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