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Billy McKinney continues to make history

Former Wildcats basketball star has made an indelible mark in and out of the game, and now his number will be the first retired at Northwestern
billy mckinney
Starring for Northwestern from 1974 to 1977, Billy McKinney poured in 1,900 points, a record that stood until John Shurna eclipsed the mark in 2012. Boo Buie then broke Shurna’s record earlier this month.

One measure of a man is the impact he makes on others when he is simply being himself.

On Saturday, March 2, Northwestern will retire Billy McKinney’s Number 30, a first in any sport in the 173-year history of the university. To be sure, in the 123 years the school has fielded a basketball team, McKinney is an anomaly. As a player, and a person, he is constructed of exceptional attributes.

To appreciate who and what McKinney has done, combine the essential facts of his life. McKinney grew up one of six children with a single mother, though he never grew taller than 6-feet. Insert his years of statistical evidence that defy physical size and pedigree. Talk to nearly every person McKinney has interacted with since he dragged an iron basketball rim 10 blocks through the streets of Zion as a scrawny 13-year-old. Then listen to McKinney talk about the thousands of hours he spent launching shots at that rim, and the hundreds of hours his 6-foot-4 older brother spent teaching him the hard truths of being undersized in a game that rewards size.

Download the hundreds of first-hand quotes about McKinney’s quickness, heart, character, intelligence, fearlessness, and competitive drive. Add the leadership his mother, Elma, provided for her children despite just a sixth grade education. She taught personal responsibility by working three jobs nearly around the clock while modeling dignity with neither complaint, nor handouts. Just hard work. Her children were required to become self-sufficient, kind, and diligent. Failure in her house was a letter grade of “C.” Her full-time shift at the local VA hospital started at midnight. On her way home in the morning, she often passed her children walking to school. Following a brief nap, she worked a shift at a nearby diner, then returned to make cakes and pies that her children delivered to customers. Then, on weekends, she cleaned swanky North Shore homes, often with her youngest son in tow. Focus, attention, and diligence. Elma bought her house. Then she made it a home.

Put it all into a supercomputer. Apply world-class analytics, and artificial intelligence. And still, neither the totality of McKinney’s achievements, nor the depth of his relationships, which span the country and extend throughout Europe, would be enough to explain how that small child raised in 1960s America emerged as the man who will be honored in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The spark of lightning required to ignite the physical package is an unmeasurable that defined McKinney the player, and later the executive. Sure, he was Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer for 35 years — and might still be had the NCAA not adopted the 3-point shot in 1986, a decade after he left campus. McKinney started as a freshman, just a year after the NCAA lifted its rule barring first-year players. Then, he led his team in scoring all four years, three of which he was named Northwestern’s most valuable player. Listed at 160 pounds, McKinney started 102 of the 104 games Northwestern played during his career. Only injury sidelined him for the other two.

In McKinney’s case the how is even more impressive compared to the what. During the 1974-75 season, Kentucky pounded the Wildcats in Lexington. Joe B. Hall’s team celebrated long before the game ended, on the court and off. The game also reminded McKinney that racial animus still held sway in Kentucky. He was 11 years old in 1966 when late August race riots erupted in Waukegan, seven miles south of Zion and home of his cousin, Jerome Whitehead, with whom McKinney would play 68 NBA games as teammates. At Kentucky, one of the team’s big men set a hard pick that McKinney eluded before taking a blatant punch in the stomach. A referee was positioned just a few feet away, clearly aware of what had happened. No call. The Lexington crowd jeered as Kentucky ran away with a 97-70 season-opening victory.

McKinney spent the entire season, then the following summer, thinking about the game. When Hall brought his No. 7 ranked team into Evanston for the second game of 1975-76 season, Northwestern punched back. Students crowded into the gymnasium as word of Northwestern’s lead spread around campus. McKinney had 31 points, seven assists and two rebounds in an 89-77 upset victory.

“The greatest comparison is David and Goliath,” said former Northwestern basketball manager, and close friend, Rory Clark. “Billy had a slingshot with five rocks. He’d knock the head off every giant he came across, then let the birds eat the rest of the body. He made the most with the least. Billy has a lot of character. He’s been unrecognized for a long, long time despite all that he’s done. He’s earned this recognition.”

Two sports lifers with Hall of Fame resumes, Jerry Krause and Tex Winter, saw in McKinney what many others would soon experience. Long before Krause’s successful career as Chicago Bulls general manager, he scouted baseball. McKinney was an all-state outfielder and pitcher at Zion-Benton Township High School. Known for his secrecy and crusty temperament, Krause provided the high school kid a professional recommendation.

