For T.J. McConnell, it's (family) business as usual

Share

One winter’s night in 1955, in the gym of a Pittsburgh-area school called Arsenal, a high school senior named Sue McGrady was playing recreational-league basketball — or, at least, the bastardized version of the game then forced upon the fairer sex.

The rules stipulated that both teams deploy three-person offensive and defensive platoons instead of five-person teams, with neither platoon allowed to cross midcourt. The result was alternating halfcourt games of three-on-three.

Sue liked the game well enough, but as that particular night wore on she kept hearing a male voice from the stands: “Arsenal No. 1! Arsenal No. 1!” — her uniform number.

This, then, was the mating call of Tom McConnell.

And it worked.

He met with her after the game, and invited her home. She agreed, but only on the condition that her best friend accompany them. (Different times indeed.) He made enough of an impression that they began dating, and a few years later they married.

They have been together 57 years, with their union producing eight children, 25 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Six of the eight kids have deep basketball ties, most notably Suzie, once an All-American point guard at Penn State, later a two-time Olympian and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and now the head coach at Pitt.

And one of the grandchildren, Timothy John McConnell (better known as T.J.), has emerged this season as the Sixers’ starting point guard.

Or, to put it another way, the undrafted rookie free agent has brought the family business to Philadelphia.

Dozens and dozens served.

“Did you know,” Sixers guard Nik Stauskas asked a group of reporters milling about the team’s locker room before Monday’s loss to Chicago, “that T.J. is the first player in NBA history to have 12 assists in two of his first four games?”

That nugget had, in fact, been circulated by the redoubtable Elias Sports Bureau, after McConnell dished out a dozen dimes in consecutive games last week, against Cleveland and Milwaukee — the first off the bench, the second in his initial NBA start.

Stauskas brought it up only to needle his teammate. McConnell, seated at the cubicle next to the one occupied by Stauskas, immediately arose and bolted for an off-limits area — apparently out of embarrassment.

He is far less reticent on most occasions. Coach Brett Brown, an old point guard himself, likes the chest-out bravado McConnell brings to the position, noting in particular that the rookie postured for the crowd after nailing a three-pointer last Friday in Cleveland — a crowd that included several family members, who had made the trip from the Pittsburgh area.

Just as significant is the fact that McConnell is an “elite passer” in Brown’s estimation. Even amid the slop of another horrid Sixers season the examples are manifest, as when on back-to-back sequences in Monday’s second quarter McConnell fired a sidearm pass from under the basket to Stauskas for a left-wing three-pointer, then ladled a lefty feed to forward Christian Wood for a layup.

“Some of the passes he makes, he has that ‘wow’ factor — you know, how he finds his open teammates,” Suzie, whose married name is McConnell-Serio, said of her nephew last week. “And he gets in the lane. It’s crazy to me sometimes.”

There is, of course, an underdog element to T.J.’s tale — 6-foot-2 kid (perhaps) from the Rust Belt, passed over in the draft, etc. — and we are far from the happily-ever-after portion of it. He began this week by facing no less a point guard than Derrick Rose, who seemed content to do only as much as he needed to do in the Bulls’ 111-88 rout (a common approach for a superstar against the Sixers).

In the next three games — Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, respectively — McConnell will be opposite Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker.

Then there is the specter within the team of the return from knee surgery of Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten, likely within the next month or so. It seems certain that they will get the lion’s share of the minutes at the point, which would relegate McConnell to the end of the bench.

But because of the Sixers’ endless rebuild he has been afforded an opportunity to display his wares — to show that he can push the pace (another thing Brown likes) and make clear just how surpassing his passing is.

“Right now,” McConnell said, “I’m just trying to do what it takes for us to win, and just trying to stick.”

The latter seems more likely than the former; the Sixers, 0-7 at present, have dropped 17 in a row dating back to last season. But McConnell’s situation calls to mind something Bobby Jones, a Sixer from a far more celebrated era, once observed — that it is harder to get into the NBA than it is to stay there, his point being that once a player has proven his worth, a job will more often than not be there for him.

While McConnell’s sample size is minute, it appears he has the goods. Those consecutive 12-assist games were offset by just a single turnover, and after he recorded nine more assists (albeit with five turnovers) in Saturday’s game against Orlando, Magic coach Scott Skiles was suitably impressed.

“McConnell,” he said, “really hurt us. He was penetrating all night long. We had a hard time staying in front of him.”

Surely Skiles, who carved out a 10-year NBA career at the point, looked out there and saw himself. Same chip-on-the-shoulder demeanor. Same ability to keep everybody happy.

Hey, it’s all the genes. Besides Suzie, Tom, T.J.’s oldest uncle, played at Davidson and now coaches the IUP women’s team. One aunt, Kathy (now McConnell-Miller), played at Virginia and is Suzie’s associate head coach at Pitt. Another, Maureen, played for the Panthers. There is also an uncle, Mike, who is a Division I referee. (“We say he’s gone to the dark side,” Suzie said with a laugh.)

As for T.J.’s dad, Tim, he played at Geneva, then Waynesburg, and is fast approaching his 23rd year as the head coach at Chartiers Valley High School. He has won over 500 games there, and coached not only T.J. but these last few years his younger son Matty, now at Robert Morris. (Matty is the second of three children Tim has by his wife Shelly. The youngest, Megan, is in eighth grade and also plays hoops, naturally.)

Long before T.J. played for his dad he was showing up at CV’s practices and mimicking the drills the players ran.

At age 6.

“That’s how I knew he had something special about him,” Tim said.

T.J. scored 2,406 points during his high school career, including 1,062 as a senior, when Chartiers Valley went 29-2 and lost by two to Neumann-Goretti in the state championship game.

Tim said it was “really easy” to coach his sons, that he demanded more from them than the other players but they always understood, always toed the line. It can certainly be a tricky dynamic, though, as Brett Brown well knows. He too played for his dad in high school, in Maine, and said the experience left him with “nervous twitches, or bad thoughts at 3 a.m.”

He was kidding. Probably.

“It can be challenging at times,” T.J. said, “but just the satisfaction of playing with your dad and doing it together as a family, plus all your other teammates that come in and are like brothers, it’s satisfying. But there are times he takes the game home, and we won’t speak for a couple days.”

That was quickly put aside as T.J. continued his career at Duquesne. He enjoyed two productive seasons there, but in March 2012 he was sitting with his dad in the stands at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, watching an Ohio State team led by Aaron Craft play an NCAA Tournament game. And it was then that the younger McConnell came to a realization: He wanted to play big-time ball.

So he put in for a transfer. Virginia showed some interest but he landed at Arizona, quarterbacking the Wildcats to back-to-back Elite Eight finishes.

And now he has brought the family business to Philadelphia, a business some six decades in the making.

Contact Us