At six feet tall with a salt-and-pepper beard and dressed in a simple sweater and jeans, Billy McKinney hardly stands out. Tour groups, students and staff walk by without noticing the renowned individual sitting in Norris: the all-time leading scorer in Northwestern men’s basketball history, one of Northwestern’s few NBA alumni and current director of scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The youngest of six, McKinney, 55, grew up nearby in Zion, Ill. Encouraged by his mother, McKinney labored to become a high school standout before accepting an offer to Northwestern, an interesting tale by itself.
Originally committed to Cal State Fullerton, McKinney’s ticket to visit California got lost in the mail. Assistant coach Rich Falk brought McKinney in to see Northwestern and head coach Tex Winter, and McKinney quickly fell in love.
“I wanted to be a part of something special and build something. That’s always been my nature,” McKinney says.
Not that he had many options: Marquee schools like Illinois, Marquette and Notre Dame didn’t come calling, and at the time, Northwestern was still scrapping for respect in a tough Big Ten conference.
Northwestern proved to be an eye-opener for the timid freshman. “You didn’t know what was ahead of you. My personality has always been to just jump in the water and swim and make the best of it.”
Despite his local success, people from home doubted he could ever make an impact in the Big Ten. Even if he was a scholarship-guaranteed student here, McKinney admitted being terrified of failing.
“I didn’t know if I was going to start, if I was going to play. I didn’t come here with any goals like ‘Hey, I’m going to come to Northwestern and be the all-time leading scorer.’ I had received a scholarship and more than anything, I just wanted to prove that I can play,” McKinney says.
Winter wrung every bit of effort from McKinney, notably in a 1977 series against University of Michigan and its All-American guard Rickey Green, McKinney’s archrival. McKinney remembers the first game well: The host Wolverines won 102-65, leaving the Northwestern squad feeling “crushed, overwhelmed, embarrassed.”
“They beat us like we stole some government cheese that day,” says McKinney. “I remember Rickey out-hustling me on a couple of plays and Tex just chewing me out all game […] Tex would sometimes say, ‘When I yell at you, don’t pout. I want you to go out there and say, “Yeah, I’ll show that son of a bitch that I can play.’”
Michigan visited Evanston later that year – ranked No. 2 then – and lost 99-87. McKinney showed his talent, scoring 29 points. A trip to Lexington to play University of Kentucky also stands out in his memory. A late night incident prior to their 97-70 loss exemplified the hostility toward black players like McKinney.
“The night before, some of us had gone out to eat – we have several black players on the team – and we were coming back to the hotel and this car was going by and it backfired. And these guys are yelling ‘Niggers, go home!’ We were petrified – we thought we were being shot at,” McKinney says.
But like Michigan, Kentucky would fall victim to a case of payback, and No. 6 Kentucky would lose 89-77 at McGaw Hall the next year.
Following graduation in 1977, McKinney was selected by the Phoenix Suns in the sixth round, but didn’t make a roster until the year after with the Kansas City Kings, coached by Winter’s friend Cotton Fitzsimmons. After seven years, general manager Jerry Krause signed both Winter and McKinney to the Chicago Bulls in 1985, and McKinney soon joined their scouting department. During his time, McKinney oversaw the drafting of all-stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.
In 1988, McKinney was hired as the first-ever general manager and director of player personnel for the Minnesota Timberwolves. From there, he took the same position with the Detroit Pistons, where his tenure was oft-criticized and difficult. He then spent nine years working for the Seattle SuperSonics before returning to Minnesota to do sports commentary. He got involved with the Milwaukee Bucks through childhood friend and general manager John Hammond, who McKinney actually hired for his first NBA job as Director of Scouting in Minnesota – a reciprocated irony.
NBA success hasn’t made McKinney forget about Northwestern. He still gets chills driving past Welsh-Ryan and feels “a tremendous amount of pride, just knowing how things were different, trying to get people to come out to games.” He was made honorary captain this year against Illinois and believes that increased success can give Northwestern the chance to become something special.
Northwestern’s all-time scorer is poised to give up his crown as leading scorer to rising senior John Shurna, who is likely to pass McKinney in next year’s season. And it’s about time, says McKinney. The record has held since 1976, before longer schedules, tournaments and a three-point line.
“Records are meant to be broken,” says McKinney. “If [Shurna] does break it, I’ll be the first one to call him up and congratulate him.