By Sam Smith
Alfonzo McKinnie impressed Jerry Stackhouse. This is not an easy thing to do. There haven’t been many guys to play in the NBA tougher than Stackhouse, who Saturday coached the East D-league All-Stars to a 105-100 victory.
Windy City’s McKinnie, a late addition to the East team, was second high East scorer with 16 points and was two of three on three pointers in the victory.
But it was in practice the day before that Stackhouse saw the traits of commitment, competitiveness, physical play and athletic ability he admires. So instead of playing a limited role, as expected, the lithe 6-8 McKinnie became a starter.
“I was with the third forward group running plays in practice,” McKinnie related. “But then he put me at the starting four spot. I’m happy he did that. He just said go out, run the floor and play how I play.”
McKinnie, the West Side kid from Curie and then Marshall High School, helped the East to a 55-53 halftime lead with 10 points, all on dunks, though this was a much more competitive game than typical NBA All-Star games with even pick and roll defense. The West team shot below 50 percent for the game. Then in the second half when the East took a big lead before hanging on late, McKinnie made a pair of threes.
“I loved his energy in practice,” said Stackhouse. “Defensively, he was one of the guys you showed one thing and right there he was doing it the next time. He had a good spirit. We (Stackhouse’s league leading Raptors 905 team) played against him this year. He’s athletic, has an ability to shoot the ball, perimeter, great size. The kid has a real chance.
“He has the ability to be a game changer defensively,” Stackhouse said. “To really be up on pick and roll; step up pick and roll is where it is now. If you can get guys up to that level, they can deter guys and he has the quickness to not let guys get by. I think that’s where he can make his mark on the defensive end first.”
That’s high praise from a guy who is in his first year coaching and has the makings of an NBA coach. Stackhouse played with eight teams over an 18-year NBA career, including with Dallas in the 2006 Finals. He was known for his athletic game and scoring, averaging almost 30 points one season. And also one of the guys you didn’t what to mess with in the NBA. He’ll get a locker room’s attention. He’s been there, done it, and never has been afraid to follow through.
His takeout of Shaquille O’Neal on a breakaway dunk in the 2006 Finals after a dispute between the teams was one of the more remarkable plays of the time. He was widely cheered around the NBA when he knocked out Christian Laettner on a team flight. He famously once had a fight with teammate Allen Iverson and described it as, “A fight between one guy who doesn’t know how to fight and another guy who didn’t want to.” Stackhouse backed down from no one, and he was impressed with what he saw in McKinnie.
“Coming in, Coach Stackhouse, he pressed us about defense,” McKinnie related. “He told us he wanted us to actually go out and guard. That’s what we came out and wanted to do, guard and have fun at the same time. Tonight I wanted to come out and have fun, run the floor and get some transition buckets, knock down a few buckets, which I did.
“I had a few opens ones,” McKinnie said about missing his first two three-point attempts, though he has a nice shooting stroke. “I missed the first two, though they were on line, and the second two, stepped in and knocked them down.
“The guys played hard,” said McKinnie, who was making his first visit to New Orleans, which is in the midst of Mardi Gras. “Everyone had fun and we got the win, so that was the most important thing. I’m just happy I got invited to play today and that it went well. It’s an experience. Being named an All-Star was something I had as a goal and to start in an All-Star game and produce a little was a great feeling for me. I know my family was at home excited watching. It was a great opportunity.”
Also because the NBA is in New Orleans for the weekend for Sunday’s All-Star game. The D-league All-Star game came after the Saturday NBA All-Star practices. The D-league also had modified dunk and three-point shooting contests. McKinnie finished third in the dunk contest after leading following the first round. So it’s a big time audition for D-league players hoping to get that NBA call.
“There’s no telling who is watching,” McKinnie agreed. “Playing on stages like this there are different people watching. Me coming out and playing how I play and doing it consistently, I think I might have a shot (at the NBA). If not this year, I think next year or whenever it may be. I just keep the mindset I have, to go hard every day, keep going until I get the opportunity.
“Now going back (to the Windy City Bulls) and trying to continue where I left off,” McKinnie said. “It was a fun event. I had fun, but we still have the second part of the season. So I have to work every day and try to help us get wins and try to get back up so we can get in the playoffs. It’s a story in the making (for me). I feel this opportunity is just adding to my story.”
It’s been an uplifting story for McKinnie from the North Lawndale neighborhood to injury struggles at the U. of Wisconsin-Green Bay, playing in Europe and Mexico, and then a three-on-three league before beating the odds in a public tryout to catch on with the Windy City Bulls in their inaugural season. He worked his way into the starting lineup with his consistency and hustle, averaging 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, continuing to surprise and impress, as he did in practice with Stackhouse.
“Those first eight positions (on NBA teams), they have their scorers,” noted Stackhouse. “If you can find a way to show you can defend and play a role. He’s young, athletic and everyone will be intrigued about that. But with those intangibles on the defensive end I can see him making an impact.”