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The story of UNC’s first NBA player

Before Michael Jordan or anyone else, Bones McKinney was the first former Tar Heel to play in the NBA.

North Carolina Tar Heels Championship Welcome Rally Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

The first former North Carolina player to play basketball at any sort of high level professional basketball was George Glamack. After his career in Chapel Hill, Glamack played several years in the National Basketball League in the 40s.

However, if you want to be technical with it, he was not the first Tar Heel to play in the NBA. While the NBL was one of two leagues that merged to form the NBA, the league itself considers the Basketball Association of America to be it’s predecessor. It considers the addition of the NBL teams to be an expansion rather that a real merger. While it’s probably a bit unfair, this technically makes the first UNC NBA player to be Bones McKinney.

Horace McKinney was from Durham, North Carolina, and made his name as a player at Durham High School. After high school, he actually attended NC State. McKinney ended up becoming a star and an all-conference level player in Raleigh. So how exactly does a NC State star end up becoming UNC’s first NBA player?

Short answer is: war. After the 1941-42, McKinney joined the army. He went on to serve for several years during World War II. While serving, he spent part of his time at Fort Bragg. In addition to being a coach and star player of a Fort Bragg basketball team, McKinney also met Ben Carnevale there. Carnevale was the coach at UNC, and shortly after McKinney’s service ended, he decided to enroll in college again, in Chapel Hill.

The mid 40s were probably a different time in college basketball as a whole. Having been several decades away from being born, I have no idea how big of a deal this was at the time. However, can you imagine the reaction today if NC State’s star player decided to transfer to UNC today. They would have to play in games in Raleigh in one of those inflatable bubble suits.

McKinney played just one year at UNC, leading them to a loss in the national championship game in 1946. They came up just short, losing by three to Oklahoma A&M (which is now Oklahoma State).

McKinney was married with a child at this point, and decided to go into the workforce instead of play on in college. While working, he got a call from Red Auerbach, who was then coach of the Washington Capitols, a team in the new Basketball Association of America. Auerbach offered him a spot on the new team, and McKinney joined. In the 1946-47 season, McKinney because the first former UNC player to play in the league now known as the NBA.

McKinney played several season with the Capitols, eventually becoming player-coach in 1950-51. Unfourtunately, the team folded in the middle of that season. Before that, McKinney did become the coach of the first ever African-American player to play in the league in Earl Lloyd. He went on to rejoin Auerbach with the Celtics for another two seasons before finally retiring after 1952.

Following his playing career, McKinney went on to coach. Most notably, he was the coach of Wake Forest in the early 60s. When Len Chappell led the Demon Deacons to the Final Four in 1962, McKinney was the head coach. After eight seasons there, and then two coaching in the ABA, he would become a broadcaster on CBS’s ABA coverage. He passed away in 1997.

For the past couple decades, the NBA has seen dozens of former Tar Heels play across the league. That includes probably the best ever. Before all of them, Bones McKinney did it first