BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. - The phone calls usually are placed in the morning, or sometimes late at night, when Timothy John McConnell is finished with a game, sitting at his locker, or riding the team bus, with a desire to hear the familiar voice of the man who in some ways gave him everything.
Or gave him, at least, the most important things: confidence, passion, and direction. The 76ers point guard, who is known to most as T.J., credits his discovery of those things to his relationship with Tim McConnell, his father and coach at Chartiers Valley High School.
On the early afternoon of Oct. 26, T.J. contacted the elder McConnell to share what at the time was the best news of his life. It was a conversation that brought the coach known for his demonstrative voice to tears.
"He was the first one I called when I made the team," said McConnell, 23, an undrafted rookie out of Arizona who was also tearing up on the phone. "It was just a silence. I knew he was tearing up, because there's never like a silence when he's on the phone.
"And to hear my dad cry like that with such emotion, and hear how proud he was, it made me feel good that I can bring joy to his life for the work he's put in with me."
This was indeed a big moment for the father and son.
The kid who some said looked like a "paperboy" as a 10th grader is the first player from the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League to play in the NBA since Shaler High graduate Dan Fortson ended his 10-year career after the 2006-07 season.
But unlike Fortson, McConnell was always considered a long shot to make it to the NBA. And there's some uncertainty regarding his ability to remain in this league.
The Sixers will guarantee the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder's contract for $525,000 through the remainder of the season.
That shouldn't come as a shock.
While he has some limitations, and doesn't necessarily pass the eye test, he plays with an edge and toughness that enable him to compete on the NBA level.
McConnell even holds the distinction of being the only NBA player to have 12 assists in two of his first four games.
Back then he was supposed to be getting extended minutes and maybe starts only until Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten returned from knee surgery. Wroten has since been waived and McConnell - not Marshall - backs up Ish Smith.
"I think on the court, the emotion I play with, the energy, I think that's the way he coaches," McConnell said of his father. "He's intense. He does everything to the fullest and that's what I love about him."
How to tell the story of a player who has always defied the odds? It starts with his father, who grew up one of Tom and Sue McConnell's eight children in the Brookline neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
As the fourth oldest, Tim, now 51, had no choice but to fall in love with basketball at an early age.
His parents actually met in 1955, when his mother was a high school senior playing in a recreational-league game.
"It's in the family," Tim said. "It's in the blood."
That's an understatement.
Suzie McConnell-Serio, Tim's sister, is the women's head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and the most decorated player in the family. She is a former all-American point guard at Penn State, a two-time Olympian, a former standout for the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers, and a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
The eldest sibling, Tom, played at Davidson and is the coach of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania women's basketball team. Kathy, another sister, played at Virginia and had head coaching stints with the Tulsa and Colorado women's teams. Now she is Suzie's associate head coach at Pitt. Maureen played for the Panthers. And Mike is a Division I referee.
"He's gone to the dark side," Tim said of Mike.
Tim played at Geneva College before transferring to Waynesburg University. He has an impressive 516-121 record in his 23d season coaching the Colts.
Tim has led Chartiers Valley to 16 sectional titles, six WPIAL championships, and two state runner-up finishes.
"Around this area, they think of Tim McConnell. They don't think of T.J.," said Ted Kallet, an English teacher at Chartiers Valley. "I think people have the understanding that as much as T.J. was blessed with athletic ability and intelligence and a good heart, he was in the Tim McConnell basketball program, and he's in the Tim McConnell house."
If Tim McConnell is indeed the king of "Char Valley," his son is the prince.
That becomes obvious when you see the message board that reads, "Congrats! TJ made the Sixers," outside Peter's Place, a restaurant on Washington Pike here in Bridgeville.
It's obvious when you walk past the trophy case at his high school. There's his retired Chartiers Valley No. 11 jersey in front of a Sports Illustrated opened to a page that pictures McConnell scoring on a layup as an Arizona Wildcat.
And the biggest giveaway is the enormous poster of McConnell dribbling a basketball in an Arizona uniform on the far wall inside the Colts' gymnasium.
Not bad for someone who stood just 5-foot-6 and weighed 125 pounds as a freshman at Chartiers Valley. McConnell was so small that former Duquesne coach Ron Everhart received an email asking, "Since when did we start recruiting water boys?" after the guard, as a high school sophomore, orally committed to play there.
By his senior year, however, McConnell was considered a steal for the Dukes. He scored 2,406 points during his prep career, with 1,062 as a senior. In the process, he joined Don Hennon of Wampum High (1,003 points in 1955) as the only WPIAL players to top 1,000 points in a season.