It came a decade and a half before Krause hired McKinney as an assistant coach and scout for the Bulls: “Stick with basketball,” Krause told the 16-year-old McKinney. “You’re one of the few 6-footers that I’d recommend staying with basketball.”

Winter was Northwestern’s head coach all four seasons McKinney played. Though initially unsure McKinney’s body could survive the Big Ten’s physical style, Winter became a devoted believer. McKinney made First Team All-Big Ten his senior season. He also led one of the college basketball season’s biggest upsets. Michigan blew out the Wildcats, 102-65, at Crisler Arena in early January 1977. Three weeks later, No. 2 ranked Michigan, led by its star guard Rickey Green, “couldn’t contain” McKinney in a 99-87 Northwestern upset. McKinney controlled Green, outscoring him 29-to-15 and holding the Michigan speedster to 5-of-13 shooting. Though listed as the same size as McKinney, and finishing the season with almost identical statistical lines, Golden State used the No. 16 selection to make Green a first-round NBA pick. McKinney lasted until the sixth round, the 115th pick to Phoenix.

Of the 48 players selected ahead of McKinney in rounds 3-5, only eight ever played even one entire NBA season. McKinney played more than seven. He also ended his career with statistics almost identical to Green. 

“There is no doubt that Billy McKinney has left his mark at Northwestern,” Winter said near the end of McKinney’s college career. “He will long be remembered as a truly exemplary student-athlete and a wonderful human being.”

Winter was old school. As an indication of the regard in which he held McKinney, Winter called a timeout late in McKinney’s last game for the Wildcats. Bob Hildebrand, one of McKinney’s backcourt running mates, knew 1,900 career points “rolled off the tongue” more easily compared to 1,898. Both players were seniors. It would be the last play of their college careers. Winter drew it up with Hildebrand as trigger man.

“It was our last game at McGaw Hall,” said Hildebrand. “We were getting killed by Minnesota, which was really good that year. I never got nervous, but that moment was one of the more nervous ones I had playing. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t mess this up.’”

Hildebrand made the pass. McKinney made the shot.

McKinney is an anomaly in another way, too.

He played as he lives. Cool and collected on the outside, passionate and formidable from the inside out. As soon as he could work, McKinney contributed to his mother’s bills. When he started to drive, the car was spotless. When he was cut by the Phoenix Suns, McKinney retreated into himself, embarrassed by the snub. Then, after that first season, he wrote letters to a selection of NBA teams. A team McKinney didn’t contact, the Kansas City Kings, had nine guards in camp, including rookie Phil Ford and veteran Lucius Allen, who was entering his final season. Ford was a holdout. Allen was hurt. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons invited McKinney to the team’s 1978-79 camp.

Billy McKinney
In the 1977 NBA draft, McKinney was selected in the sixth round by the Phoenix Suns.

To appreciate how much Fitzsimmons believed in McKinney, and the gauntlet McKinney had to traverse to the make the team, Ford, the second overall pick in 1978, was a two-time All-American and National Player of the Year at North Carolina. He also was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1979 and made the All-NBA second team. Allen was a former No. 3 (1969) draft pick and one of the few to win championships in high school, college (UCLA), and the NBA (Milwaukee). The Kings also had 6-foot-3 Otis Birdsong, the No. 2 pick in the 1977 Draft, and an efficient scorer and future all-star.

When camp broke, two rookie guards made the team: Ford and McKinney. When Ford was hurt in December, McKinney stepped into the starting lineup and put up consecutive 20+ point games. Said Fitzsimmons, “We can win with either one. But we’re at our best when we have both of them.”

At the time, the NBA game was far rougher compared to the 2024 version. Players disciplined one another. Major stars such as John Lucas, David Thompson, Bernard King, Michael Ray Richardson, and Walter Davis all had drug issues. Fights were different then, too. In 1977, Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich when Washington punched the charging Tomjanovich, breaking his skull, cheekbone, and nose. That same year, a fight between Golden State and Detroit ended up in the stands with 6-foot-11 Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier tangling with multiple fans.

Make no mistake, McKinney is tough.

