Four decades’ worth of NBA memorabilia fill his office, telling the story of McKinney’s seven years as a journeyman point guard and 33 seasons as a front-office executive. These days, though, the 64-year-old has more important things to discuss.
Two years ago, McKinney left the NBA behind. The man who once scouted an NAIA player named Scottie Pippen and who served as the first general manager in the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves is now mayor of his small hometown.
“There’s two things I said I’d never do in life,” McKinney says. “I’d never get into politics, and I’d never move back to Zion. And look where I am.”
Being mayor of Zion, 47 minutes from Chicago in the northeast corner of Illinois, is supposed to be a part-time job. But many nights, McKinney’s Mercedes-Benz SUV is the last car in the City Hall parking lot. A city employee will have stopped by, or perhaps one of the 24,000 residents needed to report a water main break during the coldest days of winter.
On this January morning, the mayor’s office is packed, but McKinney isn’t charming visitors with stories about playing with greatness (though that is him to Michael Jordan’s left in an official team photo of the 1985-86 Chicago Bulls). He instead pulls out extra chairs and comes from behind his desk to sit with three staffers for the same discussion they have had since he got the job last April: how to save Zion.
A mayor’s vision
It’s a sleepy afternoon in Zion, and McKinney is at the wheel. The stereo is tuned to SiriusXM Channel 47 as he points his SUV east, heading to where the city falls off the map. At the site where more than 2 million pounds of nuclear waste is stored, he wants his passengers to imagine a lakefront walking and biking trail.
“I’ve got visions of retail shops. Golf course. Condos,” McKinney says.
The Commonwealth Edison power plant, one of the city’s largest employers, closed in 1998, and Zion suffered. The city lost $18 million of its tax base and became the decommissioned site’s wastebasket, with tons of nuclear spent-fuel rods stored near Lake Michigan. For seven years, the city has sought help from the state and federal government, but where some see nuclear blight, McKinney envisions Zion’s own Navy Pier, like the one its metropolitan neighbor to the south has.
McKinney wants his tour guests to imagine luxurious urban living in the shuttered factories that once produced cookies, curtains and lace. He preaches property development as a way to resurrect his city.
“At some point,” McKinney says, daydreaming while LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl” plays softly in the background, “loft-type apartments, like they’ve done in downtown Milwaukee and the other cities.”
As McKinney steers west, his mood changes and the dream fades. Just a few minutes down 21st Street, the music is muted and McKinney seethes. Some absentee landlord still hasn’t removed a mattress dumped in front of a burned-out townhouse on Hebron Avenue.
“Right here clearly says it all,” McKinney says. “They don’t give a [expletive] about the city. They’re getting their money. They don’t care about the residents.”
These townhouses symbolize the city’s cycle of problems. With the closing of the power plant, local shop owners and residents had to pick up the slack. Their taxes spiked to unimaginable rates for a town of its size. Businesses declined to come, preferring to open in Wisconsin, less than four miles north. People moved away. Homes sat vacant. Out-of-town landlords scooped up properties for cheap.
According to McKinney, 60 percent of the city’s properties are rentals. Many are deteriorating. Several are public assistance. He hates the term Section 8 because that’s how some viewed his family when they moved to Zion.
McKinney’s mother and father divorced when he was 7. Over the next decade, McKinney would talk to his father only twice on the phone before he died. His mother, Elma, had only a sixth-grade education but six mouths to feed. Instead of living in assisted housing, she purchased her own home. Her youngest would one day renovate that mint green and taupe split-level, permanently move back and run to become the city’s first African American mayor. He would win in a landslide.
“He’s now the mayor of my city, and I couldn’t be more proud,” says Washington Wizards rookie Admiral Schofield, who attended Zion-Benton Township High 42 years after McKinney also starred for its basketball team.
McKinney’s rise from Zion to NBA player to league decision-maker to mayor is perhaps more improbable than his vision of a golf course on the power plant site. But one thing has defined his journey: McKinney always has followed his instincts.
Guided by passion
On Dec. 17, 1985, McKinney walked into Bulls executive Jerry Krause’s office to announce his retirement. The next night, he was on the Bulls’ sideline as an assistant coach.
McKinney later moved to basketball operations. He remembers being the only scout in an Arkadelphia, Ark., gym watching Pippen go off. Chicago traded for Pippen in the 1987 NBA draft, and his partnership with Jordan helped build a dynasty.
