Arizona State’s Shaquielle McKissic has gone from conviction to redemption

Shaquielle McKissic, a convicted felon at age 19, today is a 24-year-old team leader for the Sun Devils.

Ethan Miller

TEMPE, Ariz. – The desert sun is streaming through the window. It illuminates the big smile of the broad-shouldered 24-year-old whose path here — from the floor of a jail cell, to the back seat of a Cadillac Catera that was his home for a month to the gleaming facility of a Pac-12 basketball program where he’ll soon get his college degree — seems to fall somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

“I seriously do not know how I was able to make all this come out of all that,” Shaquielle McKissic told me. It was not long before he was going to start his senior season as a starting swingman for the Arizona State Sun Devils; an extra year of eligibility had been granted by the NCAA because of his extreme circumstances. “Because once you’re sitting in a jail cell, telling yourself you’re going to do something for your mom, for two straight years, a lot of people would have given up. For me, it was, ‘I’m going to do this — and that’s the bottom line.’ ”

If you watch McKissic and his Sun Devils play, you’ll see a Herb Sendek team that scores efficiently and loves to shoot the three. You’ll see a team that, including McKissic, has five junior college transfers, a philosophy Sendek has fully embraced because of the maturity and life perspective juco players bring.

You’ll see a team that doesn’t have near the firepower of an Arizona, or a Kentucky, or a Duke. But in McKissic, an athletic stat-stuffer who averages more than 10 points and nearly five rebounds per game this season and who is coming off a career-high 22 points over the weekend, you’ll see one of the more inspiring stories of redemption in the college ranks.

I went to that Arizona State practice facility one day before this season to talk with McKissic about what it’s like transitioning from convicted felon to Division I basketball star, and to talk with Sendek about why he’d take a risk on a player with that sort of checkered past.

Walking into the men’s basketball offices, there are photos of every Sun Devil when they were little kids — a nice, family-oriented touch. There’s also a big sign: “A Basketball Program that we can all be proud of and that is easy to cheer for…” That was on my mind when I asked Sendek about McKissic and his long rap sheet, punctuated with a felony burglary conviction when he was 19.

“There are some guys who may not have any past incidents who do raise a flag,” Sendek told me. “You talk to them, get to know who they are, and you do have concerns. Then you can have someone who maybe at a young age made a poor choice, but have now moved beyond that, and you don’t have concerns. Shaq is a guy who was humbled and a guy who has a grateful heart. A grateful heart is somebody who lives in a state of gratitude, somebody who counts his or her blessings, someone who isn’t overcome with feelings of entitlement. And that’s part of the fabric of our team.”

After last season, McKissic was granted an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. Sendek said informing McKissic of his extra year, which would give him one more chance to impress scouts in the hope of playing professionally, was one of the most rewarding moments of his career.

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“It really became a great story,” Sendek said. “We tend so much to focus on all the things that are wrong with intercollegiate athletics, who got in trouble last night, but this was a really feel-good story.”

Outside Sendek’s office, soaking in the Arizona sun, sat McKissic, who grew up in dreary Seattle. He wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt — “I am the Greatest” — and he started by talking not about basketball but about the news, specifically the protests around the Michael Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. — a tragedy that hit McKissic especially hard.

“He stole a pack of cigars and was shot down,” McKissic said. “That could have been me.”

The story of what brought McKissic to the streets of Renton, Wash., as an 18-year-old in the summer of 2009, getting chased by police after smashing a window and trying to break into a home, helps bring perspective to why he nearly sent his fledgling basketball career off the rails. He was born in Indiana and never met his biological father. He was poor; his single working mom always put food on the table, but sometimes the bills went unpaid, which means sometimes the water would be cut off, or sometimes the electricity didn’t work. He wore the same pair of jeans to school nearly every day. He envied friends who had multiple pairs of Air Jordans when McKissic owned only one pair of shoes.

His mother married a pastor when McKissic was 12, and the family moved from Indiana to Seattle, where it hoped to start a church. That never happened. The two divorced after a domestic dispute, and his mother moved back to Indiana – leaving McKissic alone to chase his basketball dream. Add onto it that one of his best friends from Kentridge High School, Devin Topps, had been shot and killed at a house party, and McKissic has had plenty of reasons to make him feel like life had given him a raw deal.

Yes, he did some stupid stuff, and plenty of it — in and out of jail a half-dozen times after high school, all for non-violent thefts at stores or unoccupied homes — was the result of trying to make up for the material things he didn’t have.

He remembers, after having spent a few months in jail, when a judge finally gave him a sentence of two years probation. That moment is burned into his memory: “The judge said, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I told him I was going to play Division I basketball. And the smirk, the chuckle, the hints that I’d be back in his courtroom — it gave me chills. I’ve thought about that every single day. I still do. It’s a thing you can’t forget. Being in jail with the lights off, looking up, knowing you can’t go anywhere.”

When he got out of jail, McKissic got a spot on the basketball team at Edmonds Community College in Seattle. But being a convicted felon was like a scarlet letter. McKissic couldn’t put his name on an apartment lease because he knew that would get him rejected. For two years, he couch-surfed, from one friend’s house to another. He applied for so many jobs at businesses that couldn’t hire him. He was living on some teammates’ couch when the landlord found out he was a felon.

Get out, she said. Get out now.

And so McKissic and a friend, who also had been convicted in the same burglary incident, spent most of a summer sleeping in a Cadillac Catera that he parked outside a 24-Hour Fitness in Lynnwood, Wash. It was uncomfortable for a guy who is 6-foot-5 to sleep in a car. It was the low point, McKissic says now, worse than jail.

But he persevered. He worked two jobs, at a furniture store and at a seafood restaurant. He got a place to live. He averaged 22.5 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in two years at Edmonds Community College. He made his own highlight tape, went on Google to find email addresses for Division I assistant coaches and emailed more than 100 of them. It was Stan Johnson, an Arizona State assistant, who got him on Sendek’s radar.

“I wasn’t worried once I got a chance to talk to him and meet him and really got to know him and where he is at this point in his life,” Sendek told me. “I wasn’t concerned.”

He’s not the leading scorer for the Sun Devils, but he is this team’s veteran, this team’s backbone. He’s also a combination of a cautionary tale and a powerful story of redemption — a story that he hopes inspires others who’ve fallen off the more righteous path.

I asked him about the scarlet letter than is a felony conviction. Does he hate it — the fact he can forever be labeled that way? That we often look at the word felon as a synonym for failure — or worse?

“I love it,” he said. “I embrace it, 110 percent. All of it: being a high school dropout. Dropped out of junior college, came back. Lost my best friend. Domestic violence. I love to wear that on me because of the simple fact of if I can get through that, I feel like there’s millions of kids out there who, if they heard my story, they could think they can do anything. It may not change everybody, but if there’s one person who messages me, says I helped turn their life around, that makes it all worth it.”

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. Then he smiled his giant smile. “But I don’t feel like the story’s done yet.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.