How Alfonzo McKinnie Wound Up in NBA Finals After Adversity, Patience

OAKLAND - Warriors forward Alfonzo McKinnie was in a similar scenario 13 months ago. 

He was on a playoff team preparing for Finals fun. He was playing in a major market surrounded by multiple all-stars. He even witnessed one of LeBron James' greatest playoff moments in person.

Above all, as a two-way player for the Toronto Raptors, he saw most of his team's postseason journey from the bench, where his uniform was a league-mandated sport coat, designer pants and Nike shoes. 

More than a year later, armed with a prominent role on the champs, McKinnie is ready to battle against his former team in the NBA Finals.

"I'm where I'm supposed to be," McKinnie told NBC Sports Bay Area recently. 

McKinnie has made quite the impression over the last few weeks. In Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, McKinnie grabbed nine rebounds, finishing a team-high plus-24 to help Golden State overcome a double-digit deficit and beat the Portland Trailblazers. Two nights later, starting in place of injured forward Andre Iguodala, he finished with a postseason career-high 12 points, helping the Warriors advance to their fifth straight NBA Finals. 

Postseason performances seemed like a distant dream more than five years ago, when McKinnie - after going undrafted out of Wisconsin-Green Bay - signed a contract with the East Side Pirates in Luxemburg's second division. While he found success on the court, averaging 26 points and 15 rebounds, he found it difficult to adjust to life a world away from home.

To find solace, McKinnie routinely called his mother, Elisa Bryant, back in the states. His frequency, coupled with the seven-hour time difference, forced Bryant to sleep with a cell phone in hand. 

"I always had the phone ready for Zo," said Bryant. 

McKinnie's persistence is rooted in his hometown, Westside, Chicago. More than 25 years before he was born, millions of African Americans moved from the South in the hundreds of thousands to Northern cities like Detroit, Harlem, St. Louis and Chicago in an effort to escape racism and acquire industrial jobs in the steel, railroads and automobile industries.

Due to overpopulation in the Southside, many blacks moved to the Westside. However, by the 1960s, White Flight to Chicago's suburbs, coupled with plants closing, poverty began to rise. 

To combat the perils of the inner city, the Black Panther Party began to sprout up chapters around the city. Fred Hampton, the party's 21-year old chief of staff, lived in the Westside suburb of Maywood. Under Hampton's leadership, the Panthers established free breakfast and health programs in local schools around the area, becoming a rising star organizer. But in the early hours of Dec. 4, 1969, Hampton, along with Mark Clark, were killed in an FBI-led raid in which law enforcement riddled the apartment with an estimated 99 shots, with just one shot coming in return.

While both the FBI and local law enforcement contended that they used necessary force against the Panthers, a judgment in 1982 awarded a group of nine plaintiffs, including the mothers of Hampton and Clark $1.8 million in a settlement for the murders. 

In the decades following Hampton's murder, the crime rate began to increase, ballooning to 943 homicides by 1992. Four miles from the site of Hampton's death, McKinnie found himself adjacent to the perils of Chicago more than three decades later. As a sixth grader at Mason Elementary, a shootout broke out just outside of his classroom. 

"The teacher told everybody to fall to the floor," McKinnie remembers. "Yeah, that was crazy. That was crazy." 

"But I mean," he continued. "I done been around situations growing up when people started shooting at everybody. You just had to take cover. And I feel like, it's bad to say, but that's kind of like, it's not a norm, but if it happens, you're not surprised."

However, it was a decision made in West Chicago that may have changed McKinnie's life forever. After stints in Mexico and the Windy City Bulls - a G League affiliate of the Chicago Bulls - head coach Randy Brown called McKinnie with a message: "Get to the gym in 15 minutes."

McKinnie followed the orders, paying $175 for an open tryout and later making the team. In his lone season with the G League affiliate, which included former Detroit Piston Will Bynum, McKinnie averaged 14.9 points and 9.2 rebounds, earning a spot in the G League's All-Star Game. 

