How fate changed the course of Lakers history and taught Magic some hard lessons.
Posted by: SPQR on Dec 26, 2012 - 03:48 PM
With the quick firing of Mike Brown this, it goes to show you what can happen when high expectations are not met. But this was not the first time a Lakers Coach was fired quickly, for not achieving what was expected. Decades ago, a coach was summarily and unexpectedly fired from his perch as boss of the Lakers. A coach who had just two years previously, won the championship. That coach was Paul Westhead.
And what happened to him speaks to circumstance, and how one event can start a chain of events that lead inexorably like falling dominos to literally change lives and history.
What if I told you that one bike accident changed the lives of Jerry West, Dr. Buss, Pat Riley, Chick Hearn, Stu Lantz, Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and the destiny of the whole Lakers Showtime dynasty and even more so, the history of the Lakers itself.
That if this accident didn’t happen, we may be watching the legendary broadcaster Pat Riley still calling Lakers’ games. That he would have never coached a single game? That a man named Jack McKinney might be as celebrated to Lakers fans as Riley is today? Or that the Lakers’ Showtime dynasty would never have been all that it was? Or that it may have been greater still than it ended up? All because of a bike accident.
When one thinks of the Showtime, images pop into the mind’s eye for those who were lucky enough to witness that once in a lifetime juggernaut. And endless sea of fast breaks that would drown a team in minutes in blowout after blowout. Magic running it; Worthy or Nixon or Wilkes or Scott or Thompson or Mcadoo or Cooper finishing it. Kareem so regal and stoppable behind the sky hook. Michael Cooper dunking with the Coopaloop or shutting down the best scorers in the league with cerebral, impassioned, physical defense. Pat Riley coaching the machine with intelligence, verve, imagination and panache with his trademark slicked back hair and Armani suites disguising the blue collar pit bull basketball junkie he really was. Dancing Barry’s wild celebrations in the aisles of the Fabulous Forum every time out that the Laker’s overwhelmed opponents had to take to try stop the fast break blitz’s. Dr. Jerry Buss establishing himself as the best owner in team sports. The great Chick Hearn inventing the perfect phrases for what we saw on TV. It all seemed to come so easy. But that is just on the surface. In reality it was born hammered on a very hot crucible that could have burned it all down before it really started.
As befitting a team sharing the stage with Hollywood, the true events were like those written in a movie script. It included such events as the young teams star player going from hero to reviled by fans to becoming the most beloved player in the teams’ history, Dr. Buss and a man’s best friend breaking a sacred promise to his sick head coach, a young championship winning head coach getting fired and a broadcaster leaving the booth to become the greatest head coach in Lakers’ history.
This amazing, convoluted series of events that ended with Showtime started in twenty year old Magic’s rookie year, the 79-80 season. His first head coach was not Pat Riley. Nor Paul Westhead. It was a man named Jack McKinney. McKinney was tapped for the job by Jerry West to coach a marvelous collection of special athletes. He was a smart coach who quickly realized that in Magic and Norm Nixon, he had two players who could handle the ball at breakneck speed and make all the right passes. He instituted a system of pushing the ball at every chance, a system that would become known as Showtime and would reach its apogee under Pat Riley.
This new system meshed perfectly with his players, as he knew it would, and they jumped off to a fast 10-4 start, getting better with each game. McKinney was a fitness nut and rode his bicycle as often as possible. And therein lay the first series of events that changed Lakers history and so many lives. Riding his bike to work, McKinney was involved in a horrific accident and received severe heads wounds. The damage was so bad, it was touch and go for a long while whether he would survive.
To take his place, Paul Westhead, another proponent of the fast break and McKinney’s assistant and best friend was tapped to take the helm. Westhead had been the first hire of McKinney’s because of their close relationship and respect Jack had for Paul’s coaching acumen. He owed his position entirely to McKinney. Westhead cast about for an assistant and asked his friend Pat Riley to join the coaching staff. Amazingly, Riley, who would become one of greatest coaches in history was not involved in the coaching profession. Not in the pros, not in college. Not anywhere. What was he doing? Surprisingly, he was playing second banana to Chick Hearn on the Lakers broadcasts. Riley was reluctant to take the job. Hearn pushed him to do it. Riley finally relented when Hearn promised he could have his old broadcast job back when McKinney returned. Under Westhead, the team did not miss a beat and continued to tear up the league. When McKinney came out of his coma, Dr. Buss and Westhead visited him and Buss promised that the team and his job would be waiting for him when he recovered. Westhead promised to keep his seat warm and the team in good working order till his close friend would return to the helm.
