Monday, May 9, 2011

Old 'Bones"

Horace "Bones" McKinney is probably the most Zelig-like figure in basketball history.

He first rose to prominence as a 6-foot-6 power forward on a legendary team at Durham High School in the late 1930s and early '40s. One of the greatest prep teams in North Carolina's rich history, Durham won 73 straight games with a schedule that included college and professional barnstorming teams.

McKinney spurned coach Eddie Cameron and the hometown Duke Blue Devils in favor of North Carolina State. After his college career was interrupted by World War II, McKinney finished at the University of North Carolina — likely becoming the only player that will ever play hoops for both the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels. McKinney helped lead UNC to the 1946 championship game, which the Tar Heels lost to Oklahoma A&M, 43-40.

Pro basketball was still finding its footing at the time, and McKinney was there to witness epochal moments. He played with the Washington Capitals for three seasons in the Basketball Association of America before that league's teams were absorbed to form the NBA in 1949-'50.

McKinney also played two seasons for the Boston Celtics. At both of his professional stops, McKinney played under Red Auerbach. The coaching deity became a lifelong confidante. Auerbach drafted Sam Jones out of North Carolina Central University sight unseen in 1957, strictly on a favorable report from McKinney.

After his pro career ended in 1951, McKinney struggled to find direction. Famously silver-tongued, he became an ordained Baptist minister and an assistant coach at Wake Forest under Murray Greason.

McKinney took over for Greason and coached at Wake Forest from 1957-'65. McKinney still climbed onto the pulpit from time to time, but his best preaching probably came when he talked Len Chappell and Billy Packer into playing for the Demon Deacons. That duo formed the core of a team that made it to the Final Four in 1962, the high-water mark in Wake Forest's history.

McKinney cut an eccentric figure on the sideline. He was a spiritual precursor to Al McGuire with his antics and garrulous nature. McKinney claimed to drink 25 Pepsis a day and sweat through 10 pounds during an ACC battle. When the ACC wanted to cut down on coaches’ tantrums, McKinney installed a seatbelt on his chair.

Soft drinks weren't McKinney's only vice. His manic actions became increasingly fueled by booze and amphetamines. Wake Forest quietly let McKinney go in 1965 after just eight seasons at the helm. He was 122-94 with the Demon Deacons, including 8-2 against a young UNC coach named Dean Smith.

The next coaching gig didn’t come until 1969 when McKinney took charge of the Carolina Cougars in the upstart ABA. He finished 42-42 in his first season and then stepped down after starting out 17-25 in 1970-’71.

After that, McKinney lived the life of an itinerant preacher and professor emeritus of hoops. Befitting his gregarious personality, he often worked as a color commentator for ACC and Campbell College games.

McKinney died at 78 in 1997. The inimitable “Bones” left behind a body of work that is likely unrivaled in its historical scope.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dream Shakers

The Dream Team put together for the 1992 Olympics has acquired a veneer of invincibility and been venerated as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever.

You can start poking holes into those claims by pointing out that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were well past their primes; that the best point guard in the game wasn’t included because of backchannel efforts; that the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union eliminated any real competition; and that the inclusion of Christian Laettner seems laughably anachronistic in hindsight.

As everyone knows, the team romped through its overmatched international competition. But its toughest matchup came in La Jolla, Calif., in late June.

USA Basketball brought in a collection of college talent to prep the Dream Teamers. George Raveling and Roy Williams coached this Developmental Team that included Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Allan Houston, Jamal Mashburn, Rodney Rogers, Chris Webber and Eric Montross. If the U.S. had not opted to use professionals for the first time, those kids would have challenged the world’s best.

“You take that team, they’d all be No. 1 picks,” Karl Malone said at the time. “Those guys are great. They’d be in the top five this year. They could go over there and win the gold this year.”

The NBA stars were primed for a reality check. After their grinding season, most of them were more concerned with hitting the sun-spackled golf courses of La Jolla than preparing for some scrimmage that wouldn’t even be open to the public.

Charles Barkley hadn’t touched a basketball since his season ended in April. Johnson had retired because of HIV and had been playing only in posh health clubs in Los Angeles. Bird could barely move with a bad back that would never allow him to play in the NBA again. David Robinson was still recovering from wrist surgery in March. Patrick Ewing had already hurt his thumb in practice. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler were physically spent after wrapping up the NBA Finals only a few weeks earlier.

Dream Team coach Chuck Daly wanted the collegians to push the tempo and bomb away on three-pointers, which would be the drive-and-kick strategy employed by most of the foreign teams later in the summer.

By most accounts, Houston and Hurley did the most damage against the NBA guys. Houston drained 10 three-pointers and Hurley’s quickness caused trouble for Johnson and John Stockton.

The scrimmage wasn’t taped and was held behind closed doors. There was no official scoring, so accounts widely differ. Michael Wilbon reported in The Washington Post that the collegians won, 88-80. David Halberstam has the score as 58-52 in “Playing For Keeps.” Johnson and Bird recall losing the 20-minute scrimmage 62-54 in “When The Game Was Ours.”

While the details are fuzzy, the college kids certainly made an impression. They reinforced the victory with some vociferous trash talking, so much so that Williams apologized to Jordan on the golf course.

The next day, Jordan and the other Dream Teamers made their rebuttal, blowing the college kids out of the gym. Jordan took special delight in shutting down Houston.

In their book, Bird and Johnson said it was the wake-up call that the team needed. The Dream Team’s average margin of victory was 51.5 in the Tournament of Americas and 43.8 during its eight games in the Olympics.