kids, I tell them one of the things throughout my sports career that I was most proud of was every team I ever played on, at some point I was given the most improved player award,” Lenny said. “I wasn’t the best at first, but I was able to work my way into those roles through, more than anything, just hard work and perseverance.”
Lenny and Cam are no slouches on the court, but they were workers. The mother-daughter combination of Denise and Mackenzie had the game come to them a bit more naturally.
Denise grew up in South Portland, where basketball is often the talk of town. She starred at South Portland High, where she won a Western Maine State Championship before going on to play at the University of Southern Maine.
From there, she spent some time playing semi-pro basketball in Ireland before returning to the states and embarking on her own coaching journey.
“I was more of a natural,” Denise said. “I was more of a shooter, and I could play in the post if needed. I was very athletic, so it came easy to me, but I was a worker and I loved working on my game. I wasn’t quite the post player Mackenzie is by any means, but I played all the time because I absolutely loved it.”
Both Lenny and Denise served their time learning the ropes. Denise spent seven years as an assistant coach at Gorham High and Lenny had spent time during his college years running or volunteering at camps and clinics.
The pair eventually found one another and married. For a period they overlapped as head basketball coaches at Windham High. Lenny led the boys and Denise coached the girls. They also started the AAU program Maine Hoops out of their home, and it still operates today as one of the biggest programs in the state. Lenny built up the boys side of the program and remains still involved, while Denise constructed the girls program and has now taken a step back.
Basketball was their life, and that passion was passed on to Mackenzie and Cam.
Mackenzie and Cam now share an apartment together in Indiana and spend nearly all day with one another, but they weren’t always as close as they are now. Their infamous 1-on-1 battles included Lenny officiating and they went as far as to swap out a girls’ basketball and boys basketball for each possession.
“I don’t think we got through a game without either one of us quitting or one of us crying,” Mackenzie said. “Probably me crying more than him, or we’d fake an injury or hurt one another, things like that.”
Lenny also played the kids 1-on-1 up until the point he could no longer beat them. The first time he lost a “friendly” game of 2-on-1 to the kids, he refused to play them again.
It carried on, but the kids matured with age. They grew up watching their parents coach, constantly attending practices, and seeing how much the game could do for them. At times, Mackenzie and Cam would even team together in AAU if one of their teams needed an extra body.
Their parents never pushed them towards the game, and both tried multiple sports, but their love for basketball took over quickly. Denise recalled a time when Mackenzie was young, she didn’t believe she’d love the sports the way her parents did.
“I do remember when Mackenzie was little, we were at practice and she told me, ‘Mom, don’t expect me to love basketball like you do,’” Denise said. “I said no, I don’t expect you to love it, and now here she is today. She says she never said that, but she did.”
As that love grew, both Lenny and Denise helped build the character of their children. That impact was perhaps bigger than the natural skill they’d passed along, and they made it a point to raise better people than they were basketball players.
“It was the intangibles for sure,” Mackenzie said. “I think they definitely drilled all that stuff and what I can control because they knew I couldn’t control the minutes I get, how many shots I see, or whether we win or lose, but I can always control my effort, attitude, and how hard I work. It was things like that.”
“The main thing was just work ethic and hard work,” Cam said. “My parents are two extremely hard working people. My dad works probably 12 hours a day. He has multiple jobs where he works with Maine Hoops and works with the school system. My mom owns her own store down in Portland. They’re constantly working and when you’re around that so much, it’s hard not to take from it.”
Those furious 1-on-1 battles transformed into tenacious work ethics with maturity and age. By the time Mackenzie hit eighth grade, it was clear she was going to play Division I basketball. Cam was not bound to play at that level and spent his first year of college at Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he was a practice player for the Bulldogs.
Cam was awaiting his sister’s college decision. Multiple schools called, including Indiana, the same school where Lenny used to drive his high school team to in vans for the Bobby Knight basketball camp. It was an easy decision.
“I kind of felt at home because originally I wasn’t really anticipating leaving New England for college just because I’m really close with my family and I wanted them to have the chance to be able to watch me play,” Mackenzie said. “Then, when I took a visit out here, I fell in love.”
Mackenzie got started as a freshman in 2019-2020 and her brother followed and hooked on with the Indiana practice squad. Now, getting set for her junior season to tip, Mackenzie is a preseason All-American and Cam assumes managerial duties with the team in addition to being a practice player. He has his eyes set on being a Graduate Assistant following graduation.
As fate would have it, Cam finds himself acting as the big man for the Hoosier practice squad. That means he spends most practices battling in the post with his younger sister and their competitive drive has not faded in the least.
