McKinney Settles In With Storm

When Billy McKinney accepted the position of executive vice president of The Seattle Sonics and Storm in April 2001, he was a relative newcomer to women’s professional basketball. Basketball he knew. Following a seven-year NBA career, McKinney had spent 16 years in various front office positions throughout the league, the last six with the Sonics as vice president of basketball operations. As for the WNBA, however, McKinney’s only experience was as a fan when Wally Walker asked him to take the new position and take a role in the Storm’s management. “It was a request from Wally and ownership that I get more involved with the Storm,” McKinney recalls.

Initially, McKinney’s new role was conceived mostly as that of a consultant, bringing an NBA perspective to the Storm. Almost immediately, McKinney saw where the Storm could benefit from borrowing from the NBA in terms of skill development.. Encouraged by the receptive attitude of the Storm’s staff, led by then-Head Coach Lin Dunn, and his own enjoyment, McKinney stepped up his involvement with the Storm. “It’s really evolved with my enthusiasm for working with our WNBA players,” McKinney says. “I told them last year at the end of the year when we lost in L.A., in my seventeen years of management at that time, working with the WNBA players, the Storm players, was the most rewarding and fun experience I’ve ever had in management.”

McKinney with former Storm guard Edna Campbell at last fall’s Breast Health Awareness event .
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
McKinney credits Dunn for helping him make the transition to the Storm. “When I was named executive vice president, Lin Dunn came to me and said she wanted me to be at practices every day, she wanted me to be at coaches meetings, she really wanted to pick my brain for the expertise I had in running NBA teams,” McKinney explains. “She took a lot of the input and information I gave her objectively, not as criticism, not as trying to be her boss, but just trying to help her, her staff and the product grow.” Now, little over two years later, he has replaced Dunn as the Storm’s General Manager, the architect responsible for molding the Storm into a championship team.

Making personnel decisions for the Storm is just one of the many activities McKinney is responsible for on a daily basis. He has served as color commentator for the Sonics the last two seasons, works with Storm players on on-court skills development during the off-season and is involved with Sonics and Storm sponsorship. McKinney likes the variety of roles. “I enjoy having the ability to wear a lot of hats,” he says. “It’s exciting and none of your days are the same, which excites me.” While it might be assumed that McKinney’s other duties interfere with his position with the Storm, he has found the opposite. “It actually helps and it’s economically sound, because I was able to meet (coaching) candidates out on the road, so that saved expenses for us,” he explains. “Also, in that process, I’m out watching college practices when I’m in an area, or watching college games. It’s a great way to incorporate several of my responsibilities.”

McKinney added Storm General Manager to his list of titles last September when Dunn resigned as Coach and General Manager. There was little question in McKinney’s mind that he would become GM if asked. “I volunteered it,” he says. “Wally came to me and said, ‘Would you be the General Manager of the Storm?’ and I said, ‘Without question’. My experience was so positive, the time I’d spent with the team. There was no hesitancy on my part.”

Clearly, the defining decision of McKinney’s tenure with the Storm thus far has been his selection of the second coach in the Storm’s history, succeeding Dunn. Throughout the process of picking a replacement, McKinney called for patience, hoping to explore all options before making a decision with the start of the season still months away. Still, he had a difficult time following his own orders after interviewing Anne Donovan. “After talking with her about basketball and how we wanted to run the operations and grow the team, I knew right away she was the right person for the job,” McKinney recalls. “I had to interview the other people because I had set those interviews up, but I knew in my heart of hearts at the end of the day Anne had the same thought process in terms of how we wanted to make this product grow.” He was wowed by Donovan’s knowledge. “Anne set a standard in terms of interviews. I’ve interviewed coaches and scouts and people over the years. Her knowledge about the game was as in-depth as anyone that I’ve ever interviewed and hired.” McKinney and the Storm finally introduced Donovan as team’s new coach on Dec. 18 of last year.

Since then, McKinney and Donovan have been operating in tandem (and in concert with the rest of the coaching staff) to build the team’s roster. McKinney stresses the importance of this partnership. “One of the things that I thought always important is that the coach and the general manager always have to be on the same page,” he says. “You talk about selecting and acquiring players and there is tension between those two entities. It might be a good decision or a good player that comes in, but if one doesn’t want the other one to succeed, the player doesn’t succeed. I told Anne during the interview process, with her experience and expertise in the WNBA and the women’s game, that I was going to rely on her and her staff very heavily with every decision that is made. Anne and her staff have significant input as to what we’re doing.”

Together, McKinney and Donovan faced difficult choices this off-season, one of the most important in the WNBA’s history because of the approval of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Dispersal Draft of former Miami and Portland players. In particular, the new CBA changed the way WNBA front offices operate. For the first time, they are responsible for signing their players to contracts, signing free agents and fitting everyone under the league’s $622,000 salary cap. McKinney’s experience with a cap in the NBA has proven invaluable this season. “People say a $622,000 salary cap should be difficult to manage, but I’ve had to manage salary caps that have been in the $30-35 million range,” McKinney says. “My experience has put me in a great position.”

After adding Alisa Burras through the Dispersal Draft, Jung Sun-Min through the Amateur Draft, Sandy Brondello and Tully Bevilaqua through free agency and Rita Williams in a trade at the end of training camp, the Storm has played just as McKinney and Donovan hoped so far this season, getting off to an 11-7 start. “I’m very pleased,” he says. “Anne and her staff have done an incredible job with the team.” McKinney is confident that the Storm is on the track the franchise initially set as a five-year plan when it joined the WNBA in 2000. “We’re ahead of where we thought we would be,” McKinney concludes.

It’s exciting for McKinney to participate in the growth and development not just of the Storm but the WNBA as a whole. It recalls for him his stint as the inaugural Director of Player Personnel for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. “I see this as a very exciting time and developmental time of shaping the future of the WNBA, and that’s always been exciting for me,” he says. “I left Chicago when we were in the middle of building the championship teams there to start an expansion franchise in Minnesota. I like the experience of being able to take that blank piece of paper and sculpt it and shape it.”

It’s clear that McKinney enjoys where he is in life right now. He likes the city of Seattle, saying, “I feel like I’ve found a place which is home. I’ve been here eight years and this is the best city I’ve ever lived in.” He enjoys his role with the Storm as well as within the rest of the organization, saying, “It’s been really rewarding working with these players. They work so hard, they respect the game. Their work ethic is just unparalleled. Their enthusiasm keeps me enthused.” The team is winning. What more could anyone ask for?