Following his G League stint, McKinnie signed a two-year non-guaranteed deal with the Toronto Raptors. However, minutes were hard to find, and he played just 14 games as he shuttled between the NBA and Toronto's G League affiliate 905 Raptors in nearby Mississauga, Canada. Perhaps the biggest moment of McKinnie's Raptor career came in Game 3 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when, in the final seconds, LeBron James went crosscourt and threw up a layup at buzzer right in front of McKinnie, who was in street clothes.  

By July 2018, he was cut and back in Chicago. With offers from leagues in Spain, Greece and Australia. McKinnie resisted, holding out hope for another chance in the NBA. 

"I felt like this is my window,"  McKinnie said. "And I didn't want to go into the season and miss my opportunity, being able to be in the league, because I was fresh. I mean I just got waived, I was fresh out, so people still knew who I was and stuff like that so I wanted to be around still." 

McKinnie's patience paid off. Just before the season, Kent Lacob, general manager of the Santa Cruz Warriors, along with Warriors Assistant Manager of Basketball Operations David Fatoki traveled to Chicago for a meal and an offer for the forward.

[RELATED: Ranking all 27 players in Warriors-Raptors clash]

With 14 roster spots filled and guard Patrick McCaw expected to re-sign with the team, Lacob offered McKinnie an Exhibit 10 deal - which carried a one-year minimum salary, including a $50,000 bonus and a spot on the Warriors G League team if he didn't make the opening night roster. 

Following the meeting, McKinnie gave himself a week to mull over the decision. During the moratorium, he sought the advice of many around him, including Bynum, who enjoyed an eight-year NBA career. 

"I don't care what Golden State offers," Bynum said. "You better take it."

By the end of the week, McKinnie was the Golden State Warriors' newest training camp invitee. 

When camp opened, McKinnie found himself in a battle for the last roster spot. With McCaw holding out, Golden State needed a backup wing to offset minutes for Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. McKinnie's competition was Danuel House, a sharpshooting guard who, like McKinnie, went undrafted and toiled in the G League for much of his young career. McKinnie shined in the preseason, averaging 6.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 18.6 minutes, including a 10-point, four-rebound performance against the Lakers in Las Vegas.

Hours after the game, on the plane ride back to the Bay Area, Lacob awoke McKinnie and instructed him to go to the back of the plane to talk to Kerr, who had some news. 

"I ain't gonna lie," McKinnie said. "I was nervous as hell."

Kerr, impressed with McKinnie's defense and rebounding prowess, informed him that the Warriors would be converting his Exhibit 10 deal into a two-year, non-guaranteed deal, in a move that Kerr says was made for June. 
"We value guys who are going to be able to play playoff games defensively. That's where Alfonso stood out." Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown said it all the time throughout camp. "Who would you feel comfortable with putting out there on the floor in a playoff game? The answer was Zo because he's really, really athletic. Even for an NBA player, he stands out athletically. Good size, smart, and on top of that his teammates love him. Tough, quiet, humble, unafraid."

During the season, McKinnie rewarded Kerr's trust, becoming a dependable role player, averaging 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in 14 minutes. A month into his tenure in Golden State, hours before a 146-109 win against the hometown Bulls, when he signed documents finalizing the purchase of a house for his mother. 

In the postseason, McKinnie has emerged as a consistent contributor for Kerr as an effective rebounder, helping the Warriors clinch their fifth straight Finals appearance. 

"Zo is not a guy you pick on. He's just too athletic. He's got too much size. Nobody ever looks at Zo and goes, 'Oh, let's go with that guy,'" Kerr said. "So that's a more valuable weapon to us."

Hours after the Warriors dispatched the Blazers, with his first Finals appearance more than a week away, McKinnie stood up from his cramped locker tucked in the Moda Center with a message for anyone within an earshot. 

"I used to make $1,500 a month and now I'm in the Finals," McKinnie said. "They don't know the grind."

[RELATED: Warriors savoring these Finals with uncertain futures]

Now, with a matchup against his former team on the docket, McKinnie hopes the "grind" will yield his first title. 

"Coming from Luxembourg and going to all these different places then finally getting a chance in the NBA and it was with Toronto," McKinnie said. "And you know, getting waived. Getting to go to the Finals for the first time and it being against Toronto? Like, that's a fairy tale story. Like, never heard of it." 

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