I. The Shark Swims Away
In June 1979, as Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Lakers, was working out the final details of the franchise's sale to Jerry Buss, the two moguls worked together to find a replacement for coach Jerry West, who had decided to step down after three seasons on the bench. Their top choice was an unconventional one: Jerry Tarkanian, the slick UNLV coach who was known for both revitalizing the Runnin' Rebels program and allegedly playing fast and loose with NCAA rules.
THE CAR was parked on the second level of a garage alongside the Sheraton Universal Hotel in North Hollywood. There was little unusual about seeing this type of car in this particular location. Oh, the maroon-and-white 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II was a dandy, with its high-pressure hydraulic system and its Turbo-Hydramatic 400 transmission. But in this neighborhood the Rolls was merely another fancy car belonging, no doubt, to yet another high roller.
Still, a Sheraton garage attendant took notice of the car on the morning of June 17, 1979. He was making his rounds when the paint job—rich maroon on top, blinding white on the bottom—caught his eye. He'd heard on the news that police were looking for a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II. A maroon-and-white one with a gold interior.
Before long, several members of the LAPD arrived. Leroy Orozco, a veteran detective, matched the license plate to the missing vehicle. He checked the paint for fingerprints, popped the lock and opened the trunk.
The smell shot up into the air, like a ghost set free from a crypt. The decaying corpse was that of a man decomposed beyond recognition. The body, wrapped in a yellow blanket, was trussed neck to waist to feet, with its hands tied behind its back. A bullet hole shattered the rear of the skull, and another one penetrated the right temple. When an officer reached into the body's pants pockets, neither a wallet nor a driver's license was found.
Still, Orozco had a good idea of who this was. This was Victor Weiss.
Three days earlier, on the evening of June 14, Weiss seemed to be the happiest man on the planet. A 51-year-old sports promoter who also served as the representative for Tarkanian, Weiss had bounded out of the Beverly-Comstock Hotel in L.A., euphoric in the knowledge that his client was about to be the new coach of the Lakers.
The team had contacted Tarkanian two months earlier about jumping to the NBA, but the coach viewed himself as strictly a college guy—even if he wasn't exactly a pillar of amateurism and moral fortitude. At the time Tarkanian was fighting the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations. He wasn't known as a master of X's and O's either, but few white men were better at understanding and empathizing with the young African-American basketball player. Tarkanian had a gift for walking into the projects of Detroit or Gary, Ind., or Newark and leaving with the best prospect around.
Tarkanian had no interest in leaving a position he cherished for one where he would serve as a glorified babysitter for a bunch of halfhearted millionaires in a league that had been damned by mediocre TV ratings, poor attendance and reports of rampant drug use among players. "I loved Las Vegas, my family loved Las Vegas," Tarkanian says. "When the Lakers reached out, I immediately said to my wife, 'I can't take the job, right?' "
Still, to be polite, Tarkanian returned Cooke's call. He explained that even if he were interested in moving to California, it'd have to be for a helluva lot more than UNLV was paying him. "Double the $350,000 I make right now," he told Cooke.
Cooke didn't hesitate: "We can do that."
So here was Weiss, moments after a meeting with Cooke and Buss, approaching the valet station at the Comstock, happy as could be. Not only were the Lakers making Tarkanian the highest-paid coach in NBA history, but they also agreed to the perks he demanded: a pair of season tickets and three luxury automobiles—one for Jerry, one for his wife, Lois, one for Pamela, their oldest daughter. "Everything was set," Tarkanian says. "I was the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers."
Tarkanian presumed that in the coming days he would sign the five-year contract and be introduced to the Los Angeles media. He and Lois were staying at the Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, and he made plans with Weiss to meet there on the morning of June 15. At 1 a.m. the phone in the Tarkanians' room rang. It was Rose Weiss, Vic's wife, calling from their home in Encino. "Have you seen my husband?" she asked. "We were supposed to have dinner last night. He never came."
One day turned into two days. Two days turned into three. Finally, after police matched the fingerprints from the decaying body in the Rolls-Royce with those of Vic Weiss, the Tarkanians' hotel phone rang again. "It was devastating news," Lois says. "This was not just someone Jerry was friends with for a long time. It was someone he loved. I can't tell you how badly that hurt us."
