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T.J. McConnell's newfound passion is wine and he's sharing it with the world one bottle at a time
He and a friend from Philadelphia launched "Off the Glass" with the intention to educate and encourage you to bond with those you love over wine.
NBA players are creatures of habit. They have established routines, for themselves and with the team — from their pre-game nap to when they arrive to the arena, which shoe they tie first, when they warm up and what they do to cool down after games.
Routine creates comfort, they’re controllable and repeatable for 82 games throughout a season. For T.J. McConnell, his routine on game night begins en route to the arena. Home and away, you can always count on the intense Pacers guard walking in with a cup of hot coffee in hand.
It’s part of his brand.
“I don’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t have it before a game,” he said.
McConnell used to make his own each day, but after he moved out to the suburbs last fall as his family was growing, a neighbor introduced him to Java House Coffee Bar and now a visit to their Clay Terrace location is required before he drives downtown for each home game. “I personally think it’s some of the best coffee I’ve ever had,” he said.
He started drinking the caffeinated drink, that is a daily enjoyment for so many, during his senior year at the University of Arizona.
“I wasn’t really serious about it,” the Pittsburgh native explained, “but when I got to the NBA and you’re getting in late, waking up early and doing all that stuff, I started drinking it a lot more.
“I now have two cups a day and I practically can’t function without it. It’s been a huge, huge part of my routine. Before a game, I have to have a coffee right before we get on the bus to go to the game.”
He’s done it in all six seasons as a pro. He typically drinks it black, but will get a latte for the espresso if he needs an extra boost or feels like switching it up.
McConnell starts each day with coffee and often ends it by enjoying red wine. “I’m passionate about wine,” he said, “and I’m obsessed with coffee because coffee is part of my everyday life.”
From Hennessy To the Grapes
Wine didn’t have any significance in his life until recently, especially over the past year. Being from Pittsburgh, he used to drink a lot of beer, Iron City Light in particular. But that catches up with you, both how you look and how you feel.
McConnell went undrafted in 2015, and then spent his first four seasons in Philadelphia with the 76ers. That’s where he met Nik Staukas, who introduced him to a new drink of choice: Hennessy and lemonade. And if he wanted to mix it up, it was Tito’s and Sprite.
It was also in Philadelphia where McConnell was introduced to Alex Fernberger after their wives — Valerie and Sarah, respectively — struck up a friendship at a 76ers game. “We immediately bonded over our love of wine,” Fernberger said.
If you hadn’t noticed, McConnell isn’t very active on social media. He last posted on his Twitter last November, and has been inactive on his Instagram since September … on his wedding anniversary … while casually mentioning that he was going to be a father.
T.J. and Valerie’s lives changed forever in January. “I’ve accomplished some good things in my career,” he told me after his first game back, “being a dad will be the best job I ever have by far.”
McConnell generally views social media as a time waster that’s not healthy because of all the negativity and the lack of consequences. Just search any player’s mentions after games, you’ll see what he means.
But in the last year, he has found a good reason to be on there: Wine.
The Idea Hatched Inside the Bubble
McConnell and his peers in the NBA had lots of time while in the Orlando bubble one year ago. They would play a game or practice — but then what? They couldn’t leave the Disney campus, couldn’t escape being around other teams so he chose to embrace it.
Frequently, he and Doug McDermott, his close friend on the Pacers, joined JJ Redick for dinner. McConnell and Redick were teammates for his final two seasons with the 76ers (2017-19) and remain tight. And during these dinners, they would enjoy not just drinking wine, but learning more about it. And bonding over it.
“I owe all of that,” McConnell said, “to JJ Redick. He got me started on wine.” And as he learned more about wine, he became obsessed with it. Redick enhanced it, and then he, too, admittedly became a wine snob.
“I try to read a bunch of books on wine,” he continued. “I just find the whole process fascinating — the way it’s made, the weather and everything that goes into it. To the final product, it’s an amazing thing to me.”
So much for houses and cars anymore in the NBA. These millionaires can spend their money on anything and over the last few years, wine has become the new standard for sophistication and style. Dwyane Wade (D Wade Cellars), Channing Frye (Chosen Family Wines) and CJ McCollum (Heritage 91) all have their own wine.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, both members of the 2003 draft class, helped lead the way. James often shares what he’s drinking on Instagram, although lately he’s been pushing his brand of Tequila more often.
“It’s such an extensive process that I think us athletes are drawn into it and want to know more,” McConnell said. “A lot of us NBA players have a thirst for knowledge, to learn as much as we can. It leads to camaraderie on team planes and just learning about it together. Wine is just pretty damn good to drink, too.”
Years ago, players used to pay ball boys to go off and quietly get them bottles of Grey Goose and Hennessy for their hotel rooms or the team plane. (I did it countless times; those two were the most requested, then we’d put it in a brown bag and deliver to their seat on the bus.)
Just like those pre-game food requests have turned to healthier options, the alcohol runs now are for wine.
Inside the bubble, Redick even ordered a wine fridge and had dozens of bottles delivered. He introduced McConnell, who brought wine into the bubble, to burgundy and they opened a Domaine Ponsot, which runs several hundred dollars per bottle.
McConnell used to seek recommendations from Redick when he dined out, sending over a photo from the restaurant’s wine list hours before dinner. Now the tables have turned, and McDermott is seeking out McConnell for the best options.
“Having T.J., when he answers in the summer when I’m at a restaurant, I try and hit him up on what he recommends. He’s usually too busy for me in the summer,” McDermott said with a big smile.