That year, the Lakers went on to beat the defending champion Sonics in the playoffs and upset Dr. J’s Sixer machine in the finals. The seminal moment being the game six clincher in Philly, when Abdul- Jabbar remained in LA with a leg injury and twenty year old rookie Magic Johnson had the greatest finals game in NBA history, playing all five positions, with heavy duty at the center, putting up forty two points, fifteen rebounds and seven assists in stealing the finals MVP award from an Abdul Jabbar who had dominated the Sixers and the series.
After the season, the Magic carpet ride shifted into even a higher gear. The Lakers signed their young superstar to a record breaking twenty-five year twenty-five million dollar contract extension. A contract that would obviously run well past his playing days. It was also common knowledge that Magic and Dr. Buss had formed a close relationship that carried on off the court to include business interests and night clubbing together and spending hours in each other’s company. For Magic, it was the best of times. But this contract and his closeness to Buss would have a profound impact on the attitudes of some of the veteran players later on when things turned rotten for the young new comer and he expected and needed their help.
The next year, McKinney was ready to return and redeem Dr. Buss’s and Paul Westhead's promise, but to his shock, hurt and dismay, Dr. Buss was no longer willing to honor it. Dr. Buss, reveling in the glory of the title and the performance of his young coach, told McKinney the job with the team McKinney had molded was no longer his to have, that it was Westhead’s job if he wanted it. McKinney felt betrayed by both men when Westhead, his best friend, decided to accept the job permanently. Just like that, McKinney was out and a life-long friendship flushed down the toilet. The bitterness inculcated in McKinney by the betrayal of both these men he trusted lasted for many years. It was only during an interview in 2006 that he had come to accept and get over the disappointment, admitting that as much as it hurt him at the time, in Westhead’s position, he too would have accepted the job even it meant destroying their friendship.
The next year, the Lakers were favored to win the title. And why not? With so many great stars and Magic only expected to get better, who could beat them? And the season started out just as expected. The Lakers were better than ever and so was Magic who dramatically increased his scoring while still dishing the sugar to his teammates with typical genius and brio. Then disaster struck. In November, against Atlanta, Tom Burleson fell on Magic. Over the next few games, Magic’s knee began to make noises and pain ensued. Finally an X-ray showed torn cartilage. Magic, the young, incandescent, supremely gifted savior and everyone’s hero was out and scheduled for surgery and long rehab.
Without Magic, the talented guard Norm Nixon took over the team. While not as good as they were with Magic, the team still was one of the best in the league and stayed atop the standings with the other top title contenders. But everyone was waiting for the return of the Magic to buttress the Lakers championship run.
Magic missed 45 games but on February 20th, the Fabulous Forum was abuzz because Magic was finally back! The Lakers continued to win the last few weeks of the season, but things were not going smoothly. The team had adjusted to Magic’s absence and gears were thrown out of whack with his return. Norm Nixon, who had blossomed running the team in Magic’s absence, resented being returned to the role of supporting player.
In the playoffs, they were scheduled to meet the Houston Rockets in the first round. Back then, this was a dreaded best of three and even worse, Houston’s center Moses Malone gave Abdul-Jabbar fits with his physicality and relentless board work. The Lakers won the first game at home, but Houston took the next in Texas. Back in LA, the nightmare scenario dropped like an atom bomb. Malone was unstoppable, Magic was aweful and the team couldn’t get in sync, and just that fast, the repeat was over and so was the season.
The 81-82 season, with Magic healthy, once again started with high expectations. But inexplicably, Westhead who before and after his Lakers tenure would only run a high octane, fast break offenses put a stop on LA’s pedal to the metal style of play. He forced the team to walk the ball up the court and run the offense through Jabbar. While Jabbar loved this change, the rest of the Lakers’ thoroughbreds hated it. The Lakers got off to a 2-4 start but started to win more than they lost, but now instead of the usual blowouts, every game was a struggle, every win a torture test and their scoring plummeted.
