By Sam Smith
Alfonzo McKinnie loved that bus ride from Grand Rapids and then onto Ft. Wayne. He loved the 4:45 a.m. start after a night game to make it to Canton the next day and, oh that luxurious Hampton Inn.
“I’m having so much fun,” says McKinnie, the Windy City Bulls’ pojo stick 6-8 forward from Chicago’s West Side North Lawndale neighborhood. “I’d been playing basketball for free all my life. To get a check to play, to be a professional, it’s great.”
The NBA is where fantasies are realized; the NBA’s Developmental League is where the dreams take flight, one step from the 20,000 fans and chartered air planes and Ritz hotels with the free bathrobes and slippers and the multi million dollar contacts. But there’s a common denominator; they all are part of the brotherhood of professional basketball players. And Alfonzo McKinnie sometimes can’t believe he’s part of the club.
McKinnie, 24, is averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds for Windy City, the team’s energizer bunny sixth man who has traveled a most unlikely road from the city’s angry West Side to small colleges, overseas and an open tryout to not only make the team but become one of its most valuable players.
Like most D-league players, McKinnie is long on belief and effort and barely short in some vital area, his being just not quite enough of a shooter to be a modern wing player in the NBA. But he’s also not very far away with his upbeat attitude and trampoline game.
He’s something of the so called tweener, a bit small for power forward at maybe 215 pounds and not quite with that stretch four range to shoot. So he works on his shot, and with his amazing leaping ability, improving mid range game and all out hustle, he may find a place in the NBA. His commitment and enthusiasm would fit well in any NBA locker room.
Which is the great thing about the D-league. They’re thrilled to be there despite the hardships and lack of recognition. They play hard, practice feverishly and bond about the shared sacrifice. And they all have stories.
McKinnie’s began on the dangerous West Side, the familiar enough experience of living with an extended family, his mom working long hours in the post office to provide, moving around to different houses, trying to keep your head down.
This is how frightening it is to live there and the city’s effective betrayal of its residents: McKinnie was home last spring after playing his first professional year in Luxembourg. It’s between Germany and Belgium. No, he and his friends didn’t know, either. So Alfonzo didn’t have anywhere to go and his family was concerned. Then a friend playing in a league in Mexico got him a spot and he was off to Mexico.
“When I do come home, my family is on my back a lot, telling me what not to do, where I should not go,” said McKinnie. “There’s a lot of stuff happening in Chicago and a lot of people get caught in the wrong places at the wrong times. 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.”
Yes, that’s what it’s come to in certain sections of the city’s West and South sides. Their families are happy when they can get a job in Mexico for safety.
Now, talk about heaven. McKinnie is living in an apartment complex in Hoffman Estates near the Sears Centre with his D-league teammates, housing part of the contract. Talk about luxury.
“Growing up in Chicago, the Bulls were the team,” said McKinnie. “Everyone wanted to be like Mike, so everyone wanted to play basketball. I started organized ball in sixth grade for the first time. Before that it was a rim in the alley or going to the playground and (shooting) on monkey bars, any way I could play. It’s just what you do growing up in the city.”
McKinnie started high school at Curie, but then moved to join his mom and transferred to powerhouse Marshall, which famously had the first all-black state champion and state champion from Chicago.
“It was the big time basketball school,” said McKinnie, who initially was ineligible as a junior. “Even when I didn’t know (I’d be going there) I’d watch them play and knew all the guys they had; people talked about them so much on the West Side of Chicago. Coming in they had the tradition of being rough, gritty defense. You watch (Marshall grad of the Houston Rockets) Patrick Beverley and how hard he plays. Some might think he plays dirty, but that’s what he was taught at Marshall, defense first. 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.”
And then there is the misfortune that can come with the hard work and the battles to survive and endure. McKinnie was lightly recruited with just one year at Marshall and not a big scorer. He got a chance to play at Eastern Illinois. After his second year, he transferred to Wisconsin-Green Bay, where at the end of his red shirt season he tore the meniscus in his knee. The he tore it again and had it removed. And then he could sympathize with some of the great ones.
“It went a four-to-six week recovery, to six-to-eight, to eight-to-twelve,” recalled McKinnie. “It became, ‘Whenever he is ready to play, he can play.’ But for me it was hard because I knew my body the best; my knee never fully recovered until the middle of my last year. I was able to play, but I didn’t feel like it was back.”