“It’s kind of mutually expected that we’ll go a little harder when we’re going against each other, Cam said. “If she throws an elbow, I’ll throw an elbow back. If it were another player, I’d probably just let it go because I don’t want to get in trouble or anything like that.”
There may be no better representation of the subtle popularity of basketball in Maine than the Holmes family. The passion certainly exists and it’s a big part of winters in the state.
“There’s not a hotbed for DI talent, but there is a lot of passion for basketball in Maine,” Lenny said. “I think that’s one thing people don’t understand. You grow up in this state and basketball in the wintertime is it. I can tell you from back when I played, when we played our rivals, it was sold out with seats on the sideline. We’re talking about big gyms of 3,000. We’d play in the tournament, and we sold out the tournament venue which is a big venue of like 7,500 or 8,000 people. The passion for the sport in Maine is really deep even without the people going on to play big time collegiate basketball.”
One of the biggest influences in Denise’s life has been Bob Brown, who coached for 50 years, won 600 games and is a member of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. Brown used to work with Mackenzie as a middle schooler because of his connection with Denise.
Many hoop fans will know his son, Brett Brown, who most recently served as the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“He’s the mecca of Maine basketball,” Denise said of the elder Brown. “People know who he is and if you talk about Maine basketball, he’s probably the best coach to ever come out of the state of Maine.”
Not regarded in the same way as some basketball hot spots, Maine has its own pool of impressive talent.
“I think just because Maine is small and we don’t have a lot of huge talent come out year in and year out, they don’t really realize how important basketball is to Maine,” Mackenzie said.
Despite the lack of notoriety, she’s now writing a new chapter and setting an example of people coming out of Maine to achieve basketball success at a high level. Her brother spends more time with her than anyone and he sees parallels between their original home and their new home in the Midwest.
“Indiana is obviously known for being a basketball state and basketball crazy, but I think Maine is almost a microcosm of Indiana,” Cam said. “The way people look at basketball and the way they appreciate good basketball, especially good team basketball, not individual 1-on-1 play, that’s what all the great Indiana teams of the past were all about.
“Team basketball over individuality. When you look at Maine basketball, all the teams that win state championships every single year or the perennial contenders, they’re just juggernauts with talent and teamwork that they’re able to produce year after year.”
Mackenzie’s Indiana team has taken on a similar form. A team with strong chemistry and loads of talent has landed them at No. 8 in the Preseason AP Top 25. It should be another successful winter for the group, but regardless of tallying wins and losses, her family is happy to support.
They will always appreciate game days in Assembly Hall. Mackenzie talks with her father on the phone before each game and her mom always texts her a quote on each game day as a source of motivation. If they’re not in the building watching, she knows they have their eyes on the game from a far.
“As a parent, the emotions take over,” Denise said. “As far as emotions I get humbled. My eyes water, it’s pretty incredible. Her first game that she played in Indiana, when she went in, I broke down crying because it was so awesome. I’m just proud.”
Lenny still offers his fair share of basketball advice, but more than anything he just wants to be supportive of both of his children.
“There’s still times where they just need that support system in place,” he said. “Trying to get through those long stretches where out of the whole stretch of a year she can basically come home seven to eight weeks and that’s it then the rest of the year she’s out there. Last year she didn’t get to come home for Christmas, so it’s those things where your support counts more. She’s had some great coaches, so I tend to try to shut up now. Not easy, but I will try. I save my yelling for the officials now.”
It’s a long way from Gorham, Maine and the feeling of gameday is one the family may never get used to, but they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Just a few years ago you were watching your dad coach your sister in middle school basketball and high school basketball with like 20 people in the gym,” Cam said.
“Now, going and seeing an Elite Eight basketball game against Arizona where there’s thousands of people watching on TV and seeing your parents and sister on the big screen is really indescribable. I thought it’d be something I’d get used to after a year or so, but now even three years later, I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever be able to get used to. The feeling never gets old.”
Basketball has done a lot for the Holmes family and there’s still more chapters to be written. For as far as the kids have come and for how much success they’ve shared, don’t expect that 1-on-1 rematch anytime soon.
It’s been over two years since Mackenzie and Cam last tried it and according to Cam, he’s more than content to keep his undefeated record intact, even if he does admit his sister could beat him now.
That’s fine though as Mackenzie can focus on her pursuit of an NCAA title and undoubtedly Lenny, Denise, and thousands of others from Gorham and beyond will be watching. If not in person, then the support will always be there from a far.
Basketball is in the Holmes’ family DNA and it’s a major part of Maine, too.