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But now, relaxing on the beach, he begins to unravel the entire episode: "When I got the L.A. job I felt so great. I thought, wow, this is the best team in the country. The most prestigious. Finally I had a chance to show my abilities on the highest level. I was secure with a two-year contract. We looked for a house and they were so expensive. But heck, this was the first time in my life I was making big bucks, so we said, 'Go for it,' and we stretched ourselves to buy this big, elaborate home." He pauses, smirks. "Boy, did I expect a rosy future. Now look."
With his index finger he pushes up his glasses and pinches his nose as if he's trying to relieve a headache. "You know, I never really aspired to coach in the NBA. I always thought coaching in college was the pinnacle. I was so happy at St. Joe's. I had a nice small house. Claire and the kids loved it there. And I had other offers, but I always rejected them. Then a goofy thing happened."
The goofy thing was the school's decision to fire him in 1974 just after he had been named the Eastern College Coach of the Year. The firing set off a rash of protests among the students who felt that McKinney had been treated unfairly. After all, he had been at St. Joe's for eight years and had run up a 144-77 record that included four NCAA appearances and one in the NIT. McKinney said nothing to defend himself, didn't express any anger. Even now, on this New Jersey beach, all he says is, "It was never explained to me then why I was fired, and I still don't know why I was fired. It was some kind of political thing." (Some observers in Philadelphia attribute the dismissal to a personality clash between McKinney and the school's athletic director, Rev. Michael Blee.)
"When you think about it, I've been lucky," McKinney continues. "The summer I got fired, Hubie Brown was leaving the Bucks to begin his career as a head coach. I happened to speak to him, and he asked if I'd be interested in his job. I said sure. So he recommended me to Larry Costello, and I was hired. Then two years later I was fortunate enough to be reunited with Jack Ramsay at Portland. It was great being part of the team that won the championship. Then, last summer, I was again lucky"—he stops in mid-sentence, perhaps pondering the irony in his choice of words—"to get the L.A. job." He repeats. "Lucky to get the L.A. job. That's a laugh.
"Anyway, as for the accident, I have no idea how it happened. I don't really remember being in the hospital. They tell me—and I don't remember this either—how Claire would stand over me and pound on my chest to keep me awake. When you have a head injury, the doctors are afraid that if you sleep too much you could slip into a coma, and that could mean the end."
Just then, McKinney is joined by his younger son, Dennis, 15, a thin, rangy youth with blond hair and a deep tan. (His older son, John, 17, whose bike it was, is at his summer job in Sea Isle City and his older daughter, Susan, 21, is away at college.) Dennis unfolds a chair and sets it up next to his father's. "I'm talking about being in the hospital," McKinney tells Dennis. "I really was so out of it, Dennis could probably tell you a lot more than I can."
Dennis laughs. "You mean you want me to tell the silly things you did?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Well, remember when the doctors would ask you what your wife's name is and you kept saying 'Bango' ?"
"Yeah, right, right," says McKinney. "I heard about that. There was this other time they tell me about, when I decided to get up out of bed and go to the bathroom. On the way I lost my balance and started to fall. And now here comes Claire to help me, and I shout at her, 'Get the blank out of here.' " He laughs. "I said that to Claire, the woman who was keeping me alive!"