Many who knew Weiss acknowledged a slipperiness to the man. He managed a handful of so-so boxers and was believed to own three car dealerships. He always carried around a thick wad of cash (he had $38,000 in his pocket for the meeting with Buss and Cooke) and rarely left home without his solid-gold wristwatch and matching diamond ring (purchased from Anthony Starr, a Canadian jewel thief who routinely sold Weiss hot goods). It wasn't unusual to see Weiss standing ringside, talking shop with known mobsters.
Detectives later learned that Weiss, the ultimate showman, had little to show. Though he told people he had the car dealerships, he was actually just a paid consultant. His home was owned by an associate, and his car—the maroon-and-white Rolls—was leased. Weiss had run up more than $60,000 in gambling debts, and to work off what he owed he often flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to deliver bundles of laundered cash. According to one colleague, Weiss was skimming money off the top. He had been warned repeatedly to stop and, police suspected, was killed when he didn't.
A week after Weiss was murdered, Tarkanian and his wife dined with Buss in Las Vegas. "I know this whole tragedy has been very hard on you," Buss said. "Take as much time as you need. The offer is on the table, and it's not going anywhere. You're our coach."
After his initial reluctance, Tarkanian had come around to the idea of coaching the Lakers. He would be designing plays for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar down low and dreaming up ways to blend the talents of Norm Nixon, the incumbent point guard, and Earvin Johnson, the rookie point guard whom L.A. had just drafted with the No. 1 pick. Tarkanian would have to incorporate Jamaal Wilkes, the smooth small forward, into the offensive mix and find an answer to L.A.'s long-standing void at power forward. "He was so excited to coach Magic," Lois says. "He had all these ideas about how to use him."
Weiss's murder, though, changed things. Tarkanian's negotiation with Buss had been a secret, but in the coverage of Weiss's death the news got out. The people of Las Vegas reached out to Tark. Please don't leave. We need you. You need us. You are Las Vegas. The Tarkanians had four children, none of whom wanted to depart. Maybe, just maybe, $700,000 wasn't worth giving up the job he loved most.
"I don't think Jerry ever got past Vic's death," says Lois. "He just didn't get past it."
Tarkanian called Buss to say he had decided to remain at UNLV. The new Lakers owner held no grudge. "I understand," he said. "Some things just aren't meant to be."
II. The Accidental Head Coach
With Tarkanian out of the picture, the Lakers settled on a backup plan: Jack McKinney, the longtime coach at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia who had spent the previous three seasons assisting Jack Ramsay with the Trail Blazers. McKinney was immediately embraced by the Lakers players, who loved his up-tempo, run-at-all-costs philosophy. With Johnson spearheading the system, Los Angeles jumped out to a 10--4 start.
On the morning of Nov. 8, 1979, McKinney arranged to play tennis with Paul Westhead, his friend and assistant coach. Because his wife, Claire, was using the couple's only car, McKinney decided to ride his son's bicycle the mile and a half from his Palos Verdes home to Westhead's condominium.
WESTHEAD WAITED. And waited. And waited. McKinney was supposed to have arrived at the tennis court adjacent to the assistant coach's condo at 10 a.m. "It was another beautiful sunny day in Southern California," says Westhead. "I wasn't overly worried.... I assumed he went into the office for some business. That wouldn't have been unusual for an NBA coach in the thick of a season."
At 1 p.m. the phone rang. "Paul," Claire McKinney asked, "have you seen my husband?" Claire had returned from a church meeting to an empty house. Jack wasn't in the kitchen. Or the bathroom. Or the bottom of the pool. "Believe me, I looked," she says.
Claire reached out to the local police precinct, but nothing involving a Jack McKinney had been reported. She was told to contact the local hospitals. "We were new to L.A.," she says. "I didn't know any hospitals."
Claire opened the telephone book and called Little Company of Mary Hospital in nearby Torrance. She spoke with a receptionist who asked for a description of her husband.
"You should come in right now," the receptionist said. "And please drive carefully, dear."
A John Doe had been brought in that morning. There was a bad accident, and.... "Can I see him?" Claire asked when she arrived at the hospital.
A nun led her into a room. There was a man on the bed, unconscious, forehead swollen, the skin surrounding his eyes black-and-blue. "That," Claire said, "is my husband."
