Kids want to be like Mike or now Steph, but it’s really Alfonzo McKinnie who probably is their best role model.
“I talk to guys every day younger than me going through things in college and coming from this area and I tell them my story,” the West Sider was saying before the Bulls Monday game with the Golden State Warriors. “They’ve seen it, seen where I started to now. So keep pushing and try to do the right things and somebody will see you and give you a chance. And when you get that chance, you’ve got to take advantage and go from there.”
Yes, it can happen because it’s happening to Alfonzo McKinnie, and it’s as unlikely a sports story as anyone will find.
The kid who played at Curie and Marshall high schools and a bit for Eastern Illinois and Wisconsin-Green Bay, who paid his way to get a tryout for the G-league is now in the playing rotation of one of the great teams in NBA history and perhaps on his way to an NBA championship.
In Monday’s 149-124 Warriors domination of the Bulls that was highlighted by Klay Thompson’s record 14 three point field goals, McKinnie made four of six threes and scored a career high 19 points and a team high 10 rebounds off the bench for the Warriors.
That came just a few hours after the 6-8 energizer pogo stick added his greatest assist in arranging to purchase a house for his mother to finally lead the family out of the West Side North Lawndale neighborhood.
“It’s been a great day,” McKinnie said even before his brilliant game. “Getting the house; she’s ecstatic. It’s all she ever talked about is wanting a house. I’m happy I could do that for her, and then a chance to come here and watch the game.
“It’s been a hell of a journey,” McKinnie acknowledged. “A lot of ups and down from where I started to where I am now. But I am just grateful for the opportunities I was blessed with and I’m trying to make the most of it. It does feel surreal at times. There was a point in time when I didn’t expect anything like this to happen. I wanted it to happen, prayed for it to happen, but at the time it wasn’t looking promising. As the days went on those opportunities came about and I’m here now and just grateful.”
It began with the G-league and the Windy City Bulls, who open their 2018-19 season Friday in the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. It was through that open tryout of some 200 hopefuls that McKinnie made the roster and a league where some of the great NBA stories begin.
“The G-league meant a lot. It gave me a chance to get in front of some important people and try to get to the next level, which was the NBA. People saw me in the G-league and gave me some chances and I took advantage.”McKinnie on the importance of playing for the Windy City Bulls in the G-league
It would be difficult to write a movie script of McKinnie’s story and get anyone to believe it.
He came from the tough and dangerous West Side. Consider that when he came back from playing in Luxembourg (lowest level league even there) his family was worried for his safety. That’s right; his mother felt he’d be safer in Mexico.
“There’s a lot of stuff happening in Chicago and a lot of people get caught in the wrong places at the wrong times,” McKinnie explained in a previous interview. “When I told them I was going to go to Mexico, everyone was kind of relieved I wouldn’t have to be in the city for that long.”
McKinnie started at Curie and transferred to Marshall for the basketball program. But it took a while to even get on the team.
“It was the big time basketball school,” said McKinnie. “I’d watch them play and knew all the guys they had. People talked about them so much on the West Side of Chicago. They had the tradition of being rough, gritty defense. You watch Patrick Beverley and how hard he plays. We were pushed hard, practice was conditioning drills, a lot of defensive drills. As a player it helped me because when I got to college I was already a hard worker, not afraid of it.”
But McKinnie suffered a pair of meniscus tears in college and was off the NBA radar. He reluctantly found work in Luxembourg not quite knowing where it was, returned to play in Mexico and then for USA Basketball in their three on three program. It was hardly anyone’s route to the NBA.
But he persevered and worked, went to the Advocate Center for pickup games, signed up for the G-league tryout out of his own pocket. He initially came off the bench in the G-league, began starting and making an impact and made the All-Star team.
“I got it in my head then if I was good enough to be an All Star, maybe I could get to that next level,” said McKinnie.
It led to Summer League and workouts and signing with the Toronto Raptors. It was again mostly back in the G-league with Toronto last season, back to the budget hotels and small paycheck. But then catching the eyes of the Warriors with his hustle and role playing he perfected in the G-league.
“McKinnie's been great,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “He's somebody we had our eye on from the first day of training camp because of his athleticism. He's really gotten a lot better since camp, shooting the ball, getting a feel for the offense, playing well with other guys. He seems to fit the modern NBA game of positionless basketball. He can be out on the floor and guard multiple spots and switch. The guys really like him, too. He's been through quite a bit trying to get to this point and I think our players have a lot of respect for his journey, but also the way he carries himself. He's a professional, hard working kid. He's seen the world and it shows.”
And it shows what a player can do in the G-league and where he can go if he has a belief, confidence, a work ethic and determination never to be stopped by the obstacles.
“Everybody loves the Warriors,” said McKinnie, 26. “I’m excited be a part of it. Just being myself and working hard every day, sticking to what I do and not trying to overdue it. When I get an opportunity produce. It’s a great organization and group of veteran guys, elite players. Being around them is exciting, to be in the gym every day and watch them and take things from them, to play under coach Kerr who was in Chicago and a part of all the championship banners. What a great learning experience.”
Just a great Chicago story. It happened to him. It can happen for you. No matter your profession.