Tensions mounted as the players felt their talents were not being used to their fullest and team was not reaching its potential. In conversations with his teammates, Magic found strong support in the frustration he felt with the style of play. Except for Kareem, they told him Westhead had to go if things didn’t change. The media and fans began calling the team Slowtime. Magic and Westhead began to blame each other for the team’s problems and began to engage in a dance of death, each man blatantly disagreeing with each other and finally insulting each other during their talks in private.
Magic approached Westhead and tried to tell him that the team was off course in their style of play. That he and the other players were unhappy with the new style that held them back from what they could do like no other team. Westhead didn’t want to hear it. He told Magic to get more rebounds. Magic retorted, “How can I get more when you have me playing thirty feet from the basket?"
On November 18th, during a huddle against Utah, Magic asked for water. Westhead glared at him and said, “Earvin, shut up, get your ass in the huddle and pay attention.”
“I am paying attention,” shot back Johnson.
“You should be looking at me!” hissed Westhead.
Magic held his tongue after that but the untenable situation had come to a head. After the game, Magic told reporters in the locker room that he could not play in LA any longer, that he had to leave. When the reporters asked him if he was serious, he replied, “Definitely.”
Suddenly what was once looked like an unstoppable dynasty was falling apart in every way possible. The papers blared the headlines:” Magic wants out!”A choice had to be made between the star player and the coach and it was. The next day, Westhead, the usurper to McKinney’s job was fired and erstwhile broadcaster and Chick Hearn factotum Pat Riley was given the reins of power with assistant coach GM Jerry West to sit on the bench with him and watch over things.
West and Buss called Magic into Buss’s office and told Magic he had handled things irresponsibly by taking his problems to the press. They informed him that they too had been disenchanted with Westhead’s Jabbar oriented Slowtime offense and they had decided to fire him, before Magic had spoken up. They told him that he should have come to them with any problems the team had with Westhead. But now that he had gone public, he would be forced to accept the blame by the fans and media because it looked like Magic had forced the Lakers to get rid of Westhead. And the blame fell on him like a rain of a summer storm. The LA newspapers and national media which before had loved the ebullient, smiling, loquacious, supremely talented Johnson, which hung on his every basketball exploit and post game interview turned on him as is their wont. Now the ultimate team player and star of the team was labeled a spoiled, selfish brat who decided when a coach could be fired.
Magic knew he had only spoken what all the other players had told him and waited for his teammates to speak up to reporters. But it never happened. In a betrayal that hurt Magic just as McKinney had been hurt, his teammates were quiet as a church mouse in pew full of hungry cats. They let Magic twist in the wind and take the blame squarely alone. What did happen is certain veteran players harkened back to Magic’s unusual twenty-five year contract and close relationship with Dr. Buss and insinuated to reporters anonymously, "Does Magic’s lifelong contract make him more management than player? Does he now decide when a coach can be hired or fired? Does he decide who can make the team and also make decisions on who plays and how many minutes they get?"
For Magic, it was threefold learning experience. He learned that if he had a problem with someone on the team, you keep it in house. And he also learned that when you are a young star, who suddenly arrives on a team of veterans and you overshadow them, when you are anointed by fans and media, when you are the sun that everything revolves around, if things go bad, don’t expect your teammates to have your back. They will let you take all the blame, just as you got the overweening credit when times were good. And he learned that a star of his magnitude has power he did not dream possible. That this power made it imperative that every word that escaped his mouth had to be carefully considered and weighed, least it have results and consequences he never once thought could happen.
When the next game came in LA, Johnson received the fans full fury for his transgressions. The fans who had loved him so unconditionally for two plus years booed him loud and long when he was introduced. It was without question, the first time in his life when the home fans, his fans, in high school, college or the pros gave him anything but rousing cheers. As the boos resounded about the Forum, Magic set his mind in determination that he would win them all back.
