By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
While playing in rec-league-quality gymnasiums across Luxembourg, 4,000 miles away from his hometown of Chicago, Alfonzo McKinnie used to tell his friend and teammate Joey Schiele, “I’ve got to get under those big lights.”
McKinnie was spending his nights in a house in the heart of Luxembourg after practice, wondering what the next step would be to realize his dream of becoming an NBA player — a goal he had set for himself when he was only five years old.
“I just would sit in the house. I was kind of isolated,” McKinnie told the Examiner. “It was tough. Talk about humble beginnings.”
After transferring colleges twice, playing overseas for two different countries — including Luxembourg — and even paying for a G-League tryout in 2016, earlier this month, McKinnie earned a two-year NBA contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, he played at Oracle Arena on opening night.
“I’m conditioned for adversity,” McKinnie said. “My journey has been so crazy and I’ve been through so many ups and downs. It’s prepared me for now. I just want to come in and do what I can to keep the success going.”
Coming out of Marshall High School in Chicago — the school featured in the 1994 film “Hoop Dreams” –McKinnie wasn’t highly recruited. Playing on a team with seven seniors, standing out to recruiters was a difficult feat. First, he landed at Eastern Illinois, where he averaged 7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds over two years. Then, he transferred to Wisconsin-Green Bay.
There, McKinnie would suffer a torn meniscus in his knee that would require two surgeries. For a player who went to sleep holding a basketball, shooting it at an imaginary hoop over his bed, it was a difficult situation to swallow.
“The second time, I had an idea of what to expect but it was nowhere near that.” McKinnie revealed. “I had a recovery time of 4-6 weeks. Then it was 6-8 weeks, 8-12 and then it was whenever he was ready to play.
“Nobody knew my body the way I knew it. So even though I had gotten cleared at one point, at the same time I just knew physically I wasn’t ready.”
In 2014, McKinnie finally was ready, and started in 20 of the 33 games he appeared in for the Phoenix. After averaging 8 points and 5.3 rebounds with a 45-percent shooting percentage, McKinnie — not even a fringe prospect — set out to play overseas in Luxembourg.
“A lot of the guys had day jobs. They had 9-5 jobs,” he said. “I would play [NBA] 2K, Netflix, whatever I could do to stay occupied.”
During this time, McKinnie would routinely call his mother for emotional support, something that he said helped him stay sane while overseas. Sometimes the calls would come in at 3 a.m., Chicago time — three hours before his mother, Elisa Bryant, would start work as a post office worker.
“I would update him on things that was going on at home, make him feel comfortable and let him know that his family loves him,” Bryant said. “That would keep him going. Encouraging words, thats was a must for me.”
As the sole American on the East-Side Pirates, McKinnie became a focal point for the first time in his basketball career, stretching back to high school. In 2015, he averaged 24.6 points, 15.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.5 blocks.
Then, he received an offer to play closer to home the next season, in Mexico, for the Rayos de Hermosillo. He helped lead the Rayos to a regular-season title in 2016.
After one season in Mexico, McKinnie would represent the United States for the FIBA three-on-three World Championships later that year.
“I used it for conditioning and working on little stuff,” McKinnie said. “I had to get used to playing 3-on-3. It kind of helped sharpen up my defensive skills.”
McKinnie still didn’t receive many professional opportunities in the United States, but returning to play overseas wasn’t an option. Enter: The Windy City Bulls, the Chicago Bulls’ G-League affiliate, which was approved as an expansion franchise in 2015. There, McKinnie would pay a $150 entrance fee in order to participate in an open tryout that consisted of 100 NBA hopefuls.
McKinnie would land one of the 10 roster spots available, earned a starting role only a few weeks in, and put up 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor. He was even selected as a G League All-Star that season.
“That really opened my eyes to say, ‘I can really play in the NBA,’” he said. “I was playing against guys who were on assignment, or had been in the league before. Just NBA-caliber guys and I was holding my own and doing well.”
That offseason, he went through several mini-camps for NBA teams, finally landing in Toronto under a non-guaranteed contract after participating in the team’s summer league program.
McKinnie made the roster out of camp, and sent a jersey to his friend, Joey, in Luxembourg. The two continued texting regularly. That season, McKinnie averaged 3.8 minutes per game in 14 games up with Toronto. When with the G League Raptors 905, the 6-foot-8 wing averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds in 35 games.
With Golden State Warriors wing Patrick McCaw holding out after a championship season, and leaving his $1.7 million qualifying offer unsigned, McKinnie got his next shot. Brought in as a training camp invitee, McKinnie gave the Warriors what they needed — length, physicality and shooting touch.
In the preseason, he shot 38 percent from the field, scored 6.6 points and pulled down 5 rebounds per night and averaged 18.6 minutes per game.
After announcing that he’d be converted from an Exhibit 10 contract to a two-way deal early on Oct. 12, the Warriors announced that they were signing McKinnie to a two-year NBA deal that same day.
“I said, ‘You made it big fella, this is your dream,'” Bryant said.
His former teammate Schiele also chimed in.
“He hit me up recently,” McKinnie said. “He said, ‘You’re under the big lights now.’”