When Los Angeles opened its series with Philadelphia, the Lakers' head coach was not introduced to the crowd, did not sit on the bench and, in fact, said he wouldn't watch the game on TV. Jack McKinney, who is still the coach in L.A. even though he hasn't coached a game in six months, stopped watching his team play in February when frustration and anxiety began to get the best of him. McKinney had coached the Lakers for less than two months when he fell off a bicycle on the morning of Nov. 8 and suffered a serious head injury. Although McKinney, 44, is now fully ambulatory and his recovery virtually complete, he is unable to get his job back from his assistant, Paul Westhead, 40.
Fast friends from years of coaching together, first at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia for two years, and then for eight years in a Puerto Rican summer league, they had joined a team in transition—one with a colorful new owner and six new players.
The Lakers opened training camp in Palm Springs last September, four days after McKinney moved into his new home in Palos Verdes, and it wasn't until Nov. 8 that he and Westhead got their first day off. When Westhead called that morning at 10 o'clock, offering a game of tennis, McKinney eagerly accepted. One area in which the McKinneys were woefully deficient for Los Angelenos was transportation—they had only one functioning automobile. The other had been involved in an accident in Portland, the McKinneys' previous home. In what was later to turn out to be one of the more grotesque ironies of McKinney's life, his wife, Claire, had gone off in the operative car to attend a class in human and personal relationships with Cassie Westhead. The name of the course was Who Am I? With no car to drive and Westhead already on his way to the tennis court, McKinney climbed onto his son's bike and pedaled off.
McKinney has said he remembers going down a hill and then the wheels on the bike somehow locking, causing him to flip over the handlebars. He landed face down on the pavement. When an ambulance finally arrived and the attendants found him bleeding and unconscious, one of them said, "This guy's not going to make it."
May 18, 1980
McKinney spent most of the next three weeks fading in and out of a coma, his mind so fuzzy that Claire remembers having to pound on her husband's chest to get him to recognize her. The right side of his face and his left elbow had been shattered by the fall, and his condition was considered so grave that only his immediate family was allowed to see him. That "family" included Westhead. "The only reason that I'm allowed to see him," said Westhead, "is because Claire told the people at the hospital that I'm his brother. Actually, Claire isn't that far off. Jack has been like a brother to me." When Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar attempted to visit McKinney in the intensive-care ward at Little Company of Mary Hospital, they were turned away.
The relationship between the McKinney and Westhead families had long been close. The wives were good friends, and the West-heads' four children had grown up with the McKinneys' four children. The McKinneys and the Westheads are so close that, through some strange twist of fate, their home phone numbers would be identical except that the next-to-last digits are one number apart.
The accident has changed that relationship, perhaps forever. When McKinney was hospitalized and Buss decided to let Westhead coach the Lakers, Westhead announced that he was merely an interim coach and that any success the Lakers enjoyed during his tenure would be McKinney's. "The first three or four weeks, I was clearly taking care of the plants while the owner was on vacation," Westhead says. At one point he went so far as to promise he would never take McKinney's job, that he would step aside when McKinney was well enough to resume work, no matter what the circumstances. But that was a long time and many victories ago. And now the well-meaning Westhead has become as much a victim of circumstances as McKinney.
Whether or not McKinney will ever get his job back is a decision that won't be made by Buss until after the Lakers have concluded the championship series.
McKinney's health was surely Buss' primary concern when he made up his mind seven weeks ago to keep McKinney off the bench for the remainder of the season. Westhead had simplified regular-season matters by leading the Lakers to a 51-18 record (they were 60-22 overall) and the Pacific Division title. "Let's face it," says a member of the Lakers' front-office staff, "if this team had been losing. Jack would be coaching right now."
To an extent, McKinney is hostage to his own success. It was he who urged the Lakers to get Jim Chones, who saw Michael Cooper's potential in a summer league, who made Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon into a proficient backcourt, who designed the basic plays the Lakers still run and, of course, who hired Westhead. During his recuperation, a time he spent "just bumping around the house, knocking pictures crooked," as he puts it, and suffering periodic bouts of depression during which he slept away much of the day, McKinney always assumed the job would be his when he was fully recovered. But this hasn't been the case. During the latter stages of the season, he was reduced to occasional scouting assignments; he doesn't go to Laker practices, doesn't visit his office, and his contact with Westhead—except for scouting reports—has tapered off to almost none at all. "We've never discussed anything," says Cassie Westhead of this cooling period, "even though we're all very aware that our futures are going to change because of what's happened. We don't see the McKinneys as much as we did, and that's been a kind of unspoken decision by the four of us. I think because our relationship is deep, we've avoided making it awkward for each other. They can't share our joy over Paul's success, of course. And how many times can you say you're sorry for the way things turned out? When you get past the reason for it, you have to accept the fact that for us it's been a dream come true."
Buss, shrewd businessman that he is, kept his options open as long as possible, first suggesting the possibility that McKinney and Westhead could function as co-coaches, then deciding to withdraw the offer when McKinney jumped at it. "In January it became a question of what kind of activities Jack could resume," says Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Lakers' team physician. "We reached a consensus that it wouldn't be good for Jack to be forced into a situation where he would be under pressure and doing a lot of traveling. Nobody knows how a patient is going to respond to a head injury, and we thought it best that he complete his recovery first."
When Buss announced in mid-March that it was too late for McKinney to return to the bench this season, McKinney was the first to agree that a change in coaches so close to the playoffs could be a problem. So he stopped discussing his eagerness to return and went back to jogging a couple of miles a day, jumping rope, swimming and working out on a Nautilus machine three days a week. Buss had won his delaying game.
But his eventual decision cannot fail to have unsettling consequences. Westhead has shown no interest in remaining with the Lakers as an assistant coach if Buss chooses to bring back McKinney. But if Westhead becomes the head coach, that will leave McKinney not only, in effect, fired, but also looking like damaged goods.
McKinney has tried to maintain his perspective and be sensitive to Buss' predicament, for it seems inevitable that the owner's final decision as to who will be the Lakers' coach next year will seem terribly impolitic to some. "He can't win, whatever he does," McKinney said recently.
Buss, very much to the contrary, feels he can't lose. "Everybody keeps telling me I've got a terribly difficult decision," he says, "but I love having to make that decision. It's like having to choose between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as your center—how many mistakes can I make? I think most people would sympathize with me if I chose Paul. It would take a lot of guts to let someone go after he's won a division title for you."