By Sam Smith
Alfonzo McKinnie is a role model.
He’s not exactly a star, though he will be an NBA D-league All-Star and slam dunk contest participant this weekend during NBA All-Star weekend activities in New Orleans. He’s excited, in part, because the kid from West Side North Lawndale never even has been to New Orleans. He’s not doing TV commercials or has a big sneaker deal. He lives in a modest apartment complex in Hoffman Estates.
But McKinnie has one of the most inspiring stories of the year in sports, a kid who’s endured tough times and seemingly a dead end in basketball who went from a public tryout to just attempting to make the roster of the new Windy City Bulls to the D-league’s feature event. He’s one of 24 D-league players from among more than 200 getting a look on the elder NBA’s grand stage.
“It’s been like a dream in the making, like me turning a dream into a reality,” said McKinnie. “Just starting the year off basically coming through a tryout and having to make it and making it far enough to make training camp and then doing well in training camp and making the official roster. To starting the season coming off the bench, coming in every day working hard trying to get better, trying to do stuff to help the team get wins. That eventually helped push me into the starting lineup and progressing through that to this All-Star selection kind of reflects on the work I’ve been putting in so far.
“For me to be one of the guys selected, it means I’ve been doing something well and people have been noticing,” McKinnie added. “I’m real excited to go to New Orleans and participate in the events and represent the Windy City Bulls. I’ve never been there before. I think it’s something great for me and for the organization with this being the first year. It’s beneficial for both of us.”
That’s perhaps typical of McKinnie, an unselfish young man who’s accepted every and any role with the Windy City Bulls, but who’s play has been to startling—especially for a so called nobody—that even with NBA players coming back and forth from the Bulls and Portland Trailblazers and roster changes, McKinnie went from the bench to starting as an essential component of the competitive Windy City team.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
“You could tell in training camp you had a talented player,” said Windy City coach Nate Loenser. “But then you think, ‘What is the catch? What are you missing here?’ For his part there hasn’t been one. He’s worked hard, he’s had a great attitude. Even when we were going through a tough time losing games his comments were always positive, upbeat, very level headed, very mature. Not boisterous, not a very loud guy; just a good person and professional. Not a high maintenance guy you have to worry about. Just a great guy and we are fortunate to have him. Sometimes you just need an opportunity; that is the D-league. Sometimes worlds collide at the right time and good things happen to good people.”
McKinnie is averaging 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, the latter fifth in the league, in just under 30 minutes per game. He came off the bench for much of the season and now starts. He’s had 11 double/doubles without a play.
“The more minutes he got, the more productive he got and we decided to put him into the starting lineup and he never looked back,” said Loenser. “It’s not so much what he’s done. It’s what he hasn’t: He hasn’t taken steps back, he hasn’t had bad days. He just continues to show up and you know what you’ll get and it seems odd to expect a double/double out of him, but he has been consistent. You don’t have to run a lot of plays for him. He gets his baskets because he is consistent and constantly does things well, runs the floor, gets great looks, beats his man down the court. Our guys find him so he gets transition points. He crashes the boards on offense relentlessly, so he gets four to eight points from that; knows our system. He does a good job not letting it affect him whether we have NBA guys with us or the regular D-league guys. He has a way of getting his game on the floor whether our situation changes or the opponent changes.”
It’s hardly what anyone expected. The D-league rules for the tryout route to encourage community participation basically exclude players who seemed to have any possibilities. You could not have been invited to the NBA pre-draft or Portsmouth camps, could not be an all-conference player in college.
“He’s exceeded all expectations,” said Bulls assistant general manager Brian Hagen, who doubles as Windy City general manager. “That’s a credit to him. He’s worked real hard, had a great attitude and is playing at a high level every day. You’d seen Wisconsin-Green Bay over the years and you said to yourself, ‘Why don’t I remember him better?’”
The cracks the bouncy 6-8, 220-pound forward fell through were deep crevices to basketball oblivion. He transferred from Curie to Marshall in high school, wasn’t a star and went to Eastern Illinois, transferred to Wisconsin-Green Bay and tore his meniscus twice.
He still had dreams and desire.
He got a job playing for a second division team in Luxembourg and then in Mexico. He came back to the U.S. to play in three-on-three tournaments.
But he never lost hope or belief, or his commitment to work toward life goals. He accepted every challenge and setback with a positive attitude and outlook, never bitter or resentful, always hopeful and positive. He didn’t blame anyone, point fingers or give up. He kept going back to work with an upbeat attitude and appealing enthusiasm. It’s carried him from just a face in the crowd to a guy who may yet have a crowd around him.
(Photo Credit: John Alexander)
“Even as an open tryout guy you have odds against you as far as your affiliate guys you earmark for your preseason camp. They are supposed to be your core guys and then your first round pick will be a major component,” noted Loenser about McKinnie’s long odds to even make the Windy City team. “We had an expansion draft where we had higher draft picks with D-league experience and we made some trades. So your open tryout guys are under the radar guys you aren’t necessarily counting on to make your team; but he cracked our rotation immediately.
“His athleticism is one of the first things that jumps out at you, the way he runs, jumps, moves his feet, especially for a guy his size,” says Loenser. “Once he got into camp in our five on five situation you could see he could get his athletic ability into the game. Sometimes you have guys with athletic ability and the game moves too fast for them. They may look good in two line layups, but they can’t transfer to the game. From Day 1, he was getting his athleticism into the game. He wasn’t all conference, wasn’t part of an NBA camp; he’s essentially flown under the radar and has been a rags to riches story. It’s pretty awesome.”
McKinnie, 24, said making the D-league All-Star game was a goal he set for himself, though a bit after just making a D-league team. But this isn’t a kid who will accept what others have planned for him or of being dismissed.
“This is another opportunity,” McKinnie says. “Every game is an opportunity.”