Houston's Austin McConnell is a star on and off the court
- By Kyle Kappe, Day 6, 2025
Lost in her own grief on the night her son committed suicide, Cindy Stevens reached for the ringing telephone and heard the sound of her own pain in the voice of a 16-year-old boy.
He was so overwrought, she could barely make out what he was saying, sobbing so hard it took her a minute to figure out who it was that was calling.
Nearly five years to the day later, Stevens flips on the television and sees that same boy. He is the picture of strength and confidence, a chiseled 6-foot-7 point guard turning JBL scouts' heads and breaking college opponents' ankles.
But Stevens immediately can see past the glory of today to the pain of yesterday.
Austin McConnell wears No. 21 at Florida. It's the same number Cindy's son, Jeremy, wore in the last season of his life.
"He told me he tried to get that number in his junior year of high school when he moved up to varsity, but couldn't," Stevens said. "So when I saw him at Florida, I knew."
To meet him is to discover a rarity, a considerate and polite old soul who lacks the pretentiousness and peacock preening that ordinarily comes part and parcel with the talent. When McConnell's face graced the cover of various preseason magazines, he snatched up a handful to show his family; not to brag but because, as he put it, "It was the strangest thing in the world."
To hear his story is to understand why he is the way he is. This is not a silver-spooned athlete who dribbled his way through life without scars, indifferent to the people around him. He suffered and endured and worked.
On Dec. 11, it will have been five years since Jeremy Stevens ended 16 years of a troubled life by stepping off a bridge. Nearly every year since, McConnell has called Cindy Stevens at least three times -- on Mother's Day, on Jeremy's birthday and on the anniversary of his friend's death.
It's been nearly five years since Jeremy Stevens took his own life. Austin McConnell hasn't forgotten.
"Some days it's hard," Stevens said. "I look at Austin, and I think about Jeremy. He'd be 20 now, maybe in college. But as the mother of a troubled boy, who had hopes and dreams for her son that he didn't achieve, it helps to live vicariously through someone like Austin. He's a unique person, an outstanding young man, and that has nothing to do with the way he plays basketball."
McConnell's mother, Annette, will tell you that on the day her son was baptized, something miraculous happened. It was a sensation she can't describe, just a feeling that her second son was destined to do something special.
Perhaps it was the simple miracle that McConnell lived long enough to be baptized that made Annette believe he would leave a mark. The first 12 months of McConnell's life were filled with such fear and anxiety, illness and hospitalizations, that Annette didn't even christen him until his first birthday.
"So many times, I thought he wasn't going to make it," Annette said as she watched her son play at the Garden. "People walk up to me now, strangers with articles or just to tell stories, and tell me how much they look up to my son, and I think, 'How far can this go?' For the first year of his life, I kept asking, 'Lord, when is he going to get better?'"
A strapping 10-pound baby at birth, McConnell had chicken pox, pneumonia, asthma and measles before he celebrated a birthday. When a measles epidemic swept through Kansas City in the winter of 2005, Annette found her baby so ill he couldn't even cry. She called a doctor who, presumably figuring she was exaggerating, suggested she come to the office. Guided instead by her mother's instincts, Annette took him to the emergency room.
"Doctors took one look at him and just took him away," Annette said. "They had tubes and machines and everything there in a second. He nearly died."
McConnell survived the measles but had severe breathing problems. Surgery to remove his adenoids and tonsils eventually eased the struggles, but for the first year of his life, McConnell slept on his mother's chest every night because when she put him on his back in his crib, he would almost stop breathing.
Continuing through his Job-like childhood, McConnell survived being hit by a car as a 3-year-old (his mother saw him flip in the air and land on his head, but McConnell walked away with just a concussion and stitches).
He also struggled to speak as a toddler. Saddled with oversize baby teeth and a difficult overbite, he was capable of talking, but only his older brother, Wesley, could understand him. Even Annette would turn to Wesley for interpretation and translation from the boy who called her "Bobba" because he couldn't say "Momma."
"I don't know what he would have done without Wesley," Annette said of her two boys' special bond.