McConnell averaged 34.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 9.1 assists in leading the Colts to a Class AAA state championship runner-up finish to Neumann-Goretti that season.
The senior posted 28 double-doubles and eight triple-doubles that season. McConnell finished his career with a then-WPIAL record 334 three-pointers.
"T.J. needed to score for me, needed to," Tim McConnell said. "For us to be successful, he knew his role. He had to score.
"When he went to Duquesne, he knew he didn't need to be the man and score 30 a game. And that's when he became a true, true point guard."
McConnell, who grew to 6-1 by the time he enrolled at Duquesne, averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 assists as a freshman. He was the Atlantic Ten freshman of the year. McConnell went on to average 11.4 points and 2.8 steals per game, the nation's third best, as a sophomore.
But he decided that he needed to play at a higher level in March 2012 while watching Ohio State play Gonzaga in an NCAA tournament game at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. McConnell ended up at Arizona, where, after sitting out a season, he became a fan favorite.
While there, McConnell was a two-time finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation's top point guard. He averaged 11.7 points, 7.7 assists, and 4.0 rebounds last season en route to being an all-Pac 12 selection.
But at every stop - high school, Duquesne, Arizona, and now the NBA - McConnell is expected to fail.
"That's the thing, you look at my son as an outsider," Tim McConnell said. "You don't know his drive. You don't know his tenacity, his grit. When you just look at him, you look at him and say, this kid is not an NBA player, an NBA guy.
"But the reason why he's able to do some of the things that he does is because he challenges himself day after day to be the best at whatever he's doing."
Being the best at what you are doing in something that Tim McConnell demands from all of his players.
In fact, he's tougher on his players than some of their teachers and parents. Visit a Chartiers Valley practice or watch a game, and you'll probably see Tim McConnell berate a player for making a mistake. Off the court his standards are even higher.
"If something goes wrong in school, he's the first one talking to you about it," Chartiers Valley English teacher Pauline Beattie said. "He's like, 'What's going on? I saw this grade,' and he becomes a big father figure to them. That's the buy-in - they are part of a very tight-knit group of people who are loyal to each other and it's really cool to see."
Beattie is elated that her son, Griffin, an eighth grader at Chartiers Valley Middle School, is now in the McConnell pipeline.
Not everyone is a fan of his involvement and coaching style.
In April 2005, Tony Moses, a Chartiers Valley school board member, met with then-athletic director Gus Marquis to express his displeasure about McConnell's coaching tactics and behavior. Two years later, the board voted 5-4 to fire the successful coach despite recommendations that he be kept.
The belief was that Moses had a personal vendetta against the coach over his son, Mike Moses, a guard on the basketball team.
"That was all because his son wouldn't play," said Sue Allen, the Chartiers Valley cafeteria supervisor. "Coach wouldn't play him. He stunk anyway. He was no good.
"But he figured, well, I'm on the board. I can do this. I can do that."
McConnell wasn't out of work long.
The Chartiers Valley community rallied to get its coach back. Two hundred McConnell supporters showed up for a second board meeting two weeks later. More people were lined up outside, and the petitions had 1,000 signatures.
"Oh yeah, we fought to keep him," Allen said.
This time, the board voted, 8-1, in favor of McConnell's getting his job back.
These days, the McConnells can sit back and reflect on that time. Tim McConnell recalls that he was harder on T.J. than on any of his teammates.
"He was our best player," Tim McConnell said. "And I knew if I could be tough on him, then the other players could see that and I can give them some of the toughness that I was giving T.J. They could understand if he could be that tough on our best player, he certainly can be tough on me and bring out the expectations."
However, the father admits to crossing the line with the eldest of his three children with his wife, Shelly.
It was a state playoff game during T.J.'s senior year. Tim McConnell was all over his son after he picked up this third foul in the first half.
T.J. took over the game in the second half. During a play, he looked over to his father and said, "How do you like that?"
Tim McConnell screamed back at his son, "You are grounded!"
"After the game, all of the players were going out," Tim McConnell said. "I said it so I had to stick to my word. And my wife says if another player talks back to you, you wouldn't be able to ground him, you are acting as his dad and his coach. It's got to be one or the other during the game. It's his coach, not his dad and his coach."
The two probably didn't speak for two weeks after that incident.
But you better not say anything negative to T.J. about his father. It's a reason his dad was the first person he called after making the Sixers roster.
"He," T.J said, "saw the potential in me."