TEMPE, Ariz. — When the judge asked what he wanted to do with his life, Shaquielle McKissic told him he was going to play college basketball.
“He just had this look on his face like, well, good luck with that,” McKissic said, laughing. “I know he won’t remember me, but I definitely remember him. I just hit the ground running ever since then.”
Nearly 4½ years later, McKissic, 23, is a starting guard at Arizona State (11-2) and facing Washington (8-5), his former home-state school, in Thursday’s Pac-12 season opener.
At times he wonders how he ever found himself in that King County courtroom and why he would ever put his basketball dreams in jeopardy.
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If he could go back and talk to his younger self, McKissic would tell that 18-year-old Kentridge High star: “Stop. Think. And then think about it some more.
“Any time I hear somebody say they’re about to do something stupid, I just really plead with them like from the heart. It’s not worth it.”
And yet, despite it all — the attempted burglary conviction, the three months in jail, living with an abusive stepfather and being homeless — McKissic says he wouldn’t change anything about his turbulent past.
“All of those things that happened, it made me into the person I am today and I wouldn’t want to change that,” he said. “It gave me that grit or that toughness on the court or that ‘I-can-do-anything’ attitude because it’s like I’ve done the impossible, according to a lot of people.”
Born in Elkhart, Ind., McKissic and his family moved from South Bend to Seattle when he was a teenager.
He drew consideration from major colleges after playing his senior year at Kentridge High in 2008-09, but poor academics forced him to sign with North Idaho College, a top junior-college program. He never went because everything changed on July 6, 2009.
McKissic and two friends attempted to break into a Renton home. They smashed a window but never got into the house, according to police records.
Arrested and charged with attempted residential burglary, McKissic received two years’ probation. Still, he estimates he spent three months in jail.
“The probation over that time was the hardest part,” he said. “Even today, I still look over my shoulder like I can’t believe I have this much freedom after going through years of that.
“But like I said, that gave me the discipline to have to do something. You have to do this or you’re going to jail. Now it’s like, I apply that to basketball. You have to work out or you’re not going to be good.”
Because he was on probation, McKissic was forced to stay close to home and he enrolled at Edmonds Community College in 2009, where he played for coach Sean Higgins, the former NBA player.
He seemed to have his life back on track when his life spiraled out of control again. His mother, Vivian Thomas, returned to Indiana after a domestic dispute with her former husband, he said.
Then on Oct. 31, 2010, McKissic lost his best friend, Devin Topps, who was shot and killed outside a house party in Kent. He wears No. 40 to honor Topps, who had the number when they were teammates at Kentridge High.
Things looked exceptionally bleak for McKissic when he and a friend were also evicted from their apartment and forced to live with friends. He lived in various places, and for about three weeks they slept in a car in the parking lot of a 24 Hour Fitness.
“That was almost like jail, but it wasn’t that intense because we got to eat whatever we wanted to,” McKissic said. “That was tough. It was very uncomfortable having to sleep in the car every night, but sometimes you got to do what you got to do. When people ask me, ‘Are you OK with sleeping on the floor?’, I tell them you don’t even know the half of it. That’s OK with me. I’ll sleep on the floor in the living room.”
Without financial aid, McKissic worked various jobs at Pizza Hut, Anthony’s Seafood restaurant and a furniture store. Finally, he saved $500 to pay for classes at Edmonds CC and became eligible to play again after two years away from basketball.
McKissic returned for his sophomore season, leading Edmonds CC to the playoffs last season while averaging 22.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.
After the season, he initially committed to Detroit, but backed away believing he could attract a bigger school.
“That was so hard to do,” he said. “Just giving them my word and having to go back on it. But it’s my life. I didn’t go through all of that to make somebody else happy.”
Arizona State needed a big guard to replace Carrick Felix, a second-round NBA draft pick, and the Sun Devils offered McKissic a scholarship after he visited the Tempe, Ariz., campus.
He signed the next day but still needed to complete 25 credits at Edmonds CC during the summer to become eligible.
This season, McKissic has started six of 13 games for the Sun Devils. He’s averaging 7.5 points and 4.6 rebounds while distinguishing himself as an above-average defender.
He knows he can’t talk to his younger self, but he reaches out to kids in Seattle.
“A lot of them follow me on Twitter and Instagram,” McKissic said. “They leave me comments. They DM me on Twitter. A lot of friends from my JUCO last year, they always contact me for advice and how to get through stuff.
“I just always let them know you just got to let everything have its day. If you’re having a bad day, let that bad day have its bad day. But the next day, you move forward. It’s never over.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen