Feb. 12, 2011
By Larry Watts
Some professional athletes might get a little testy if referred to as a journeyman. But not former Northwestern University basketball standout Billy McKinney, who still holds the Wildcat record for career points (1,900).
“Absolutely I am not insulted,’’ says McKinney, now 55. “It’s what I was. What it means to me is I had a seven-year career in the NBA. The average span of a player in the NBA is three years, so seven years for a guy who wasn’t supposed to play is pretty darn good.
“Not only that, but I went from teams who thought I would never play to teams who wanted me on their roster. I wasn’t a superstar, just a good player.
Regardless of the journeyman title, I made significant contributions to every team, even working myself into a starter for the Denver Nuggets in my third year when we scored the most points of any team in NBA history.’’
From the time the 6-foot point guard played his basketball at Zion-Benton High School in Zion, Ill., he was always told he would never make it big time. He was hoping to get scholarship offers from schools like Marquette, Notre Dame and Illinois, but all of them told him he was too small.
Former Northwestern assistant coach Rich Falk happened to be in attendance when McKinney played two of his better games. During a regional championship game against archrival North Chicago, McKinney finished with a triple-double — 30 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. In a one-point loss to New Trier East the following week, he poured in 35 points.
Also in attendance was Cal State-Fullerton assistant Melvin Sims. McKinney actually committed to Sims shortly afterward.
“At the time I thought I wanted to get as far away from Illinois as possible,’’ he says. “But the day my plane ticket and paperwork for an official visit were supposed to arrive, they never showed up.
“During that time, Rich Falk called and asked me to come down to Evanston. Since I hadn’t heard from Cal State-Fullerton, I took the visit and committed to Northwestern. Not soon after, coach Sims called to tell me the snag in the paperwork was because their coach had been fired, but it was now on its way. That’s when I hit him with the bad news.’’
Sims’ bad news turned out to be great news for Northwestern. However, new head coach Tex Winter had never seen McKinney play in person and was operating on Falk’s advice.
Thirteen years later, when Winter was an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls and McKinney had just announced his retirement while playing for the Bulls, the two went out to lunch.
“Tex said, ‘I have a confession to make,’’ he says. “He told me, ‘The first day you sat in my office, I never thought you would play in the Big Ten. I thought you were too small and they would beat you up.’’’
As it turned out, although the Wildcats struggled for wins, McKinney stood tall. Against Illinois, he set a Northwestern freshman record with 30 points. He tallied 21 points against Marquette and 23 against Notre Dame, both national powers at the time.
“I had a big chip on my shoulder,’’ he says. “I had been told for so many years that I was too small to play. None of those schools would recruit me.’’
Even when he reported to Northwestern for the first day of practice, there were doubters. The equipment manager refused to give him his gear because he didn’t believe McKinney was a scholarship player.
“I had to go get Rich Falk to prove it to him,’’ McKinney says with a laugh.
And then there was a bus trip to Illinois his senior year. The last one to get off the bus, the bus driver turned to McKinney and asked him to help unload the equipment.
“My mother always taught me to lend a helping hand,’’ he says. “So I carried all that equipment into the arena and proceeded to drop 31 points on Illinois, hitting 13 straight shots.
“When I got back on that bus, the driver couldn’t have been more apologetic. He said, ‘I had no idea.’ And I just laughed.’’
McKinney said he never really thinks about what his Northwestern record could have been had the three-point arc been in effect during his playing days.
“I rarely think about individual accomplishments,’’ says the former three-time Wildcat Most Valuable Player. “Northwestern provided me with a great education and a chance to prove I could play with the best. But Northwestern had never been known as a basketball program, and I felt like I could be the cornerstone in changing the direction of that school.’’
Northwestern never won more than 12 games during McKinney’s tenure. Outside of the rugged conference slate, Winter scheduled games with national powers like Kentucky, Arizona and Washington in addition to Marquette and Notre Dame.
“Tex designed our schedule so we would always face the top competition because he wanted us to be prepared for the Big Ten,’’ McKinney says. “I reveled in playing top-flight competition. As competitive as I was, I wanted to play against the best because I felt I was one of the best.’’
No arena could have been more hostile than opening at Kentucky his sophomore year. Southern hospitality was a little different and still adjusting to black athletes.
“I came off a screen and took a punch to the stomach right in front of one of the officials,’’ McKinney says. “I’m laying on the floor looking at the official and thinking, ‘I just got mugged and you didn’t see that?’’’
Northwestern lost the game, 97-70.
But McKinney had the last laugh the following year when Northwestern handed sixth-ranked Kentucky an 89-77 beating in McGaw Hall. He scored 31 points and dished out seven assists on the night.
However, his most satisfying moment came two years later when the Wildcats stunned second-ranked Michigan, 99-87. Just over three weeks earlier, the Wolverines had buried the ‘Cats, 102-65, in Ann Arbor.
“I hated to be laughed at and embarrassed,’’ he says. “We took some good beatings in the Big Ten and I remember those fans at Michigan laughing at us as we were getting pummeled by one fast break after another.
“Tex chewed me out several times because Rickey Green was having a really good game. He told me if I thought I was going to be a pro I had to play well against guys like Green. I couldn’t wait for the rematch, and it was a tremendous thrill to beat Michigan.’’
McKinney also played baseball during his first two years at Northwestern. However, he dropped baseball when he tried out for the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1976. He batted .290 while starting 32 of 34 games in the outfield as a freshman and came back to hit .287 and lead the team with seven stolen bases while starting all 35 games in his sophomore campaign.
“I was the only black player on the team,’’ he says. “I remember some of those Southern trips we took, slumping down in my seat when we went through Biloxi, Miss. I had a ball come right at my head when we played South Alabama. Let’s just say I had a heightened awareness of my surroundings.’’
McKinney’s NBA dream was nearly short-lived. Drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the sixth round in 1977, he was sent packing before the start of the season.
“I was so embarrassed by getting cut that I hid out in Ohio for a month,’’ he says. “Everything I had worked for, my dream had been cut short. But I needed to get a job, so I came back to Chicago to work for a printing company and played AAU games while sending out letters to NBA teams.’’
One of those letters was answered one year later when Cotton Fitzsimmons invited him to camp for a tryout with the Kansas City Kings.
“They had nine guards on the roster, including two guards they had drafted in the first round,’’ McKinney says. “It appeared to be against all odds, but I was going to give it the best I had. If I didn’t make it, I was going to let my dream go.’’
McKinney not only made it, but he stuck around for seven seasons, playing with the Kings, Utah, Denver, San Diego and finally the Bulls. He played in 476 games, starting two seasons with the Denver Nuggets, while averaging eight points per outing. He recorded a career-best 10.8 points per game during the 1981-82 season with Denver.
McKinney retired at the end of the 1984 season, but Bulls general manager Jerry Krause talked him out of retirement one year later. The decision included an agreement that there be a front office job waiting for him if he decided to retire a second time.
“I was brought in there mainly to mentor some of the younger guys, like Charles Oakley,’’ he says. “For me, when I didn’t enjoy practicing any longer, it would be time to move on.’’
That day finally came on Dec. 15.1986, McKinney gave it another shot the following day and then walked into Krause’s office. He was made an assistant coach and helped Krause with the college scouting.
“I could have stayed on the bench or learned the front office route,’’ McKinney says. “I still love coaching to this day, but I thought the skills I would learn in the front office doing contracts would transfer over to other professions should I leave the NBA.’’
McKinney remained with the Bulls until the summer of 1988, when he was offered the chance to become the first general manager (director of player personnel) of the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’’ McKinney says of relationship with his head coach, Bill Musselman. “We had a very good year in the first season (22 wins) as an expansion team. My plan was to build the team through the draft, taking our lumps while getting quality players. By year four or five we would be a good team. However, Bill convinced ownership we could be a playoff team in the second year, so we went with older players, and my services were no longer needed after two years (of a four-year contract).’’
McKinney remained in the Minneapolis area for the next two years, doing radio and television gigs, and working as a consultant for NBA teams and running basketball camps.
“Business was going well for me, and then I got offered the GM job with the Detroit Pistons in order to rebuild that team,’’ he says. “Those were three of the most difficult years of my life, but also three of the most rewarding. I did the job I was asked and rebuilt the team through the draft.’’
After parting ways with Detroit in 1995, McKinney got a call from Seattle general manager Wally Walker to become the director of scouting for the Sonics. He would oversee the scouting of all college, CBA and European players.
“I was second in charge and told I would be the next GM when Wally stepped down,’’ he says. “But after six years, there was an ownership change and the new owners brought someone else in. I have always been a man of my word and when people give me their word on something, I felt like I was supposed to have a job someone else was doing.’’
McKinney remained in Seattle to run the new WNBA franchise, the Storm, as general manager for the next three seasons. The Storm won the WNBA title in 2004.
Through his scouting overseas, McKinney convinced himself that he needed to learn other languages. He enrolled in a six-tier language program and now speaks Italian fluently and is currently working on Spanish. Once he gets a good grasp on Spanish, he plans to learn German next.
“It’s hard to visit a country and really enjoy it to its full capacity without speaking the language,’’ he says. “You always have to find people to translate for you. I didn’t want to have to rely on people to have my basic needs serviced, if I got sick, got lost or needed to eat some place other than McDonald’s. When I go back to Italy now, I don’t let people speak to me in English.’’
After leaving Seattle in 2004, McKinney returned to the Twin Cities to work as a radio/TV analyst for Timberwolves games. He received a call in 2008 from Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond to become the team’s director of scouting, a position he currently holds.
Hammond and McKinney were high school teammates at Zion-Benton. McKinney hired Hammond for his first NBA job, assistant coach and scout for the Timberwolves. When McKinney became the general manager at Detroit, he hired Hammond as vice president of basketball operations.
“When I left Detroit, John told me we would work together again,’’ McKinney says.
McKinney estimates he logs from 100,000 to 150,00 miles per year while scouting. He says there has been only one moment when he started having second thoughts.
“I was having a down day and it was the start of a month on the road,’’ he says. “I was sitting there having breakfast at a café in Athens, Greece, and right in front of me was the Acropolis. I started thinking, ‘When you were in Zion, Illinois, did you ever think you would see the Acropolis?’ That changed the whole tone of my trip, and I am thankful for my travels and the people I have met along the way.’’
The start of that trip began at Northwestern, where McKinney, the youngest of six children, was the first person in his family to attend college.
“My mother and father were divorced by the time I was seven, so I never really knew my father,’’ he says. “I watched my mom work three jobs on a sixth-grade education while raising six children. She was never able to give me professional advice, so I had to figure things out on my own.
“She has lived in the same house since 1962, 50 miles from Milwaukee and 33 miles from Evanston. She hasn’t been a journeyman.’’
McKinney says he still gets goose bumps every time he steps into McGaw Hall, now known as Welsh-Ryan Arena. Gone is the dirt indoor track surrounding the floor, and the fans are now down right on top of the action.
“I can believe it’s still the same place because of Tex Winter’s vision,’’ he says. “Tex called me into his office one day between my freshman and sophomore years and showed me an artist rendering of what he wanted that facility to look like. When I walk in there now, it’s exactly like Tex had drawn up.
“Had Tex not coached me, I never would have played in the NBA. He prepared me so much in learning how to play the game, how to read defenses, learning offenses and being a thinking man as a scoring point guard. I embraced his fundamentals and use them every time I go give a clinic. I don’t think there is anything Tex told me that I don’t remember because I was like a sponge around him.’’
While he regrets never getting Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament, McKinney says his experience in basketball has been invaluable.
“Basketball, like most team sports, prepares you for life as well as anything,’’ he says. “The work, struggles and adversity you have to overcome, sports is a microcosm of life, and the lessons you learn can be applied to the rest of your life.
“It hasn’t been all peaches and cream for me, but sports have taught me when I get knocked down I have to get back up. When challenged, you continue to respond.’’
McKinney is a six-foot example of knowing how to respond.