The following year, at 32, McKinney landed his first general manager job with the expansion Timberwolves, and in 1992 he accepted the unenviable task of breaking up the aging “Bad Boys” in Detroit. McKinney traded John Salley and Dennis Rodman but also drafted Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston. He wept tears of joy when he landed future Hall of Famer Grant Hill with the third pick of the 1994 draft.
When the franchise predictably struggled during its rebuild, McKinney took the hits — sometimes literally. During a practice in 1993, guard Alvin Robertson choked McKinney after being fined and suspended for skipping games, practices and rehab sessions.
By 1995, McKinney had resigned from the Pistons, and although he remained in the league in various front-office positions over the next two decades, he never worked again as a general manager.
“I was so disappointed by my experience in Detroit,” McKinney says. “While it strengthened me and made me understand what I could tolerate, it also took a big piece out of me.”
McKinney grew reluctant to chase lead executive jobs after he said he was passed over for GM positions with Seattle and Denver. He describes his feelings about that time using the Luther Vandross song “She Won’t Talk to Me.”
“I’m going crazy trying to make her notice me. I go up, I get down, I turn all around. She won’t talk to me,” McKinney says, melodically talking out the lyrics, and later adds: “I had just gotten, maybe, complacent and beat down by being passed over for positions that you were qualified [for].”
McKinney began his final decade in the NBA in 2008 as the Milwaukee Bucks’ director of scouting. Five years in, he publicly described an unknown 18-year-old Greek prospect as a hybrid of Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant. Giannis Antetokounmpo would affectionately call McKinney “ninja” for his habit of being stealth around the practice facility. The Antetokounmpo poster in McKinney’s Zion office is signed “To Ninja!!!”
While working in Milwaukee, McKinney would take the 45-minute drive back to Zion to sit on the city council as building commissioner. As he became more deeply involved — creating the Rental Housing Inspection program to hold landlords accountable for substandard properties — McKinney felt that familiar tug.
“Some of his burning desires were at other places,” says Carl Nicks, a friend and scout with the Indiana Pacers. “I just think the passion day in and day out [for the NBA] just wasn’t quite there anymore."
McKinney hasn’t watched an NBA game in two years. While it’s possible he grew disenchanted with the politics and power struggle in the league, he has found a new passion.
“As a mayor, it’s exciting,” McKinney says. “I feel like I’ve turned my brain back on.”
Wins and losses
Some of the initiatives pitched by McKinney and his staff have faced backlash. The city has granted permits to cannabis dispensaries; because medicinal and recreational usage is now legal in Illinois, Zion could attract its neighbors in Wisconsin who wish to partake. But Zion — a community that only ended its liquor sale prohibition in 2004 — isn’t fully on board.
More than that, Zion residents are fed up with taxes. As a candidate, his campaign published fliers stating that “Billy McKinney will hold the line on taxes and fees …” Months later, McKinney voted “aye” on a $1.60 per thousand water rate increase. Campaign promise or not, something had to be done to stop those water main breaks. His opponents disagree.
“We just don’t see eye to eye,” lifelong Zion resident Jason Ellis says. “You’d find a good portion of the city that is more like me, that we shouldn’t be raising the taxes more.”
McKinney has had a few wins, too. When he ran for mayor, he promised to save Christmas. The city’s beloved Santa’s House — a small structure where families would take their kids to see Saint Nick — had been gone for more than a decade, and several residents asked him about it on the campaign trail. In November, McKinney escorted Mr. and Mrs. Claus back to their cottage.
“Just kind of small things you try to do in a town to keep it the feel of a small city,” McKinney says.
More than symbolic gestures, McKinney directed some of the city’s funds to repave the street behind the Hebron townhouses — “It looked like actually a war zone back in the alley,” he recalls. McKinney says he received handwritten thank you notes.
“Billy cared enough to come back and try to make change when he could be relaxing somewhere, [which] made me realize that he was good to the core of his being,” Zion resident Sue Stoodt says. “Billy remains our hometown hero. I don’t think the entire town knows that we have a truly great man among us.”
Back in his office, McKinney is explaining the pictures on the wall. He is proud of his 40 years in the NBA, the improbable climb of a small-town kid who went on to run NBA teams and is now running a city. But he’s not looking back. Zion needs his full attention.
“What I’m doing now feels very significant,” McKinney says. “It’s like a general manager’s job sometimes. It’s thankless. But I’m doing it for the right reasons.”