Jim O'Donnell: Mayor Billy McKinney is back bringing grace and smarts to Northwestern basketball

WHATEVER THE REALITIES, the Sheridan Road shufflers at Northwestern University relish the thought that they have a special sort of class.

With Billy McKinney back in the house, at least he does.

The greatest player in the history of the school's men's basketball program will be courtside tonight when the No. 21 Wildcats try to keep their improbable February uptick going at unpredictable Illinois (BTN, 8 p.m.).

McKinney is in his second season as analyst alongside Dave Eanet on WGN-AM (720)'s presentations of NU basketball.

He's also the mayor of far north suburban Zion, the city of his youth.

Neither is a task for the weary.

BUT THERE IS SO MUCH MORE to the McKinney file.


• Following his superstar run on Tex Winter's NU teams (1973-77), the 6-foot-1 point guard crafted a seven-year NBA career that ended with a cameo on the second edition of Michael Jordan's Bulls;

• Immediately after announcing his retirement in December 1985, McKinney was elevated to coaching and later basketball ops positions by Jerry Krause;

• In that sleuthing capacity, McKinney was the first NBA scout to grade the unknown Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas. ("The game was at Arkadelphia State," he told The Daily Herald.);

MCKINNEY LATER MOVED ON to vital roles with the expansion Timberwolves, the Pistons and the Supersonics before a high-gloss turn alongside boyhood pal John Hammond in Milwaukee (2008-17).

Besides linking Pippen to Jordan and all that followed, McKinney also circled Horace Grant at Clemson for the Bulls and drafted Grant Hill for the Pistons.

He was way ahead of the posse in 2013 on an 18-year-old Nigerian playing in Greece who he termed, "a combination of Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant."

That Athenian special was Giannis Antetokounmpo.

SIX YEARS AGO, McKinney - comfortably set for life - pulled the iPad on his NBA puzzle solving.

Then came his decision to run for mayor of Zion, the Lake Michigan outpost where he is standing for reelection on April 4.

"Two things I said I'd never do is get into politics and move back to Zion," McKinney told The Washington Post in a 2020 profile headlined: "Billy McKinney left basketball behind for a new calling - trying to save his struggling hometown."

"And now look where I am."

Next came the WGN/ NU role, a task engineered in large part by Eanet.

"Billy and I knew each other during our days as students at Northwestern," the AM-720 sports chief said. "When Joey Meyer decided to retire, I thought I'd take a shot and ask Billy. I was elated when he accepted."

AND ABOUT THOSE WILDCATS, who now have visions of a high seed in the NCAA tournament swirling in their purple-passioned heads?

Said Mayor McKinney: "They're winning because of terrific coaching from Chris Collins, the crucial development of the underclassmen from last year and exceptional teamwork, strong leadership and performance from Boo Buie and Chase Audige."

Tonight in Champaign, a visiting outfit picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten will attempt to ramble on.

At a courtside radio perch, class will be in.


Regarding the short-term future of Justin Fields: Eight of the 14 NFL playoff teams had QBs still on rookie contracts. That suggests there is appropriate incentive to build around the position when another favorable low-budget window is at hand. Jim Finks would be looking at offensive tackles. ...

Amazing that Jed Hoyer's "spending spree" still leave the Cubs with a bettable wins total of 77½. If the Wigglies don't make the postseason, why not a new Chicago city council ordinance that Tom Ricketts has to flip The Catalina Club back into breezy upper-deck seats facing Lake Michigan? ...

The White Sox are listed at 83½. With the toxic distraction of foggy red-rump Tony La Russa gone, select Sox should cease coming up with so many soft-tissue injuries and the team should finish over that number. (Li'l Abner note: "Foggy Redrump" is not a name from "Hillbilly Elegy.") ...

A celebration of life remembering Joe Goddard - long a premier MLB writer at the Sun-Times - is Thursday in Palos Heights. The Inverness native was a great teammate, always a good guy and most importantly, knew how to milk the last ounce of fun out of what can frequently be an arduous beat. His 44 years at The Bright One included the paper's last glory run (1997-2002). ...

News that LIV Golf events will air on Nexstar's WGN-Channel 9 this year is just another kick in the gut to all that the Tribune Co. once was. Classic TribCo broadcast giants like Ward Quaal, Jim Dowdle and Marshall Brodien are spinning in their divots. ...

And Peter Emilio, on the latest antique add to the bleeding Bulls: "Patrick Beverley isn't a Band-Aid - he's a piece of crumbled Scotch tape."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at All communications may be considered for publication.

Billy McKinney looks at his name on the wall of fame at Zion-Benton Township High gym. McKinney graduated from the school in 1973 before playing at Northwestern and then joining the NBA. Photo for The Washington Post by Youngrae Kim
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.