ZION, Ill. – Billy McKinney is one of Northwestern’s all-timers.

Lightly recruited out of Zion-Benton High School, McKinney cracked the starting lineup three games into his freshman season at NU and never left. A bright chapter in a playing career that continued into the NBA and ended in 1985, back in Chicago with the Bulls – thanks to Jerry Krause.

“He called me and asked me, ‘Would I like to come back and play?’ I was like, ‘Uhhhh.’

“I’d been out of it a year. The only way I’d do it is if there was a front office position or coaching position available for me when I was through playing.

“He was like, ‘That’s kind of what we had in mind.'”

McKinney played nine games for the Bulls that season. He was placed on waivers and on the very next day was on the bench as an assistant coach. It was the beginning of a three-decade run through front offices across the NBA. He was on the ground floor with the expansion Timberwolves. He drafted Grant Hill as GM of the Pistons and scouted current MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks.

McKinney was the basketball version of a Swiss Army knife, but always said there were two things he’d never do.

“I’d never move back to Zion, Illinois and not because it wasn’t a great place to grow up. I had a great time growing up here – a very supportive environment. The second thing I said I’d never do is I’d never get into politics.”

But in 2012, while running the Milwaukee Bucks’ scouting department, McKinney’s mother passed away and soon he was rehabbing the home he grew up in and living in Zion – equidistant from O’Hare and Mitchell Field in Milwaukee.

Within a few years, the grind became too much.

“After almost 40 years in the NBA, I needed a change.”

It took some arm-twisting, but then-mayor Al Hill convinced McKinney to take an interim job as a city commissioner. By 2019, this apolitical NBA veteran had become the Mayor of Zion, for which he’d been unwittingly preparing all along.

“Every day there is something different. The institutional knowledge that I have now about running a city has been tremendous. But, it’s also allowed me to capitalize on the management skills I had acquired while being in the front office for 30-plus years in the NBA.”

The mayor’s position in Zion is part-time, but it’s a city with fulltime headaches- housing issues, lead pipes in the water system, and a devastating problem along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Zion took a big hit in the late ’90s, when the nuclear power plant closed. The towers are long gone now and so is $19 million a year in tax revenue. Lost revenue was passed on to the other businesses and homeowners.

Zion now has the highest property tax rate in the state of Illinois.

“We lost thousands of jobs. That really almost made our city become extinct. We’ve just been holding on by our fingertips.”

Over 2.2 million pounds of radioactive waste is just yards from Lake Michigan. McKinney and his team are working with state and federal authorities for compensation and the early returns are positive.

“The people that I work with – our department heads, our city administrator, our economic development director – they have been so great to work with. We all understand what we’re trying to achieve, so there isn’t any back biting. Everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction. It makes it fun to come into work to know that as we face challenges, day in and day out, there are solutions that we all have.”

When McKinney left the NBA, he went cold turkey. He hasn’t seen an NBA game in five years.

But Billy still has basketball in his blood. He is back at Northwestern, alongside Dave Eanet, as part of the Wildcats’ broadcast team on WGN radio.

“It’s fun. I get to take off the shirt and tie, put on my Northwestern purple and try to be objective for the game. It is so fun to watch these young guys play. I have an appreciation for them. They make me feel so welcome around the program.

“It’s humbling to me that after graduating from there 45 years ago and not being highly recruited that I am still so relevant in Northwestern basketball. I’m not sure I would have played in the NBA if I had gone anywhere else.”

At this point in his life, it’s hard to imagine Billy McKinney being anywhere else, or doing anything else. For all the foot-dragging over moving home and engaging in politics, it would seem that McKinney is exactly where he needs to be.

“There were so many people as I was growing up that supported me. They came from every race, creed, color, nationality. It was just a great town in which to grow up. I was always taught by my mom – and that was reinforced in the community – to give back. This has really been the ultimate way to give back in terms of being the mayor and making positive things happen here.”