In 1946, investors formed a professional league known as the Basketball Association of America. Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach, coach of the Washington (D.C.) Capitols, wanted 6-foot-6 Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney to be the cornerstone of his squad.
Auerbach had followed McKinney’s collegiate career with great interest, before World War II at North Carolina State College and after the war at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
McKinney had helped the Tar Heels advance to the NCAA tournament Final Four earlier in 1946, then left school to take an office job with Hanes Hosiery in Winston-Salem, in order to support his wife, Edna, and their son, Al.
Now, Coach Auerbach was offering McKinney, at age 27, a chance to play basketball and get paid cash money for doing so.
Bethany Bradsher of Greenville, author of “Bones McKinney: Basketball’s Unforgettable Showman,” described McKinney as “the Forrest Gump of basketball. He seemed to be everywhere where something was happening.”
McKinney was asked in 1950 to serve as the Capitols’ player-coach. In preparation for the 1950-51 season, he brought in three high-impact rookies, Bill Sharman from Southern California, Dick Schnittker from Ohio State and Earl Lloyd from West Virginia State. Lloyd was one of the first three African-American players to come into the league in 1950 (now known as the National Basketball Association).
The Capitols folded in mid-season, after posting a 10-25 record, through Jan. 9, 1951. The players were divided up among the remaining teams, and McKinney had the good fortune of being picked by the Boston Celtics and reunited with Auerbach, who had landed there as coach.
The Chicago Stags also folded, and three of its players were to be parceled out among the teams. The New York Knicks picked first and got Chicago’s prize player, Mark Zaslofsky. The Philadelphia Warriors then took Andy Phillips. The Celtics ended up with Bob Cousy, a rookie guard from Holy Cross.
McKinney helped Auerbach make the deal to get Bill Sharman away from the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Pistons and into a Boston uniform. Indeed, McKinney lit the match that resulted in the creation of a Celtics’ dynasty.
After the 1952 season, McKinney left the Celtics and returned to North Carolina to become a Baptist minister. He once said: “There’s not much difference between preachin’ and coachin’ anyway.”
Now a father of four, McKinney enrolled in the Southeastern Theological Seminary on the campus of Wake Forest College in the town of Wake Forest.
In November 1952, Wake’s head basketball coach Murray Greason had a vacancy on his staff. He found his new assistant coach in Dr. Bill Strickland’s New Testament history classroom in Appleby Hall – seminarian McKinney.
McKinney’s first project was to make something out of 6-foot-6 Dickie Hemric. “Dickie couldn’t make a left-handed hook shot or a free throw to save his life,” McKinney said. “I was 33 years old, but I played Dickie one-on-one as hard as I could play for the next three years” – for 30 minutes at every practice.
Wake Forest won the Southern Conference tournament in 1953, and Hemric was selected an All-American in 1954 and 1955.
Prior to the 1953-54 basketball season, Wake joined with other southern colleges to form the Atlantic Coast Conference, and in 1956, Wake Forest College relocated to Winston-Salem.
Greason decided to retire in 1957, and it was an automatic shoo-in decision to elevate McKinney to the head coaching position. Wake fans buckled up for the ride with “Mr. Bones.”