ELLENSBURG, Wash. — At last year’s NWAACC basketball tournament, well after Yakima Valley’s women had beaten Walla Walla in the semifinals, word spread of a fight following one of the men’s games.

And as the story filtered through the Kennewick’s Toyota Center, it became clear that the altercation had not only involved players from the same team, but players from the same team that had won its game to advance to the title matchup.

“Me and that guy right there,” Mark McLaughlin said recently, pointing across the Nicholson Pavilion floor to Central Washington teammate Nate Walker. McLaughlin and Walker had also been teammates on the Tacoma Community College squad that won last season’s NWAACC championship.

“It wasn’t a physical fight,” McLaughlin said with a smile. “We just had a disagreement and things got a little bit heated. As a team we were very talented, but we were also pretty much a collection of goofballs.”

Some who have followed McLaughlin and his nomadic career, which has seen the 6-foot-6 guard quite literally bounce all over the map before landing last year at CWU, would use a similar term to describe him. Others would be less kind.

For his part, McLaughlin is aware. He knows his past is both complicated and controversial, and is clearly not in denial.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward not only to the rest of this season here,” he said, “but also to next season. When you look at my career, I’ve never been anywhere more than one year at a time.”

At the same time, he and others in the Central camp consider McLaughlin to be somewhat misunderstood, and insist he has made substantial strides both as a player and person since his arrival in Ellensburg.

“Bottom line,” coach Greg Sparling said, “is he’s growing up.”

The road that took McLaughlin, a blue-chip recruit from Bothell’s Inglemoor High School, to a prep school in New Hampshire to commitments to and/or stints at six different colleges — excluding Central — is long and winding.

Some of his changes involved bad advice, he said. Some involved deciding too hastily or from not having enough information, and at least one resulted from unfortunate geography.

“Baylor was just too far away,” McLaughlin said of the Waco, Texas, school, which he signed with in 2009 but left before the season started. “I really liked it there, the school and the program. It was just too far from home.”

Baylor had come after commitments to first Washington State and Nevada and before one to Seattle University, where he played 17 games during the 2010-11 season, and later Tacoma CC and then Washington.

The last exit, coming this past August after a standout year at Tacoma where McLaughlin was heralded as a boon to the Huskies’ hopes for this season, was to many the most surprising.

“At U-Dub,” he said, “I just wasn’t comfortable there. That’s the best way I can explain it. It didn’t involve any one person, and coach (Lorenzo) Romar has been great. He sends me texts, to this day, telling me, ‘Good game,’ or ‘Good luck.’”

On McLaughlin’s arrival in Ellensburg, Sparling was initially cautious. And it’s not like the newcomer’s transition or the Wildcats’ season, which saw Central take records of 6-5 in the GNAC and 12-7 overall into Thursday night’s home game with Simon Fraser, have been seamless.

But he nontheless has posted a conference-best 23.5 scoring average to go with 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists, both second on the team.

“When Mark came here,” Sparling said, “I was definitely apprehensive. You hear all the horror stories out on the street, and it does make you wonder. But one of the things he understands is we’re here for him to help him out as much as we can.

“And he’s made huge strides since he’s shown up on campus. He’s starting to grow up, and I think he understands that this is his last stop.”

McLaughlin hastens to add that the slow-paced lifestyle of Ellensburg and its relative isolation have been helpful, and he’s grateful for the opportunity.

“Coach Spar took a huge chance on me,” he said. “I needed him more than he needed me.”

Similarly helpful has been a close friendship with first-year assistant coach Drew Harris, the former Eisenhower standout who in 2010 transferred to Central for his senior season. Harris and McLaughlin first met when Harris was playing at Seattle U and McLaughlin came in for a recruiting visit.

“It’s funny the way we kind of hit it off,” Harris said. “We talked about shared experiences and mutual friends, and found out we have a lot in common.”

Such as age. Harris is 23, McLaughlin 22.

“Drew keeps me out of trouble,” McLaughlin said, again smiling. “Life is a lot slower here than in Seattle, and for me that’s a good thing. Drew and I just hang out and talk about stuff, about life stuff. I’m 22 years old now, and I don’t need to be out partying.”

He has been studying, apparently, having posted a 3.1 grade point average last quarter, his coaches report.

“Mark’s done everything we’ve asked,” said Harris. “He’s becoming a better person both on and off the court. He came in here with the bad rap, and you hear people talk. What I’ve seen is that’s not really who he is. He’s a good guy, someone you’d bring around your own family.”

Perhaps because of his own family.

McLaughlin speaks glowingly of his mother, Maureen McLaughlin, who lives near Seattle with her mother and father, and also with McLaughlin’s 3-year-old son, Jaylen, and Jaylen’s mom.

“My mom is my foundation,” McLaughlin said. “She’s my rock. If I ever make any money playing basketball, it’s going first to her and my son.”

His son is the main reason Baylor seemed too far away for McLaughlin — this after he’d attended a prep school in New Hampshire. Jaylen had just been born before McLaughlin moved to Texas.

And the post-victory fight with Nate Walker?

“It turned out fine,” McLaughlin laughed. “I threw him a lob for a dunk on our first possession of the championship game.”

So finally, after all these years and all those moves, McLaughlin seems to have found a home.

Said associate head coach G.E. Coleman, “For as many things as he’s gone through, he’s very loyal to his son and his mom. Since he’s been with us, the small-town. smaller-college atmosphere seems to have helped.

“That said, you could put Mark on just about any court in the country and he’d be able to play if he could stay there. We’re very happy that he’s staying with us.”

• Roger Underwood can be reached at 509-577-7694 or at runderwood@yakimaherald.com.