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Longtime Wildcats scoring leader Billy McKinney to have jersey retired, a first for Northwestern

Longtime Wildcats scoring leader Billy McKinney to have jersey retired, a first for Northwestern
Longtime Wildcats scoring leader Billy McKinney to have jersey retired, a first for Northwestern 04:11

EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) -- Billy McKinney, an All-American basketball player for Northwestern in the 1970s, will be celebrated with an honor the school has never given to another player in their 173-year history when his jersey number is retired on Saturday.

While McKinney was the Wildcats' leading scorer for more than 30 years, there is much more to his remarkable story.

McKinney is the mayor of Zion. While that would certainly work as a sports nickname to describe the best athlete to come from far northern suburb, it is his actual title, one he's held since 2019.

"I jumped at the opportunity, I haven't looked back, and it's been one of the most rewarding things, if not the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life," McKinney said.

That's how McKinney spends his days. Most nights, you'll find him on the sideline at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, working as Northwestern's radio color analyst.

"What a blessing. At the end of the day, I get to come and call basketball games, and watch these young men, these young student athletes go through the same experiences I went through many years ago; and to be able to support them, it keeps me young," he said.

Soon, his number 30 will be on display at every home game as well. McKinney, considered by many to be the best player in Northwestern basketball history, will become the first student-athlete in any sport in school history to have their jersey retired.

"I'm still trying to process it. I really am. It's such an incredible honor, and, if I look back 50 years ago when I first enrolled at school, I never envisioned anything to this magnitude," he said.

Despite being "lightly recruited," as he puts it, McKinney finished as Northwestern's all-time leading scorer with 1,900 points, a record that stood for 35 years. He then went on to play seven years in the NBA, including his final season with the Chicago Bulls.

It was with the Bulls where his next career would begin in 1986.

"I said, 'Jerry (Krause), it's time for me to change the sneakers in for a suit,' and that's what happened. On December 17th, I announced retirement. On December 18th, I was on the bench as an assistant coach and scout with the Chicago Bulls," he said.

McKinney, who became the first African-American front office executive in Bulls history, played a key role in one of their best-ever draft picks, Scottie Pippen from Central Arkansas.

"I went down to watch Scottie play a game against Arkadelphia State, and when I came back, I told Jerry 'this is definitely a guy that you have to see,'" he said.

McKinney would work in NBA front offices for more than 30 years, including as the first general manager in Minnesota Timberwolves history.

"How about this? At the age of 32, I was running an NBA team. Incredible. From the ground up. I tell players, 'While you're on this platform, you don't know who's watching you. You don't know who's watching you on the floor, you don't know who's watching you off the floor. How you conduct yourself can either hurt you or help you in future endeavors,' and this is a perfect example. Jerry Krause watched me play baseball and basketball from the time I was 15, 16 years old and it resulted in me having a 30-plus year career in NBA sports management," he said.

McKinney has seemingly always had an eye on his future, even at a very young age.

"I first watched my first NBA game when I was 5 or 6 years old and the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors were on television with Wilt Chamberlain, and I thought one day, that's what I want to do. I thought it would be a great platform to change the world in a small way. You know, you look at musicians, you look at athletes, you look at people that have a platform. At the time, people didn't think desegregation was a good thing, and that was always in the forefront of my mind of what I could do to improve my community and what I could do to be a model to young kids to aspire to bigger things in life," he said.

The Zion native got his inspiration from his single mother, who raised six children.

McKinney still holds the Northwestern record for field goals. Everything he accomplished on the court he did despite never growing more than 6 feet tall.

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