  • In a game at Indiana, McKinney stepped in front of 6-foot-8, 235-pound George McGinnis, who was in a full sprint. McGinnis slammed into McKinney and was called for a charging foul. “What in the hell is wrong with you?” McGinnis screamed. “The next time you do that I’ll knock you three rows into the seats.” In the same game, McGinnis came barreling down the floor once more. McKinney set up again, and again absorbed the collision. McGinnis shook his head. “You’re crazy. I’ll give you that.”
  • Billy’s brother, Werner Irvin, was 6-feet-4, six years older and a “beast.” He was also a gifted four-sport athlete. “He made me play him one-on-one on the outside court at a nearby school,” recalls McKinney. “I was barely 5-feet-5 and he beat my ass every way possible. He never let up. Werner was merciless. He’d block my shot, knock me down. Day in and day out, the same thing. Then we would go to the convenience store, and he’d make me buy him his favorite drink because I lost. He wouldn’t give me a sip, either. One day, I had enough. I took money out of my pocket and threw it in the air. I said, ‘What difference does it make? Take it. You’re going to beat me anyway.’ What he did next changed my life. He grabbed me by the collar, and said, ‘Don’t you ever quit. You never quit when you step onto the basketball court.’ From that moment I became obsessed. He was going to have to kill me to beat me. That was my mentality.”
  • In a game at Seattle, McKinney broke down his defender and raced into the lane. Then, he tip-dunked over the SuperSonics front line, which included 6-foot-7, 230-pound enforcer Paul Silas, as nice as guy as he was tough. A month later, Seattle visited Kansas City, where McKinney was playing for the Kings. McKinney and Silas found themselves alone on the court a couple hours before tip-off. “Paul came over, and he put his big arm around me and said, ‘McKinney, my coach gave me three responsibilities tonight. No. 1, defend the post. No. 2, rebound. And No. 3, keep your narrow ass out of the paint.’ Players used to try to punk you out like that, challenging you physically. If you fell for that, then you were in their pocket for the rest of your career. My first thought was, ‘I’m going right to the paint.’ And that’s exactly what I did. I broke down my man, and Silas was waiting. He hit me so hard that by the time I woke up, I had been traded three times.’ That’s how I developed my quick pull-up jumper.”
  • McKinney agreed to come out of retirement and join the Bulls for training camp, then to play for the first couple months of the 1985-86 season. Krause respected McKinney’s knowledge of the game more than his skills at that point, but he wanted to put that intellect to work on the bench, too. During camp, McKinney was playing video games in the lobby of the team hotel. Michael Jordan walked over and dropped his luggage. “Take this up to my room, rook,” Jordan said. McKinney paused and then offered a two-word rejoinder, the second word being “you.” Then he said, “I know who you are. I know you could keep me from making this team. But I’ve played seven years in this league. I’m not your bellman. Carry your own bag to your room.”

McKinney’s sense of right and wrong followed him to front offices in Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle, and Milwaukee. His innate goodness meant that franchises tried to retain him for radio, or other business even after he moved on. When he left the Bulls to become player personnel director of the expansion Timberwolves, the job came with a built-in headache, coach Bill Musselman, who valued wins over development.

McKinney turned the Timberwolves into an expansion success, despite the meddling. Minnesota won 22 games and drew an average of more than 26,000 fans, the NBA’s all-time attendance record. The wins were more than expansion Orlando (18), two-year-old Charlotte (19), Miami (18) and the established New Jersey Nets (17).

But McKinney made his mark in Minnesota before the first ball went up. In the expansion draft, the team took three frontline veterans: Rick Mahorn, Steve Johnson and Tyrone Corbin. All three refused to report demanding to renegotiate their contracts. McKinney showed front offices exactly how to deal with players more interested in money than wins. He fined Mahorn and Johnson, then traded them. Corbin eventually reported on McKinney’s terms.

Although McKinney was forced out of Minnesota, NBA franchises took notice.

“In terms of gathering talent and developing a solid basketball management team, [the Timberwolves] had done one correct thing, and that was to hire McKinney. He was, in essence, fired with full pay. But McKinney doesn’t have to worry. He is so respected that he will be in demand and land another job,” wrote Jan Hubbard, one of the league’s most respected reporters at the time. 

“I will always cherish those moments of competition,” said McKinney. “What players go through on court is a microcosm of life. Never allow someone else to determine your value. You are going to get knocked down. No one said anything would be easy or perfect. You must find a way to pick yourself up and keep moving. That’s all I’ve tried to do in life.”

Mark Vancil has produced more than two dozen books and five New York Times best-sellers, four of them with Michael Jordan, as well as books for the NBA, MLB, NFL, Johnny Cash, Mario Andretti and others. His forthcoming book, “The Last Excellence Human: The Meaning of our Jordan Year” will be published in May 2024.