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'Sit your ass down!': T.J. McConnell is in a groove and his friendly banter excites Pacers crowd
Coming off the best week of his career, he reminded the 76ers what they let go. This is backstory of his increased production and relationship with the fan courtside.
A minute into the second quarter, T.J. McConnell jumped in front of a pass at mid-court, took two dribbles and then tossed it to Kelan Martin, who was trailing behind and scored the layup. The 76ers called timeout.
In a matter of 80 seconds to begin the second frame, Justin Holiday hit two 3s and then Martin finished in transition to grow the Pacers’ lead from seven to 15. They had a double-digit lead most of the night. But what happened during this timeout is unforgettable. It was a turning point.
McConnell turned towards the west stands and raised his both arms up to ask for cheers from the fans, then pointed at the seats right at center court.
“Sit your ass down!” McConnell shouted emphatically as while looking at the fan and gesturing for him to do so. “Sit down!” he repeated, then returned to urging fans to make some noise. It was a galvanizing moment for a fan base that has been apathetic.
These moments were rare last season as fans couldn’t attend games in many cities and at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, capacity was cut to 25 percent, or about 4,500 seats.
“I just try to get them involved in the game because when they’re up and rowdy and cheering really loud, this is a really, really tough place to play,” McConnell said afterward.
He’s told opposing fans to sit down before. He exchanged words with a Knicks fan courtside two weeks ago and he once told Kyle Lowry to stop whining. It’s McConnell’s Pittsburgh mentality.
The fan he directed his comment at this time was wearing a 76ers jersey and hat.
And T.J. knew him.
It was Super Fan Alan Horwitz, who is known as the 76ers Sixth Man. “The disrespect for a man my age…” he wrote to me on Twitter. It was all in good fun. “I guess I shouldn’t have talked sh*t to him pregame.”
The two met in 2015 when McConnell was an undrafted guard out of the University of Arizona just trying to earn a roster spot. Top Pacers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce was also there in Philly, an assistant on Brett Brown’s staff.
“He’s like family, we’re really close,” McConnell said of Horwitz after the game. “So the banter you see is genuine and all love. He’s one of the greatest guys. He flew all the way out here to see the game and also to come see me. I have a lot of love for that guy.”
After his rookie contract expired in 2019, McConnell became a free agent for the first time. The 76ers moved on, he didn’t exactly understand why but he’s also never badmouthed the franchise. They gave him his start.
He didn’t have much of a relationship with anyone in Indy, but had completed his Pacers pre-draft workout with Myles Turner and swears he was a big reason why the Pacers took Turner 11th overall in 2015.
Free agency then was a stressful time. He didn’t know what to expect but was hoping at least a few teams were interested. The Pacers were and signed him to a two-year non-guaranteed deal with no promises made in terms of a role. He began the 2019-20 season with the third unit in practice for coach Nate McMillan.
“I’ve worked for everything and I’ll continue to work for everything,” he told me after joining the Pacers. Obviously, that was a great value signing and this past summer, the Pacers signed him to a long-term partnership. A four-year extension worth up to $35.2 million. Now he owns a home in town and it’s where he’s raising his 11-month-old son, Trace.
McConnell’s likability factor is high; he has friends on every team, just watch him before the game or during stoppages. So it’s no surprise that McConnell struck up a relationship with Horwitz, a regular sitting courtside at 76ers home games.
When McConnell faced the 76ers for the first time as Pacer in 2019, a fan section traveled to The Fieldhouse and cheered for McConnell but against the Pacers. When he returned to Philly, about five hours from his hometown of Pittsburgh, there was a framed jersey given to him and a tribute video played during the first timeout.
There was also a letter from general manager Elton Brand “AKA Ol' School Chevy.” That's how he signed the letter attached to the jersey thanking him for his contributions with the franchise.
“You earned the respect of your teammates and the passionate Philly fans with your intensity, effort and commitment. For that, we are forever appreciative.”
McConnell was part of The Process and has maintained relationships from his time there, like with Horwitz. “It was one heck of a ride,” he told me his first year as a Pacer.
McConnell is the Pacers’ most intense player. He’s competitive as hell and doesn’t want to lose. So as much fun as he was having with the friendly banter, it was also pumping him and his teammates up throughout the game.