And of course he did. It did not take long for West to realize Riley had the goods and he quickly left his position on the bench as assistant head coach and returned to his GM office full time. Under Riley, the Lakers went back to the McKinney fast break system and Showtime was reborn, better than ever. The Lakers crushed the league and swept through the playoffs losing only two games in the finals in the entire playoffs, to the Sixers again, beating them in six games. That Lakers team was one of the most powerful NBA champions of all time.
With winning comes forgiveness and their winning was obsene: Nine finals appearances in Magic’s twelve seasons. Five championships against the likes of Dr. J’s Sixers and Isiah’s Detroit Bad Boys. And most importantly of all, finally beating their long time torturers, the Boston Celtics, for the first time ever in the finals, twice, and ripping a dynasty away from Larry Bird and Beantown and placing it in LA and on Magic’s very wide shoulders while at the same time, breaking arch-rival Red Auerbach’s heart. In doing all this, orchestrating the most beautiful and deadly fast break in NBA history, with an almost prescient intelligence, an ever present smile, enthusiasm, consummate team play and an ability no player his size has shown before or since, Magic became forever, the most loved and celebrated player in Lakers history.
Pat Riley went on to coach Showtime to its greatest victories, working in close collaboration with Magic and the other players to perfect McKinney’s dream of fast break machine that buried it opponents in an avalanche of points. A fast break team backed up by the unstoppable half court game of Abul-Jabbar and ferocious defensive mentality. Pat Riley, the man who may have languished forever in Chick’s huge shadow in the booth, became along with Phil Jackson, the most celebrated coach in Lakers history. He of course later went on to coach the Knicks and win yet another title as Miami’s head coach. Chick Hearn had to find another permanent broadcast partner, eventually opening the door for Stu Lantz.
Paul Westhead, the man who along with Dr. Buss, reneged on his promise to McKinney went on to coach other pro and college teams, always emphasizing the fast break offense. At Loyola Marymount, his teams continually broke NCAA scoring records with their style of play. But he never approached that championship season he had in LA.
Jack McKinney, the man who lost his job and was prevented by events beyond his control to fulfill his Lakers’ destiny, who was lied to and betrayed by Dr. Buss and his best friend, also went on to coach other teams. He won the NBA coach of the year leading the Indiana Pacers. But he never got his hands on a team as talented as the Lakers and he never was able to win a title. And out of all the men so integral to this story, his fate is the saddest. Because he didn’t get that chance that Westhead got and threw away through hubris and pride, or that Riley claimed with an iron fist and such passion and fire and determination. We will never know what Jack McKinney would have done. Perhaps he would have not achieved the heights of Riley. Perhaps he would have bombed out. Or maybe, he would have been even greater than Riley. And I’m sure McKinney spent many a restless, sleepless night, over the years, thinking about what might have been.
And it all comes down to that innocent bike ride to work. All these men’s lives changed in that moment McKinney’s head collided with the pavement. If that had not happened, it could be McKinney who today is celebrated coach of the Showtime dynasty. If that accident wouldn’t have happened, Pat Riley may right now be still sitting in the booth, calling Lakers games, succeeding Chick Hearn as the legendary broadcaster Stu Lantz now is. And we may not even have heard of Stu Lantz. Without that accident, it is very possible Pat Riley, hall of fame coach and five time NBA head coaching champion, would never have coached a single game in his life.
And what if Paul Westhead had not abandoned the fast break offense he so passionately believed in? It is possible he would be what Pat Riley is now? And that begs the question, why did a coach who lived his life for the fast break, turn his back on the greatest fast break team in history? Why did he decide to try turn it into a half court basketball team against the very philosophy he always believe in? Did he fall under the spell of the greatest half court player in history, Abdul-Jabbar? Did he, like some of the veteran players, resent the fame and close relationship the young, newly arrived star Magic had with Buss? Did he decide to show he was the reason why they won, that he could do it again by making Magic just another cog in a slow team instead of the catalyst for Showtime? Was it a combination of both reasons, or were there others?
Either way, Showtime was born hard; of literal blood sacrifice, McKinney’s blood, stupid pride, a young star player’s mistakes, promises broken and betrayal. And one can’t help but wonder, if McKinney had skipped that fateful ride on that one day, what would be the history of the Lakers and all those now famous men involved in that incredibly special era and team be?