ZION, Ill. – In the midst of a very surprising season for his alma mater, one of the legends of the program was in for a major shock on Sunday – and in a very good way.
As he was serving as an analyst on WGN Radio’s call of Northwestern men’s basketball’s game against Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Billy McKinney was asked to come to half court for a quick tribute.
“I didn’t have any idea why I was out there,” said McKinney. “Other than it was Black History Month and they were honoring alumni at the February games and that Northwestern did a really nice piece on me last year for Black History Month so I thought it would be more of the same.”
What he didn’t see coming was a major moment in Northwestern history.
After his accomplishments were read over the public address system, it was announced that McKinney would become the first athlete in the history of Wildcats athletics to have his jersey retired.
“It made me very emotional and I burst into tears,” said McKinney when he heard it for the first time.
The sold-out crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena gave the Wildcats legend a standing ovation as McKinnie shared a few hugs before returning to his spot on the floor to continue his call of the game with WGN Radio play-by-play announcer Dave Eanet.
A ceremony will be held to officially put the jersey in the rafters in Evanston sometime during 2023-2024 season.
Speaking with WGN News Now two days later, the shock had yet to wear off.
“I’m still trying to come up with the words, I really am. It’s such an honor,” said McKinney on Tuesday. “I think of all the great athletes that have played at Northwestern, and I go back as far as Otto Graham, who was a nine-time All-Star in the NFL, three-time MVP.
“For me to be able to have the first uniform retired in Northwestern history, I’ve been sleepless about it the last couple of nights since the announcement.”
The honor is certainly warranted based on the strong career that McKinney had at the school and in his days after Evanston. He was the program’s all-time leading scorer for 35 years, earned All-Big Ten honors of some sort each of his four seasons, and was a first team All-Conference selection and All-American his senior year.
He’d play seven seasons in the NBA, including his last with the Bulls in the 1985-1986 season.
McKinney then embarked on a three-decade career as an NBA scout and executive, including three stints as a general manager with the Timberwolves, Pistons, and later in the WNBA with the Seattle Storm.
Since 2019, he’s been the mayor of his hometown of Zion while serving as a commentator for Northwestern men’s basketball for WGN Radio.
Since the jersey retirement was announced, McKinney has heard from many of those whom he crossed paths with in his long journey from Northwestern to the NBA and now government.
“It’s mean so much to me,” said McKinney of the support. “It’s been a proud moment but it’s really been pretty overwhelming.”
Larry Hawley has more from McKinney on his jersey retirement from WGN News Now in the video above.