A few hours later Bob Steiner, the Lakers' public relations director, was about to leave for a round of golf with Bill Sharman, the general manager, when his phone rang. It was Buss. "Jack McKinney's in the hospital."
"Bill and I went in to see him," Steiner says, "and we couldn't believe what we were looking at." Westhead arrived at his friend's bedside shortly thereafter. When he first heard the words bicycle accident, Westhead pictured bent spokes, a scraped knee, perhaps a broken elbow or leg. The reality was much worse.
While riding to the tennis court, McKinney approached the intersection of Whitley Collins Drive and Stonecrest Road. He tapped the brakes to slow down on a slight decline. Yet for some reason the gears locked, the tires froze and the bike jerked to a halt. McKinney soared over the silver handlebars and crashed, headfirst, into the concrete. He "slid on his belly for 15 to 18 feet," an eyewitness told police. "Then blood started coming out of his mouth slowly." The first ambulance attendant to reach the scene glanced at the unconscious man, turned to a coworker and said, "There's just no way this guy's going to make it."
McKinney had suffered a severe concussion, a fractured cheekbone, a fractured elbow and would spend three days in a medically induced coma. The last thing Westhead cared about at that moment was basketball. A dear friend, the man who had brought him to the NBA, was nearly lifeless. Yet he had no choice: Westhead was the lone assistant coach.
The morning after the accident Westhead arrived at the gymnasium on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, where the Lakers held game-day shootarounds. He wasn't sure what to say or do. Many players first learned of the accident when they entered the gym. Those who read the Los Angeles Times that morning found but a four-paragraph mention of the mishap. It failed to make the front page of the sports section.
"I was the accidental head coach," says Westhead. "The substitute teacher. There was never anyone saying, 'Here's what we want you to do.' I was lucky that this was just a shootaround. I didn't have to coach just yet."
His chance came that evening, when the Lakers hosted the Nuggets at the Forum. For an inexperienced coach leading a shaken group of players, Denver was the ideal opponent. The Nuggets were playing their third game in three nights—and they were awful. But that night the Nuggets were ready. They led the vastly superior Lakers 107--105 in the final minute, but with two seconds remaining Wilkes hit a 20-footer to force overtime. Johnson's two free throws with less than 10 seconds to go in the extra period iced an emotional 126--122 L.A. win.
Afterward, Westhead and his players talked about marching forward; about being strong; about the upcoming schedule and the following day's practice. Mostly they talked about McKinney, and playing on his behalf. "It should be very clear that this is Jack McKinney's team," Westhead later said, "and I am just running out the string until he returns. I have no intention of changing anything. There will be variations, but they will be variations, not changes. I will accentuate what we've been building on, which is the running game.
"Even if we go 71--0 the rest of the season, it's still Jack McKinney's team."
III. The Dawn of Showtime
After months of rehab and recovery, McKinney was scouting for the Lakers by the end of the season. But before long he was largely forgotten by L.A. fans. Westhead guided the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title, and that off-season Buss made him the full-time head coach. Everything seemed grand, but Westhead returned to work the following season with new ideas on how the offense should work. Players felt the new, more conservative system was too structured and limited their creativity.
Johnson especially chafed at Westhead's philosophy, and the Lakers foundered under the new system. They finished the 1980--81 season 54--28, the second-best record in the Western Conference, but were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by the Rockets, who had finished under .500 (40--42). And the Lakers started slowly in 1981--82. After a 26-point loss to the Spurs on Nov. 10, L.A. was 2--4.
AFTER A quick flight from San Antonio, the Lakers arrived at Houston Intercontinental Airport early on the morning of Nov. 11. The players ambled through baggage claim and headed to the bus, but Johnson—large headphones covering his ears, singing Earth, Wind & Fire—walked to the median outside the exit, took a seat on the ground and turned the music up.
Michael Cooper, the team's shooting guard and a close friend of Johnson's, approached and tapped him on the shoulder: "E, what's wrong?"
"Coop, man, I ain't having fun," Johnson said.
"What are you talking about?" Cooper said. "We've just hit a little rough patch. That's all."
"No, Coop, it's not gonna get any better," Johnson said. Cooper knew his friend was prone to emotional highs and lows, and the same man now brooding might be cracking a joke 25 seconds down the line. "E, let's get on the bus," he said.
