It is so easy to see why Philly fans love T.J. McConnell. Talk to him for a few minutes and you’ll forget he’s an NBA player, and it’s not because of his baby face and those perfectly manicured locks (though that certainly helps). It’s because there’s a certain aura about him that makes you feel comfortable when you’re around him, and that talking to you isn’t any less important.
It’s like he’s just one of us.
There was a stat floating around out there that McConnell had the smallest hands at the 2015 NBA draft combine.
On cue, McConnell looked at his hands and spread out his fingers.
“Have you ever seen those Burger King commercials with like the incredibly small hands?” McConnell asked with a laugh.
“I was already skeptical I was going to make the NBA, but when they did all the testing, I was like, ‘If they really care about this, I am screwed.’”
From there, you know the story. McConnell went from summer league team to Sixers training camp invitee to getting called into Brett Brown’s office on that last day of roster cuts.
One by one, guys started to leave the facility. And, one of the guys came down and was like, 'Coach wants to talk to you.'
It felt like days going on the elevator, just going up two floors, and I walk into his office, and it’s Lloyd Pierce and Billy Lange sitting there. And that’s the cool thing about Coach, it’s such a special moment and he’s joking and says, ‘I wanted to cut you but my assistant coaches pulled my arm to keep you.' And he was like, ‘Congratulations, you made the team.'”
I had to sit down. To actually hear the words that: You did it. I can’t describe the feeling. The room kind of just started spinning a little bit, and I had to sit down and gather my emotions.
It was one of the best days of my life.”
Fast-forward through a 10-win season, a 28-win season, a 52-win season, and a roller-coaster of roles, that playful relationship with Brown is still very much the same.
“Sometimes, he’ll hit me in the arm," McConnell said, "and I’ll hit him back in the chest, and he’ll say: ‘Don’t break your hand before the game.’
“Because he thinks he’s strong."
McConnell shook his head like a son after his father makes a bad joke.
“He’s great. I just can’t put into words, he’s such a good person," McConnell said. "He’s genuine and he’s always there for the players and you don’t always have that, so I’ve been told.”
Back on the brink
McConnell has seen his minutes drop as the Sixers continue to grow Markelle Fultz and rookie Landry Shamet continues to shine. But, if McConnell had any sense of bitterness, you wouldn’t know it.
“He’s just a great coach to play for,” McConnell said of Brown. “I think our relationship has been great ever since I’ve been here.”
McConnell’s decreased minutes are something that weighs on Brown, who admitted over the weekend his disappointment with not being able to find him more time.
“He is a tremendous example for the things that we value,” Brown said recently. “Look at what he does now when he doesn’t get in the game. He is Markelle Fultz’s biggest fan, he is a tremendous teammate on the bench. He has sacrificed for allowing us, allowing me, to coach Markelle Fultz and try to grow him. He is one of my all-time favorites.”
Brown also mentioned that McConnell is in a contract year. McConnell’s final year of his contract becomes guaranteed on Jan. 10, 2019, and he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
He’ll be the first to tell you that he knows another NBA contract isn’t guaranteed.
“I find myself thinking about playing 10 years, but I don’t think I can afford to ever look ahead," McConnell said. "I have to be one of those guys that takes it day by day. If I look ahead and say I want to play 10 years, I don’t think I’m getting the best out of myself that day, so that’s my mindset.”
Life after the NBA
Living in the gym as a coach’s son, McConnell can’t imagine life without it.
“I think coaching is in my blood, but I want my family to come first,” McConnell said. “I know I want to coach, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it.”
Brown, too, is a coach’s son, but McConnell thinks a day will come when his current head coach isn’t anywhere near a gym.
“When he’s done coaching, I don’t think a lot of us will see him ever again, because I think he’ll go to New Zealand and live in like a little house in the wilderness and go fly fishing and probably have a long beard — that’s the type of guy he is,” McConnell said with a laugh. “It’ll be like the movie 'Castaway' trying to find him.”
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