This group started the season 1-6 and just returned from a four-game road trip out west. It was their third game in four days, and the first game back home is typically the most challenging. So they needed the extra energy.
“His energy is contagious and it’s hard to match and it’s hard to create yourself,” said Holiday, who made his first seven shots and finished with a season-high 27 points off the bench. “When you have a player like T.J. that plays hard, isn’t afraid of anything, brings energy which unites the rest of the team, it’s just hard to have that.”
Before the game, 76ers coach Doc Rivers was asked about the former 76ers guard.
“A little sucker,” he immediately replied. “He’s like a little irritant. I mean he’s good. He’s just solid, high IQ. There’s a bunch of guys that play that role in our league and they all are tough, they’re pesky, but they’re good. They’re more than just a pain, they’re actually good players. He’s making his jump shots, which I think has really helped him.
“He keeps getting better at what he does. I watched that Utah game and he singlehandedly turned the game around. That’s what he does.”
McConnell’s been called a lot of things, so how does he feel about this description?
“It’s not the best compliment,” he said with a grin, “but I’ll definitely take it.”
For Horwitz, it was a brief trip to Indy. He arrived just before 5:00 p.m., two hours before tip-off, and was en route back to Philly via charter plane by the time McConnell had talked with us media after the Pacers 118-113 win.
"He's family to me,” Horwitz wrote. And he added that they do charity work together.
By the final two minutes, after McConnell scored three straight times down the floor to lock up the win, Horwitz obeyed. He lost the bet.
So he put on his No. 9 navy blue McConnell Pacers jersey and sat down (as pictured above).
McConnell just completed the best week of his pro career. And because of it, he talked with reporters after each of the last five games, more than any other Pacer.
He scored 19 points in Portland, 18 in Sacramento, 16 more with nine assists in Denver and 21 in Utah. Then against his former team, McConnell once again finished the game. He tallied six of his eight points during a key 59-second stretch, and had nine assists in 22 minutes. It was an efficient and productive outing.
“Just trying to let the game come to me,” he said. “Pick my spots and take advantage of mishaps. Push the pace on offense, be as disruptive as I can on defense and do whatever it takes to help us win.”
Can you tell he’s going to be a coach one day? That’s his plan, but not for many more years.
It took a few weeks for both McConnell to get here. The team is now on their third coach in three seasons and although not a lot is different, terminology and how he’s played is different.
The message from coach Rick Carlisle was simple. “Our game is a different game when he’s in the game,” he said. “We need him to just do what he does, which is be T.J. McConnell because there’s nobody else in the league quite like him. We’re just feeding him reinforcement of do what you do.”
Added McConnell: “I just feel like he keeps putting me in position to succeed, has confidence in me and calling plays and just tells me to be me. Get in the paint, be disruptive on defense, be a pest, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
His midrange accuracy is back and he's confidently shooting his outside shot. That was his primary focus this offseason while working out daily with his father, a longtime basketball coach. Since the season started up, he’s also gotten close with assistant Jenny Boucek, who is excellent with details and she’s helped tweak his shot. They connected immediately.
“T.J. has really worked on his 3-ball, he’s worked on his game relentlessly this summer and throughout the season,” said Malcolm Brogdon, who recorded his second career triple-double. “To see him scoring the ball as he is and to be as confident and comfortable as he is, everybody in that locker room is extremely happy.”
The Pacers had their starting backcourt of Brogdon and Caris LeVert together Saturday night for just the second time all season. That’s meant McConnell and others have had to step up and play even more through the first 14 games. A larger opportunity has led to more minutes and production for McConnell. He's averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 assists per game in November, and he's made 5 of 9 3s.
He plays hard at all times, up 20 or down 20, like he’s unaware of the score.
“I think he’s just in a very, very comfortable space,” said Holiday. “T.J.’s always been a very confident player to me, but I feel like his confidence level this year has been a little different.”
The Pacers are now 6-8, winners of two in a row and three of their past four games and just as McConnell is settling in, so is the team.
“I love being here, I love playing here and hopefully we get on a roll,” he said. “I think our record certainly isn’t indicative of how good we are.”
It was T.J. who landed a sizable contract extension in the offseason, played a bigger role when needed and scored three straight buckets Saturday to come out on top against the Sixers — and his courtside pal.
And afterward, they hugged it out. Just as family members do.