By Tonya M. Huffman
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The NBA’s T.J. McConnell is familiar with the number 9.
There are 9-syllables in his complete name, Timothy John McConnell Jr. His birthdate, 3/25/1992, has 9-syllables and his last name has nine letters.
In 2015, he signed his official NBA contract in September, the ninth calendar month, which also has nine letters. He got married in 2017 on September 9 (9/9). His Indiana Pacers Jersey sports the number nine on the back. There are other connections to this number [more on that in a minute], but his most important connection is to his roots, which are firmly planted right here in Pittsburgh.
T.J. McConnell Jr. was the oldest of three children born to Timothy and Shelly on March 25, 1992 in Pittsburgh. His nine-letter last name is probably familiar to you already, because The McConnells have long been dubbed the “First Family of Pittsburgh Basketball.” He played high school ball at Chartiers Valley and college hoops at Duquesne for two seasons before transferring to the University of Arizona.
T.J.’s father, Tim, played basketball and is a coaching legend at Char Valley. He booked more than 500 wins and six WPIAL titles as coach of the boys’ team. In 2018 he swapped jobs when the school’s girls’ head coaching job became available. And you may have heard about some of his aunts and uncles including Suzie McConnell-Serio, a former WNBA Coach of the Year, United States Olympian and former head coach at both Duquesne and Pitt.
Most of the rest of the family also has ties to either playing, coaching, or refereeing. You could say heinherited (nine letters, by the way) his basketball talent, he was around it his whole life. During his father’s 25-year career at Char Valley, T.J., his siblings and his cousins were known as “the travel babies” because they attended practices, games and mimicked the drills the players ran. It was a setting that T.J. says felt like home.
“The gym was my sanctuary, an environment I embraced and thrived in,” he says. “I remember going to my dad’s practices, to games, being in the gym with family. I don’t know where I’d be without basketball.”
But McConnell’s relationship with basketball was a two-way street. He got really good at the game he loved; he led with an infectious intensity. As a junior, he averaged 22.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 5.9 steals per game; he also was named second team all-state. As a senior, McConnell was team captain and averaged 34.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game as he led the Colts to a 29-2 record, a WPIAL title, and a berth in the PIAA Class 3A state championship game. He was also a three-time section MVP, was named Class 3A Player of The Year by the Pennsylvania Associated Press and the Post-Gazette’s Male High School Athlete of the Year, following his senior year.
“I was thankful and humbled to have a great high school basketball career and to have received so many accolades,” he said. “This was also nice because it really put Pittsburgh on the map … people [could] see that good [athletes] can come out of Pittsburgh.”
After high school, McConnell took his talents to Duquesne University. At Duquesne he was able to cultivate his talents, but the team wasn’t setting the world on fire. In his first two seasons, the Dukes were a middling squad, finishing 19-13 and 16-15 respectively.
In March 2012, the NCAA Basketball Tournament began and the first two rounds were held in Pittsburgh. T.J. and his dad, Tim, watched Ohio State beat Gonzaga, 73-66 to advance to the Elite 8. During that game, T.J. McConnell had an epiphany and told his dad simply, “I’m transferring to Arizona.” His goal was to win the National Championship.
He did not return to Duquense and instead, transferred to The University of Arizona. He sat out the 2012-2013 basketball season due to NCAA transfer rules. McConnell played during the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons, both culminating in Elite Eight appearances. Following college, McConnell declared for the 2015 NBA Draft. After going undrafted, he joined the Philadelphia 76ers for the 2015 NBA Summer League. The Summer League allowed McConnell to develop his talents further. In September 2015, he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was on, well, “Cloud 9.”
“I had raw emotion. I was happy, and the fact that I was able to live out my dream was awesome,” McConnell said. He played in Philadelphia until the end of the 2019 season. He worked hard on his game.
“I try to be a good teammate on and off the court and give my teammates the ball to make sure the offense runs smoothly. I fight for my job every day, and it motivates me to work hard,” he said. Last July,McConnell opted for a change of scenery. He signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Indiana Pacers.
“The Indiana Pacers are a great team, a young team, and very talented. We can do some special things with the pieces that are already here and with the pieces that have been added, he said. “I’m excited to be a part of it.”
It’s also not lost on McConnell that he is playing in the most basketball-crazed states in the country, “The fans love basketball, and I have a lot of respect for the culture and community in Indiana.”
But being a professional athlete means more to McConnell than just an opportunity to play the game. It’s his family roots in Pittsburgh that has gotten himself involved in philanthropic activities. Although, currently a novice philanthropist he plans to expand his role in that area,
In 2017, McConnell participated in the “Dimes for Dollars” initiative benefiting the Sixers Youth Foundation. For every assist he made, Firsttrust Bank donated $7.76 to the foundation, an amount McConnell matched. In 2017, McConnell. was given the “Good Guy Award” by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. He also spends time mentoring younger players.
“I know how it feels to be in a Summer League. If these players have any questions, I support them and will answer any questions they have,” McConnell said. Through a special program, McConnell has also been given the opportunity to mentor a child whose father lost his life in the line of duty. Chris Frison’s dad, Demetrius, was killed in Iraq on April 10, 2011, exactly one month after the soldier’s 26th birthday.
“This child went through something tragic, and at his age, having someone to talk to in his time of need is huge,” McConnell said. “He’s taught me to be a better person and to always be positive.”