T.J. McConnell loves Philly, and the city loves him back

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T.J. McConnell.

T.J. McConnell was in Pittsburgh last weekend, making a few more plans for his wedding. He'll marry his high school sweetheart, Valerie Guiliani, in September.

But McConnell is having a premarital fling. The affair is with the city of Philadelphia. Just call it basketball bliss.

Timothy John McConnell II is in his second season as a point guard with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. All of a sudden, in two months, the 76ers have gone from NBA laughingstock to a team that won more games in January than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Sure, 7-foot rookie Joel Embiid has been a major reason for the 76ers' good fortunes this season, but the one who also has fueled the turnaround is the kid from Chartiers Valley High School, the one who was the object of "MVP … MVP" chants from fans in a January game. Heck, LeBron James and the Cavaliers reportedly wanted to land McConnell in a trade, but the 76ers said no thanks.

And to think, a season ago, Philadelphia was 10-72, enduring one of the worst seasons in NBA history. The 76ers are now 21-35, but since the calendar turned 2017, they are 13-11 and just 5½ games out of a playoff spot. Is it any coincidence that McConnell became the starting point guard in January? McConnell's averages as a starter are 9.0 points, 8.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game. He is now 18th in the league in assists, 19th in steals. He has had double-doubles. He had 17 assists in one game. He was one rebound away from a triple-double in another.

The City of Brotherly Love shows love for the 6-foot-2 kid, undrafted out of Arizona, who has been called a "kamikaze Marine" by 76ers coach Brett Brown.

"It seems like they love T.J. here," said Keith Pompey, who covers the team for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I think the team has always liked him. But I think the fans went from, 'Who the heck is T.J. McConnell?' to 'T.J. is our guy. You can't get rid of him.' "

Many wondered if McConnell would even make the 76ers this season, and he was the No. 3 point guard at one point. The 76ers signed point guards Jarryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez in the offseason. But Bayless played only three games before season-ending wrist surgery. And when Rodriguez missed some time with an ankle injury, McConnell became the starter in January.

Brown seems enamored with McConnell, 24.

"He's a Pennsylvania kid that nobody gave a chance," Brown said after a recent game. "I'm on my 17th point guard [since he has been coach]. You go through that massive volume of point guards and then have somebody who just doesn't go away. There's an injury, so you give him the ball and that's life. He seized the moment, grabbed the opportunity and he ran hard with it. To see him be rewarded, it's a great story."

The affection between Philadelphia and McConnell is mutual. The NBA all-star break was last weekend and McConnell came home for a few days to visit family and friends and watch his sister, Megan, a freshman at Chartiers Valley, play in a WPIAL playoff game.

"They would boo us last year, but that's just Philly for you. They just want you to play hard," McConnell said, relaxing on a couch in his family's home in Oakdale. "This isn't taking a shot at Pittsburgh, but I think the fans in Philly are more diehard than fans in Pittsburgh. We won only 10 games last year and we still had sellout crowds. I'm telling you it's one of the most passionate fan bases. When you start winning, that's a city you want to be in."

McConnell's life has changed lately because of his and the 76ers' success. A year ago, after one of the final games, McConnell and his father and a group of friends visited a club within walking distance of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. A worker announced there was a $10 cover charge, but free admittance with a 76ers ticket stub. The worker wanted $10 from T.J. McConnell.

"No, you don't understand. He played in the game," said McConnell's father, Tim Sr.

The worker didn't recognize T.J. and still wanted the money.

Now, McConnell is recognized just about everywhere he goes in Philadelphia. In January, he was interviewed live on "SportsCenter" the morning after he made a game-winner in the grill of the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony. McConnell was featured recently on the TV show "NBA Inside Stuff." A camera followed him around while he visited a few places in Philadelphia.

"I look pretty normal when I go out. It's not like I'm Joel Embiid when I go out," McConnell said. "But it's definitely different than last year."

Things are even different for McConnell in his hometown. Last Sunday, he went to the Penguins game at PPG Paints Arena, with tickets from Penguins goalie Matt Murray. On Saturday, he went to dinner in Bridgeville with some friends, including Gino Palmosina, who was McConnell's roommate for two years when McConnell played at Duquesne University before transferring to Arizona.

"Three or four people came up to him right away," Palmosina said. "One of the dishwashers even came out and said, 'I'm so proud of you. I bought the NBA TV package just to watch your games.'

"I've been out with him in Philly. He's recognized. The thing about him is he's still the same person who I roomed with at Duquesne. He's just playing at a bigger level of basketball. But he's still the same old T.J. And no matter who stops him, he'll take time to talk back."

McConnell says NBA life can be taxing because of travel, but he's loving life as a 76er, a Philadelphia resident and Embiid teammate.

"You see that video of him recently where he was on stage at a concert and he took his shirt off?" McConnell said. "He wasn't even drinking. He doesn't drink. He drinks Shirley Temples, seriously. But he's still the craziest. He's a great dude."

McConnell has a different lifestyle nowadays. He is making $874,636 in the second year of a four-year, non-guaranteed contract with Philadelphia. He has cut pasta out of his diet and eats very little bread and junk food. He weighs less now (187 pounds) than he did at Arizona (195). He said on "Inside Stuff" how he loved pears.

"I never knew he liked pears," joked his mother, Shelly, as she walked past her son. "What happened to the nachos without cheese and the hot dogs with just a bun and ketchup you used to eat?"

Mom might be T.J.'s biggest critic - and coach - nowadays. T.J. had a great career playing for his father, the ultra-successful coach at Chartiers Valley. As a senior in 2009-10, T.J. became only the second player in WPIAL history to score 1,000 points in a season.

"But he doesn't do coach-mode with me any more," T.J. said. "He's just complete dad-mode all the time now."

T.J. shakes his head and smiles. "But Mom, she'll say, 'What's wrong with you? You stunk that game. You gotta work on your shot.' "

But T.J. McConnell has already worked his way into an accomplishment. A point guard from suburban Pittsburgh makes it as a starter in the NBA? It's a hard-to-believe story.

"Last year, I think I proved I could maybe be a third-string player or maybe a serviceable backup," said McConnell. "This year, I think I've proven I'm definitely a backup and borderline starter in this league. I'd like to stay in Philly. I would love to do this for 10-plus years."

Said Pompey: "There's a lot of people here who think he's Philly tough. But he's really Pittsburgh tough."