Sound familiar, cleared to play but unable to, outsiders doubting his heart and commitment?
“I saw a lot of people down talking about D. Rose because of his injury. It’s a tough injury to come back from and then you end up hurting it again, it’s real frustrating,” explained McKinnie. “You play basketball every day. That’s what D. Rose does. You think he doesn’t want to play? I felt his pain, what he was going through and then seeing all the people on social media bashing him because of the games he didn’t play when they said he could play. But you have to go through it to understand.”
McKinnie recovered and got a job on a second division club in little Luxembourg, the only American on the team. So suddenly from being a lifetime role player, energy guy, motivator he had to be the scoring go-to guy.
“I’d never been the No. 1 option,” McKinnie said. “I had to adjust to that and be a vocal leader on the court. I did pretty well, averaged like 26 points and 16 rebounds.”
It was then back home and on to Mexico for a few months, the life of the basketball gypsy, always looking for the next job, always hoping for the big break, the special chance.
It’s rarely a direct route. It makes them stronger, in a way, and why you shouldn’t overlook them too quickly. They know sacrifice, commitment and staying with it.
McKinnie was invited to try out for the three-on-three championships, which, of course, McKinnie had never heard of. He turned them down twice and then heard Bulls assistant Randy Brown was running the workouts at the West Side Quest MultiSport. You follow your chances where they occur; not where they are convenient.
“He coaches the Bulls, played with Michael Jordan,” McKinnie recalled himself thinking. “I thought, ‘All right, maybe I can open some eyes playing for a well known guy.’ I went there and did well and they picked me. I still didn’t understand how serious it was.”
McKinnie got on a team with D-league player Mycheal Henry, also from Chicago and with the Oklahoma City D-league team, DeAndre Liggins, who now plays with the Cavs and Stefhon Hanna, who played briefly with the Bulls. They were a dynamo. They won the nationals in Colorado Springs, where USA Basketball takes over and they went on to represent the U.S. in China and the United Arab Emirates. “Heck, I’d never even been to Colorado before,” said McKinnie of his new world travels.
But the life of the itinerant basketball player is the next job. McKinnie could now have had a spot in a bigger European league, but that NBA dream lives on in the back of their minds. In the summer, the Bulls open up the Advocate Center training facility to pickup games. Some of their players and possibilities play, though the coaches and staff are not involved. McKinnie got a chance to join in.
“I was in the Advocate playing pickup games and being able to work out with Bulls guys,” he said. “Being in the gym with those guys for a month before training camp, I thought that was a big opportunity because I felt that could take me toward the NBA. I didn’t (get invited) to training camp, but I was able to be looked at. With this the first year of the Windy City Bulls they weren’t sure what they would do; I thought I might have a chance.”
McKinnie then made it through an open tryout of some 200 hopefuls to make the Windy City roster. And he’s 15th in the league in rebounds, averaging more than 26 minutes per game and generally in the group finishing games.
“I look at the D-league as an upgrade from where I was last year,” McKinnie says. “Being to play in the D-league and produce a little bit, you never know who is watching. I feel I’ve gotten better and helped the team and we have a long season to go and feel I can get better.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t get a college offer until late in my senior year. I started just playing basketball as something to do and something to stay out of trouble,” says McKinnie. “It turned into something different and, ‘Maybe you can be good, maybe you can go to college and get a scholarship.’ Then that pro level dream started to drive me, become a reality. I was able to get a job after college.
Whether it was in Luxembourg or wherever, I was a pro basketball player. I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled. It was my first time out of the country, staying by myself, getting paid to play basketball.
“Now we get to play in all these cities; it’s a great experience,” says McKinnie. “It’s not the NBA, but NBA guys play in the D-league. I played against guys who I watched on TV playing in big time colleges, like Kentucky. And now I’m playing against them. And doing well. Each game you try to learn, try to produce and help the team. Coming off the bench, I try to keep the energy up and keep things going where the starters left off; that’s my role. You don’t go to the NBA and become a star from the D-league. So this is kind of preparing me, but I still have a lot to work on.
“Being so close to home, all my people being able to come to the home games,” says McKinnie, smiling at the thought. “Each game I get a like a million text messages for tickets and have to decide who gets; but it’s all love.”