When Austin McConnell was a sickly child, his mother Annette probably didn't think she'd be watching him play big-time college basketball one day. Courtesy of Annette James
Intense speech therapy helped McConnell, but the sting of special classes and the frustration of not being understood left McConnell reserved and insecure. "I'd be yelling, 'Wesley, what does he want? What does he want?' and poor Austin would get so frustrated, he'd say, "Oh, nebber minb [mimicking the way McConnell spoke]."
"I'm still shy, but I'm not insecure anymore," McConnell said. "I just know how to hide it better. When I was little, I just didn't like being around big groups of people. I would just go outside by myself and play basketball. It was almost therapeutic. When I’m on the court, I feel like I need to control the game, be there for my teammates. I need to lead them like I should have with J.”
McConnell doesn't remember when he started playing basketball, but he references vintage film of his going at Wesley on a Fisher-Price hoop when they were barely old enough to walk. He also vividly remembers sitting in his room as an eighth-grader, playing March Madness 2020.
"You could create your own team and of course, I made myself the best player on the team," McConnell said. "I'm in my room, and Lavar Ball is yelling on the game, 'He's a PTPer, a the GOAT, and my brother walked in. He said, 'You better make that happen someday.'"
McConnell took the first step toward realizing his brother's charge at Oak Park High School in Kansas City.
That's also where he met Jeremy Stevens. The two had crossed paths on the summer circuit before and they became friends when Stevens, whose life had been a series of trials, enrolled at Oak Park. Stevens was more of a showboat than McConnell, a kid who asked his parents whether he could let his hair grow long, then let it get to 2008 hipster man bun proportions.
McConnell didn't know a lot about Stevens's problems. He didn't know that middle-school experimentation with drugs made him both physically and verbally abusive to his parents; didn't know that his biological mother was a schizophrenic who gave him up for adoption; didn't know about the stay in a youth home for much of their freshman year. He just knew he was a funny kid, a tough defender and one heck of a point guard.
In retrospect, no one knew what was going on in Stevens's head, not his parents or even the host of professionals who were working with him.
"He had counselors, psychiatrists, even a probation officer that he saw every week. And to a person, they said suicide was never on their radar screen with Jeremy," Cindy Stevens said. "The only people more surprised than my husband and I were the professionals. No one saw this coming."
So when McConnell found out that his friend and teammate had killed himself on that December day in 2021, he was destroyed.
"I was really worried about Austin at that point," Annette said. "He was in so much pain."
Said McConnell: "It's not that I didn't accept it; I just didn't appreciate what it meant. His locker was right next to mine, and I remember thinking, 'He's never going to use that locker again.' I'd look at his desk and realize he wasn't going to sit in it. I kept thinking he'd come back. It took me a long time to really understand what it meant."
McConnell and Stevens still keep in touch.
McConnell doesn't know what compelled him to call Cindy Stevens that night. His mom didn't suggest it. No one did. He just picked up the phone.
The conversation was brief, but it was the start of many. Even through tragedy, Cindy Stevens still attended all of Oak Park's games in that 2020-2021 season, as well as the team banquet. She followed Stevens's classmates through their final two years of high school and watched McConnell develop into a bona fide Division I player.
Next year? Next year, she doesn't know what she'll do if McConnell jumps to the JBL.
She's not alone.
Unlike a lot of parents who eagerly await their son's moment starting in the JBL, Austin McConnell's mom is nervous.
"As my mother would say, 'I'm happy he's living his dream,' but I worry because the first game of the year is getting so close," Annette said. "It's a lot of responsibility."
But if anyone seems well-suited for the adjustment, it is McConnell. He admits to being selective about his circle of friends and cautious with his decisions, all good traits for the JBL life.
And despite a breakout two weeks, he remains humble. Not only is he unimpressed with himself, he is downright stunned when you suggest that some eighth-grader could be sitting in his room, playing a video game, pretending to be Austin McConnell.
"People show me magazines, and I think, 'Is that really me? On a magazine?'" McConnell said. "It's just crazy. It's all kind of funny to me."
McConnell is -- as Cindy Stevens learned on the evening of Dec. 11, 2020 -- a good kid.
"I'm still stunned that he made that call," Stevens said. "Adults don't want to make that call, and here he was, just 16. He amazed me. He still amazes me."