"No, Coop, this s--- ain't fun," Johnson said. "I'm calling Dr. Buss."
"He called that night," Cooper says, "and everything in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers changed."
As soon as Johnson complained to Buss, Los Angeles went on its best run of the season, beating three sound teams (Houston, Portland, Phoenix), as well as the inept Pacers (coached by one Jack McKinney). Off the record, Nixon told a reporter that "the only bad thing about winning is we're keeping [Westhead] alive." None of his teammates would argue the point.
In the midst of the winning streak, Buss called Sharman and West, who had been a Lakers scout since giving up coaching, into his office. West and Sharman considered themselves the franchise's sole basketball decision makers, but Buss's ear now belonged to Magic Johnson. Buss had increasingly shared his star player's opinion that Westhead was either impossibly stubborn or in over his head. Now the owner felt compelled to act. "I've reached a decision that I would like to fire Paul Westhead," Buss told Sharman and West. "However, there's three of us here, and if the two of you want to talk me out of it, I'll let you."
Sharman and West had both coached the Lakers and knew the job was far from easy. They also knew what it was like to cope with an agitated superstar. Sharman had the mercurial Wilt Chamberlain for two seasons in the early '70s, and West rarely connected with Abdul-Jabbar during their three years together. While they acknowledged Westhead was far from perfect, they both felt he deserved more time. "Paul warrants at least another week to see if things can straighten out," West told Buss.
Sharman nodded. "Jerry's right," he said. "Nobody should forget what Paul did for us in 1980."
Buss seemed to agree, but Westhead's fate was sealed a few days later. On Nov. 18, during a three-point win over the Jazz in Salt Lake City, Westhead got into a sideline argument with Johnson when he felt his star wasn't paying attention to the coach's instructions during a timeout. After the game Johnson lashed out at Westhead through the media. "I can't play here anymore," Johnson said. "I want to be traded. I can't deal with it no more. I've got to go in and ask [Buss] to trade me."
"Is this because of Paul?" Johnson was asked.
"Yeah," the star said.
The next day's Los Angeles Times featured the front-page headline MAGIC'S BOMBSHELL: HE WANTS TO BE TRADED. On one hand it was accurate—Johnson's outburst was big news. It was also ludicrous. He didn't really want to be traded and didn't expect to be. An owner doesn't sign a player to a 25-year, $25 million contract, as Buss had with Johnson five months earlier, then ship him off.
Buss met Westhead at the Forum the afternoon after Johnson's tantrum. The owner greeted Westhead warmly, thanked him for 2½ years of loyal service—and told him his days with the Lakers were done. "This is my call," Buss said. "The offense just doesn't seem to be working. I know you disagree, but we don't see things the same way here."
Westhead thanked Buss for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and left, devastated. "It's a good thing I have a close family," he says. "Because it was one of the lowest moments of my career."
Paul Westhead wouldn't say it then, and he won't say it now. The truth, however, is undeniable.
He was fired by Magic Johnson.
THOUGH A uniquely successful businessman, Jerry Buss had never been especially good at firing people. He wasn't the cutthroat type, and whereas Jack Kent Cooke, his predecessor, took a certain demonic delight in watching heads roll, Buss was the opposite. He openly rooted for people to succeed and only made changes when he believed they were indisputably necessary.
Because Magic Johnson had forced his hand with the Utah ultimatum, Buss was unprepared to fill the team's open coaching position. That's why, when the media gathered at the Forum on the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1981, for an announcement, they were treated to one of the strangest 50 minutes in the history of organized sports.
First, Buss thanked Westhead (who wasn't present) for his service. He insisted Johnson wasn't to blame for the firing, and restated his commitment to bringing a championship back to Los Angeles.
Then things got bizarre.
Earlier that day Buss had summoned West and Sharman to his home. In the course of the conversation, he asked West to return as coach. Depending on who you ask, the basketball legend's vague response translated to one of the following:
Sure, that'd be great.
I'll do it for a game or two.
"Considering how much Jerry hated being a coach, I can't imagine he wanted that job," said Norm Nixon. "I mean, it just wasn't something he liked to do."
But Buss concluded that West not only accepted the position but did so enthusiastically. He shook hands with the two men, then asked them to meet with Pat Riley, who had been Westhead's assistant, to explain the situation to him.
