There are a lot of great stories in the NBA this season. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook; Chris Paul with James Harden, the exciting rookie class and baby 76ers with back to back No. 1 overall draft picks. There’s LeBron back with Wade and adding Derrick Rose and the Minnesota main men.
But my favorite is that of a 25-year-old West Side kid from Marshall High School, Alfonzo McKinnie, who got through an open tryout just over a year ago to play for the Windy City Bulls. Thursday, he’ll be on the roster with the Toronto Raptors, who host the Bulls in the Bulls season opener.
“It feels great to be able to come out and be on an NBA team for opening night,” McKinnie acknowledged by telephone this week from Toronto. “It was the goal going to the D-league and trying to do well, try to put myself in position to even be considered. Me being from Chicago, a lot of guys play basketball and younger guys don’t have the offers they want; they ask me about what to do, try the D-league? Go overseas? I tell them no matter what situation you are in, you have to go at it and attack it every day, put the work in and try to do your best. It’s that way in everything you try in life. There always can be somebody who sees you and notices, and then you may get an opportunity. So you better be ready. Watch your Ps and Qs, work hard and be consistent, and you can do it.”
McKinnie, a springy, 6-8, 215-pound power forward, made the Raptors roster after averaging five points and 3.2 rebounds in about 12 minutes per game. He made five of 11 threes and shot 50 percent overall in a competition with a half dozen other prospects.
“Never give up on your dreams,” McKinnie counsels. “There were times when I was (playing) in Luxembourg I wanted to give up. I wanted to go home and not come back. I had to fight through it.”
Arguably, no one in the NBA has come so far in such a short time and considered so unlikely to do so. After all, here was a kid who played at Eastern Illinois and Wisconsin-Green Bay, who had two meniscus tears in college and then played pro ball in Luxembourg and Mexico. Yes, Mexico has a pro basketball league. In the summer yet. And then he joined a three-on-three league when the offers overseas weren’t very promising. The now G-league was a major step up.
“Before the D-league, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” McKinnie admitted. “I started playing professionally three on three basketball to try to find something. Thank God the whole D-league situation came up.”
But it was a long way to there from the perilous Garfield Park area on the West Side, starting at Curie High School and then transferring to Marshall, a late starter in basketball, but counseled well by a close family with his mother and grandparents.
“My mother and grandparents instilled in me which path I should take and I fought every day to stay on the right path,” McKinnie said. “I always loved the West Side, but I always saw myself making it out of there; I looked at basketball as the outlet. Same with anything. I wanted to be one of those guys who worked hard and make it out and then come back and show the kids if you do work hard you don’t need a big college, you don’t need to be highly recruited, but if you work hard someone will notice. You never know who’s watching.”
McKinnie’s odyssey started at Eastern and then onto Wisconsin, never the major schools, and not the major leagues, even in Europe.
“When people found out I went to Luxembourg, they didn’t know where Luxembourg was,” McKinnie says. “I didn’t know what it was, either, until I actually got there. You go to a place like that and people kind of fall back and forget about you; no one checks in. Nobody wants to know what’s going on in Luxembourg. But I had a few guys I was playing with there tell me I shouldn’t be there, that I was on another level. But at the time it was my only option and something I had to get through every day and improve.
“Then I went to Mexico, which was OK, higher competition than in Luxembourg, but it was Mexico,” McKinnie noted. “People still don’t check on you; guys aren’t coming out of Mexico (to the NBA), either. But I had to go out and take it for what it was worth.”
McKinnie took the next job he could get with some buddies in the three-on-three, and they did well, got to play overseas. But that’s a long, long, long way from the NBA. Then he said his new agent pushed for the D-league and McKinnie was anxious to try, though he had to endure that public tryout first.
He got to Hoffman Estates with the Bulls’ new Windy City entry and the Sears Centre, and things began to happen.
“I felt if I did well I could boost my resume and whether I could get on an NBA team or not, I felt I could get with a better (league) overseas,” said McKinnie.
He averaged 14.9 points and 9.2 rebounds for Windy City and people did begin to notice the skinny kid running the court, dunking, making threes, blocking shots, working, working, working. He was good enough to dream.
“In the D-league you’re playing against guys who were in the NBA or in training camps, having NBA experience,” McKinnie pointed out. “Being able to compete against those guys brought me to a realization that I could be one of those guys to make an NBA roster. All the work was starting to show; started having some big games, started hearing people talk, getting a little recognition. Made the All-Star team, got to go to the Showcase and performed pretty well in front of NBA scouts. After that, I kind of had it in my mind I could potentially be an NBA player.”