The words "basketball coach" were used to describe Jack McKinney, but other words like "classy," "respected" and "gentleman" came to mind for those who had the good fortune to meet him or talk basketball with him.
Mr. McKinney, 83, who died Tuesday in Naples, Fla., of complications from his near fatal bicycle accident in 1979, coached St. Joseph's, his alma mater, from 1966 to 1974, compiling a 144-77 record and leading the Hawks to four NCAA tournaments before leaving to go to the NBA.
"Jack was a terrific basketball coach," said Jim Lynam, a former assistant to Mr. McKinney. "He was an even better guy. He just was so respected by so many people and rightly so because he was such a good person. He spent a lot of his early years around Jack Ramsay and the two of them had a lot in common."
"He was a classy guy, a real pro, just a wonderful person and a family guy," retired St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia said. "He'd go to a lot of breakfasts and dinners and coaching clinics. He was a pretty strong communicator, therefore a good teacher and coach."
Born in Chester, Mr. McKinney was a protégé of Ramsay, the Hall of Fame coach. He succeeded Ramsay as head coach of the Hawks, and later rejoined him as an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was on the bench when the Blazers defeated the 76ers to win the 1977 NBA championship.
His big break came in 1979 when he was hired to his first NBA head coaching job with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had a superstar center in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and welcomed another superstar, rookie Earvin "Magic" Johnson, that season.
But he spent only 14 games with the Lakers before a bicycle accident left him with serious head injuries. He was replaced by assistant coach Paul Westhead, another St. Joseph's grad, and Westhead led the team to the 1980 NBA title.
Mr. McKinney returned to the NBA the following season as head coach of the Indiana Pacers and was named 1981 NBA coach of the year after leading the Pacers to their first winning record and playoff berth. But he was fired after four seasons, and left NBA coaching for good after a nine-game stint with the Kansas City Kings in 1984.
He continued to suffer from memory loss and other neurological issues throughout his life.
"I don't think there's any question that that accident took a toll," Lynam said. "He certainly bounced back after a period of time, but it was a difficult situation for a lot of people to deal with, including him. It was a long road back. I think it's just human nature to say, 'What if?' "
Current St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who said Mr. McKinney was "amazingly kind to me," said he accepted the challenge to come back as he had other situations earlier in his career.
"He took the challenge on even at St. Joseph's, to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Jack and then to follow in that huge shadow going into the NBA," Martelli said. "I think all of those guys that have done that — Paul Westhead and Jim O'Brien and Jim Lynam — all come out of the tree of Jack Ramsay.
"Well, someone had to be the first one, the first branch, and that was Jack McKinney. I would venture a guess that Dr. Jack would say, 'He wasn't a branch, he was the trunk that allowed that tree to grow and to spread.' "
Mr. McKinney was inducted into the St. Joseph's basketball Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Big Five Hall of Fame in 1992.
The McKinney family said his brain has been donated for research to the State of Florida Brain Bank.
Mr. McKinney is survived by Claire (Cranny), his wife of 60 years; daughters Susan McKinney and Ann Holtby and her husband, Christopher Holtby; sons John and Dennis and wife Margaret McKinney; and eight grandchildren.