At approximately 3 p.m., Riley arrived at West's Bel Air house and was told that he was the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "I'll help you out as an assistant for as long as you need but hopefully not too long," said West, who had played alongside Riley for four seasons and considered him a close friend. "I know you're going to do great things."
Riley was conflicted. He was giddy at the opportunity but didn't want to appear disloyal to Westhead. At first Riley assumed that, with Westhead's dismissal, he would be dismissed too. Instead he was about to become the head coach. It was weird and disappointing and exciting all at once.
As Buss stood before the media and began discussing what would happen next, Riley felt his heartbeat liven. He imagined all his boyhood friends back in Schenectady, N.Y., saying, "Hey, that's Pat up there!" He was 36 years old and at the height of professional basketball....
And suddenly he was very confused. At the podium Buss was explaining that West would serve as offensive coach and Riley as defensive coach. Or captain. Or something like that.
Someone asked Buss if, as offensive coach, West would essentially be the head coach. Buss took a long drag from his cigarette. One could have forgiven those in attendance for forgetting whether they were listening to the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Los Angeles Rams. Buss was a well-known USC football die-hard. Offensive coach? Defensive coach? Who did Buss want to coach the special teams?
"It was the weirdest event I'd ever covered," says Mitch Chortkoff, then the Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. "Usually you know what you're going to announce before holding the press conference."
"We put on a clinic," says Bruce Jolesch, the Lakers' public relations director at the time, "on how not to conduct a press conference."
The session unspooled like something dreamed up for Saturday Night Live.
Buss: I did not specifically make someone head coach and someone else assistant coach. That was not accidental. I did it the way I announced on purpose. I feel that Pat is very capable of running the Laker team. However, I feel that we need a new offensive coach. I asked Jerry if he'd take that job and, fortunately, because of his relationship with Pat, I feel the two of them will coach this team together, with Jerry being in charge of the offense in particular.
Reporter: Jerry, there'll be a game tomorrow night. The game will end. Will two coaches come out to talk to us?
Buss: We discussed that. I'm really making this change to change the offense, and since Jerry West will be in charge of the offense, he will be the one who you will question. You can, however, talk to Pat whenever you want, as well.
Reporter: Jerry, who picks the starting lineup?
Buss: Who picks the starting lineup? In basketball that's typically the coach.
Reporter: Which one of these two?
Buss: Oh, which one of these two? Uh, I think there are some things along the line, not only the starting lineups but other considerations as well—potential trades, et cetera, et cetera—that Pat and Jerry are going to have to sit down and work out what their relative responsibilities are. Fortunately, we're dealing with a situation of two men who have worked together on and off for years, and therefore I have decided to leave that up to them ... the division of their duties.
Reporter: What will Jerry do as far as actually changing the offense?
Buss began answering but was interrupted by Steve Springer of the Orange Country Register, who requested a response from West. The team's new offensive coach appeared uncomfortable and desperate to be anywhere else. Ten minutes earlier he thought he'd help Riley, toss in some ideas—not much else. Now he was a coach? How did this happen?
West: First of all, I'd like to clear up one thing. I'm going to be working for Pat Riley.
Reporter: With or for, Jerry?
West: With and for. And I think my responsibility is to him because I feel in my heart that he is the head coach. And hopefully my position here won't be a long-range position.
Reporter: Pat, will you take questions?
Reporter: Pat, what are your reactions?
Riley: Well, I haven't had a whole lot of time to give it much thought, and I'm reacting rather emotionally to this thing because it's not a very fun day for me, nor is it for Paul. So until we can sit down, Jerry and myself, and discuss some of the things we can do to improve the incentive of the team, then I don't think I can really discuss that philosophy right now.
Reporter: Have you talked about any assistants?
Riley [laughing]: Have I talked about any assistants? I just want lunch.
Just when it seemed the scene couldn't become more cartoonish, Buss was asked if he had spoken with Johnson. "Well, actually, I did, yes," the owner said. "But it was in a different context. I was checking with him about a birthday party I'm giving. I wanted to make sure he and Norm Nixon would be on time."
The reporter promptly wished Buss a happy and healthy birthday. "No," he said, "it's not my birthday."
When the press conference from hell finally concluded, West—not one to avoid the occasional vulgarity—pulled Riley aside. "You're the head coach of this team," he said. "You're the only f------ head coach."