John Drescher

Former Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney was one of a kind

Bones McKinney, shown coaching the Carolina Cougars, looks at the action in the Old Charlotte Coliseum.
Bones McKinney, shown coaching the Carolina Cougars, looks at the action in the Old Charlotte Coliseum.

This is the time of the year when North Carolinians are preoccupied with our state religion, college basketball.

The men’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which will be a five-day extravaganza named after an insurance company, starts Tuesday in Greensboro. As we worship at the altar of ACC hoops, it’s a good time to remember the Rev. Horace “Bones” McKinney, who helped build the ACC and contributed more than his share of colorful stories.

The 6-foot-6 McKinney, who died in 1997 at age 78, was a basketball pioneer. He played on a Durham High team that won 69 straight games, and then played for State and Carolina.

He played six years in what is now the National Basketball Association. As coach of the Washington Caps, McKinney in 1950 drafted and signed the league’s first black player, Earl Lloyd, who died last week.

As the coach of Wake Forest from 1957 to 1965, he was a showman who took the school to five straight ACC tournament finals and led the Deacons in 1962 to their only Final Four appearance. Later he was coach of the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association and a TV analyst.

“He’s like the Forrest Gump of basketball. He seemed to be everywhere where something was happening,” said Bethany Bradsher of Greenville, whose book, “Bones McKinney,” was published last year by Whitecaps Media.

He was an innovator. But McKinney, who was an ordained Baptist minister, is remembered fondly because of his big personality and court antics as a coach.

Bradsher’s book recounts many of them. McKinney wore cheap loafers a size or two too large. He often flailed on the sidelines. During an NCAA tournament game in Charlotte in 1961, one of McKinney’s shoes sailed all the way to the foul line during the game.

With the action at the other end, McKinney calmly walked on to the court to retrieve the shoe. When he reached down for the shoe, pens fell out of his pocket. As he gathered the pens, possession changed hands, and the St. Bonaventure players began running toward him. So McKinney played defense.

Play was stopped. McKinney told a referee he was retrieving debris from the court. He was not assessed a technical foul. “That’s the kind of thing Bones could get away with,” Bradsher told me. “He was a charmer.”

Another time Wake Forest was playing at Dayton, Ohio, before a crowd McKinney later called “the wildest mob of people I had ever seen.” A woman seated behind the Wake Forest bench was giving McKinney high-decibel grief, but he didn’t want to turn around.

McKinney beckoned a bench-warming player and asked him where the woman was seated. McKinney positioned himself perfectly, then hurled a cup of water over his shoulder – and directly into the face of the woman.

Changed sport

It was a different era. No big-time college coach would dare act today as McKinney did then.

“The sport has changed so much,” Bradsher said. “It’s kind of been corporate-ized and buttoned up to the point that if coaches have this kind of personality, they don’t show it. … The game has changed too much for there to be another Bones today.”

McKinney’s ACC had eight schools in the Southeast. The tournament opens next week with 14 teams, including Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

For the first time, the tournament is named after a corporate sponsor: It’s the New York Life ACC Tournament.

If the ACC tournament is going to have a title sponsor, shouldn’t it be Krispy Kreme? Or Lance snacks? Or Pepsi?

Wonder what Bones would have said about that.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com.

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