Pittsburgh's first family of hoops lives, breathes basketball
Three generations of McConnell family members settled into their seats in section 120 behind Pitt's bench at Petersen Events Center with the same thing on their minds.
It was two days after point guard T.J. McConnell and Arizona beat Duke to win the NIT tipoff at Madison Square Garden, and while most of the family watched on TV, proud grandparents Sue and Tom McConnell were there in person. It was the first time in years they weren't in Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving.
Soon everyone's attention turned to the court, where Suzie McConnell-Serio's Pitt Panthers faced on Buffalo, but as the coats came off, the questions, “How about T.J.?” and, “Wasn't that incredible?” bounced from family member to family member.
In the McConnell family, the conversation doesn't often veer far from basketball.
“When the kids get together, that's pretty much what it is,” Sue McConnell said. “It's a lot of laughs, though. We have a good time.”
Pittsburgh's most famous basketball family now is more together than it has been in a long time.
When Suzie left Duquesne for the job at Pitt in April, top assistant Dan Burt came with her. But when Burt accepted the coaching job back at Duquesne, it opened the door for her to lure her sister Kathy McConnell-Miller from Tulsa, where she was an assistant coach with the WNBA's Shock.
Kathy joined Pitt's staff as associate coach in May, and one month later, IUP named Tom McConnell its women's coach. That brought the eldest of eight siblings much closer to home than he had been at Old Dominion, where he was an assistant coach. Among siblings, he is now the farthest from home at an hour away. The other seven siblings are in Pittsburgh, and at least a handful of them can be found at the Pete when the women play.
“They not only come to our games, but they go to all the kids' events as well,” Suzie said. “I think it's something you can easily take for granted in my situation because I'm used to it, but I still to this day appreciate it, seeing my parents up in the stands and interacting with our children, our sisters. It's nice to know you can look up and see that on a regular basis.”
Basketball in the blood
Sue and Tom McConnell met playing basketball at a park and went on to marry and have eight children: Tom, Patty, Eileen, Tim, Suzie, Kathy, Michael and Maureen.
Sports reigned supreme in the McConnells' Brookline household.
When the McConnell children were growing up, after school wasn't a time to come home and flop down in front of a television or computer screen. It was a time to change clothes, go outside and play. With all those siblings, plus a neighborhood full of children, there was always a game going on somewhere.
Kickball. Dodgeball. Release.
Or they'd match up for 2-on-2 games — often Suzie and Tim against Tom and Kathy — of Wiffle ball, Nerf football or, of course, basketball. They would play until dinner, come in and eat, then go back outside and play until the streetlights came on.
“We'd even come home from school for lunch in our uniforms, eat and go in the backyard to shoot basketball,” Suzie said.
The McConnells had a patio where dad Tom hung a piece of plywood and a hoop against the back of the house. Later, he added a spotlight so the kids could keep playing after dark, at least until the neighbors complained about the sound of the basketball bouncing late into the night.
That happened a lot.
The backyard was also about the only place where Suzie and Kathy can remember arguing.
“It was a raised porch and had a railing, so if the ball went over it down into the yard, we fought over who had to go get it,” Suzie said.
At tiny our Lady of Loreto grade school, boys basketball was the only sport offered when the girls were younger. Self-described “tomboys and tagalongs,” Suzie said, she joined the boys team in fourth grade, the first year she could, and Kathy joined the next year.
“Then I was just one too many girls for all those boys,” Kathy said.
The following year, coach Dan Kail formed a girls' team. All the McConnell kids who played learned from Kail, who still coaches at St. Gabriel's. Kathy's children go to his clinics on the weekends, and he was at one of Pitt's games just before Thanksgiving.
Suzie and Kathy spent the rest of their school careers playing on the same basketball, softball and volleyball teams, winning the state basketball championship with Seton LaSalle in 1984. Suzie went on to a standout career at Penn State plus two trips to the Olympics and a stint playing in the WNBA. Kathy played at Virginia (as six of the eight siblings went to college on basketball scholarships) before launching her coaching career.
“I think being in our family made us who we are,” Suzie said. “The competitive nature that we have, whatever the sport may have been, we just competed, and I think we just brought out the best in each other. That carried over to playing the game, coaching, the mentality of survival in a family of eight. We all want to be the best.”
Peas in a pod
According to Sue and Tom McConnell, Suzie always was the quiet one. Kathy was not.
“Everybody knew Kathy,” Sue said. “The kids always say, ‘Mom, tell us how good Tommy and Suzie were growing up,' because they know.”
There was, however, the incident with the black eye.
“Kathy was somewhat of a little instigator,” Suzie said, before both broke into laughter. “And she was picking a fight with one of the boys, and he started chasing her. She stopped, and he took her and pinned her up against the car, and I pulled him off. And when I did, he went boom! Right in the eye. So in seventh-grade pictures, I had a black eye.”
For all the years they played together, the idea of coaching together never really was something Suzie or Kathy thought about. Suzie's first job behind the bench was coaching Oakland Catholic, a position she held for 13 years, beginning in 1990. Kathy's career began one year later when she became the recruiting coordinator at Pitt under Kirk Bruce.
The next 20 years took Kathy across the country, including stops at the University of Illinois and Rutgers as an assistant, and at Tulsa and Colorado, where she served as head coach before entering the ranks of the WNBA.
Suzie, meanwhile, still was leading Oakland Catholic as she played in her second Olympics in 1992 and then, beginning in 1998, three seasons in the WNBA with the Cleveland Rockers. In 2003, she was named coach of the Minnesota Lynx, where she remained until 2006 when she returned to Pittsburgh and became coach at Duquesne.
“By the time she got into college coaching, I was already the head coach at Colorado. So the only thing I ever thought was whether we would play each other, not will we be on the sidelines together,” said Kathy, who hired brother Tom as her assistant with the Buffaloes.
‘Wish you were here'
But Suzie and Kathy talked often about what Kathy's children were missing out on, being so far away from their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“They used to send me pictures all the time, every party, every dinner, every birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving,” Kathy said. “ ‘Wish you were here.' And I told them they had to stop doing that.”
Now, family is everywhere. Kathy and her family moved to Mt. Lebanon, down the street from their sister Patty. Because of Kathy's and husband Brad's work schedules, Patty helps out with their children after school, and sister Eileen stays at the house when both Kathy and Brad are on the road.
When Pitt played at Wagner in early December, Kathy's daughter Macie had a basketball game at 9 a.m., Mackenzie played at 2 p.m. and Brice played at 7 p.m. Her husband also was traveling, but Kathy knew there would be at least one family member at each child's game.
“They never, particularly in Colorado, had their grandparents or aunts and uncles or cousins show up at any games,” Kathy said.
When Pitt played Buffalo, Kathy's son Brice, 13, sat courtside with Suzie's son Peter, 22. Three nights later against James Madison, they were short on ball kids, so Mackenzie, 11, and Macie, 8, filled in.
In addition to Suzie, Kathy and Tom, brother Tim coaches high school basketball at Chartiers Valley, and Mike is a Division I basketball official. Mike's wife, Sherri, coaches at North Allegheny. There also are 25 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and never any shortage of games to attend.
According to Sue, Tom keeps track of the schedules.
“And the kids tell us, don't worry,” she said. “That's our social life. But it's a good one. Basketball has been very good to us.”