Now it’s become a hobby for him as well.
“When I first met T.J., I only knew about White Claws and beer,” he said. “He’s bringing all these bottles of wine that cost way too much — and I’d rather eat at a good restaurant, have a good steak. I learned so much about it. I still don’t really know the whole global market, what’s different, but I definitely have my fair share of bottles here that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Other Pacers like opening a bottle on the road and hanging out. Bonding was limited this past season due to the pandemic and rules in place set by the NBA’s health & safety protocols limited interactions, including most eating and drinking on the team plane. Still, they tried to do it when they could.
“It’s been kind of cool,” McConnell says. “We’ll open up a bottle or two as a group and talk about it and talk about the game. It’s kind of been a bonding thing.”
Pacers like Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb also splurge on wine. Malcolm Brogdon leans towards cabernet sauvignon.
“It’s something I enjoy,” the Pacers’ starting point guard said. “It’s definitely a hobby. I’m not an expert, I’ll never be an expert, but I enjoy learning about it and I take a lot of interest in it.
“I’ve talked to CJ McCollum a little bit. He has his own brand and I’ve had it — it’s a pinot — and it’s pretty good. Wine is a growing topic and love in the NBA. T.J. McConnell has actually been a guy that’s taught me a lot about wine.”
T.J. was on to something, and he knew it.
Staying Connected Through Wine
Last November, before the start of the most unusual NBA season, he launched “Off the Glass” with Fernberger. The concept, first imagined in the bubble, was simple: Share their passion for wine by showing what they’re drinking and educating others.
“Wine is best when shared with people you love, and people who love wine, too,” Fernberger said. “The page is no different, more fun because we are doing it together!”
Despite no marketing and only 23 posts, the account has more than a 1,000 followers who want to see what the two best friends are tasting. It’s not a wine club and they don’t sell merchandise or anything. They’re in it for friendship and the grapes that bring them together.
“We were both passionate and we’re in such a world now that is social media driven,” McConnell said. “We just said why not put our passion out there and show bottles that we’re drinking.”
Added Fernberger: “Since we are both busy, we decided it would be something fun to do together because it encourages us to drink the same bottles and talk about them, even though we don’t live in the same state anymore.
“T.J. and I talk about wine in some capacity or another almost every day. We mix it up between what we’re drinking or going to drink, purchasing wine, or just to “study” wines and regions we don’t know. We both have several books on wine — recommend “The Wine Bible” highly — so sometimes we will talk about something we learned.”
McConnell’s interest has grown with his knowledge. He’s fascinated by the process, the man hours it takes to plan, pick the grapes, bottle and ship the finished product. His palate is improving as well. He got into wine with cabernet sauvignon — the most popular red wine — and then Redick introduced him to pinot noirs, which have become a staple in the McConnell household.
“I feel like me and Alex are pretty normal guys and can show you don’t have to be drinking extremely expensive wine to enjoy it,” McConnell added.
The first bottle the pair savored together on this journey was an A.D. Beckham Creta pinot noir (seen below), which is about $60.
What’s In His Glass
McConnell had plans for a wine trip last summer, but then COVID threw a wrench in everyone’s plans. “This is the thing that hurts me to my core — I have not visited a winery yet,” he said.
He’s a big fan of pinots from Willamette Valley, Oregon and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, California. He didn’t want to come off as pretentious but also likes burgundy wines, what he referred to as “essentially the pinnacle of pinot noirs.”
During quarantine, in May and June of 2020, it was “rosé all day because it was the summer.
“I would say my palate is sophisticated, but it’s all over the place,” he said. “I’m not tied to one type of wine. I’m just a wine lover; I love all types.”
Screaming Eagle is a wine often consumed by NBA players, but that’s at least $1,000 a bottle and certainly not in the affordable category. McConnell mentioned Domaine Serene, which runs about $85 a bottle and Redick highlighted Versante Nord from Eduardo Torres Acosta, which can be had for about $35.
“My thing is if you like it, it doesn’t matter what price it is,” said McConnell. “Wine is wine, no matter the price. I think that’s the best advice I can give someone. You don’t have to be buying the expensive bottles because there’s great wine at price points all over the place.”
Redick constantly hunts out new wine to sip, McConnell tries to expand his range and for McDermott, wine has become his go-to drink.
“It really has,” he said with a smile. “It’s a nice way to relax and you don’t get too crazy. You can have it with dinner and enjoy it. It kinda makes you feel old, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m glad T.J. introduced me to it.
“T.J. wants to start is own vineyard someday so maybe I’ll contribute to that.”
Coaching is very likely in the future for McConnell; it’s the family business. His father, Tim, is a legendary high school coach in Pittsburgh and he has two aunts who have coached at a high level, Suzie McConnell-Serio, a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and Kathy McConnell-Miller.
Basketball is his present, though. McConnell is 29 years old and after two productive seasons with the Pacers, is due for his largest payday yet next month when he becomes a free agent.
He's coming off the best season of his career, averaging 8.6 points, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game — which ranked second in the NBA despite McConnell coming off the bench. He shot 56 percent from the floor and stole too many inbound passes to count.
Redick sent him a him a burgundy — a 1992 Domaine Ramonet — from his birth year to relish.
What will McConnell do to celebrate the new contract that will come his way? Likely open a bottle of pinot noir with his wife and then share what he’s having on the Off the Glass Instagram.
“When you share it with people you really care about and love, it just makes the whole experience all much better,” he said.