There were 56 seconds left in a recent game between the Clippers and Denver Nuggets, and it didn't seem that the Clippers could blow a 10-point lead in so short a time. They even had possession of the ball. But Coach Jim Lynam, who had watched his team lose its previous seven games, wasn't accepting victory yet.
Lynam, as usual, stalked the sideline, yelling at his point guard to run the offense, and at the officials to call Denver for using a zone defense. As he watched the guard kick the ball out of bounds, Lynam turned toward the press table and unleashed a verbal barrage. It all was captured by a microphone being used by Clipper guard Norm Nixon, serving as a radio analyst while nursing an injury.
"Coach, loosen up your tie," Nixon said, smiling. "Relax."
Half an hour after the game, which the Clippers won despite their coach's fretting, Lynam still hadn't loosened his tie. An intense and driven man, Lynam rarely relaxes and savors a win. In the National Basketball Assn., there is always another opponent to prepare for, always another game in the next day or two.
"After most games, it's hard to tell whether the team has won or lost by looking at Jimmy," Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said. "That's how intense he is."
These days, the tie seems to be tightening around Lynam's neck. The Clippers have been perplexingly inconsistent all season, losing five straight games in November, winning six straight in early December, and just recently losing seven straight. All told, it's added up to a sub-.500 record from a team that had been expected to win at least half its games.
Naturally, when a team that features such quality players as Bill Walton, Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson is going bad, the coach takes much of the blame. Less than a month into the season, Lyle Spencer, then a columnist for the Herald Examiner, speculated about Lynam's job status, and that sort of talk is revived every time the Clippers lose consecutive games. Lynam is in the last year of a two-year contract.
Before the Clippers broke their latest streak with the victory over Denver, Scheer fueled the speculation when he said: "Nothing's forever, but that doesn't mean I'm going to make a coaching change. I'm not going to give Jimmy a vote of confidence because that's the kiss of death, but I'm not pointing the finger at him, either."
After the Clippers had won two straight, Scheer tempered his comments.
"I've never, in 15 years in basketball, encountered this type of season," Scheer said. "It's impossible to figure. Jimmy is the same coach today, after two straight wins, as he was last weekend after seven straight losses. Whether that's lack of leadership by the front office, the coach or the team, I don't know."
One thing Scheer does know is that Lynam, 43, will work as hard, as long and as intensely as always to try to turn things around. In almost 20 years of coaching, on the collegiate level and most recently as an assistant and head coach in the NBA, Lynam has experienced few losing seasons.
Since playing for Portland Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, Lynam has held college assistant jobs at Fairfield in Connecticut and American University in Washington, D.C., and was head coach at St. Joseph's for three seasons. In 1981, Lynam's undermanned St. Joseph's team upset DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Mideast Regionals.
He left St. Joseph's to become Ramsay's top assistant with the Trail Blazers. The Clippers hired him before the 1983-84 season to replace Paul Silas, but his record in just under a season and a half with the Clippers is 47-73.
"The pressure of the job goes with the turf," Lynam said. "But what happens a lot of times is that people tend to look at things on the short term. If you're going to do a good job, you do it over a stretch. In the NBA, you're going to experience highs and lows. If we're in a losing streak, I'm going to be frustrated at that time, but I know over 82 games you're going to have that. You just try to have the team become consistent."
It is consistent with Lynam's personality that he approaches the current situation with a shrug of his shoulders. If the Clippers' slow start is bothering Lynam, he doesn't let it show. He appeared as intense during a recent two-hour lunch as he does on the court. He waves his hands to emphasize a point, and speaks in a fast, choppy tone with a distinct Philadelphia accent.
The oldest of 11 children in a strict Irish Catholic family, Lynam quickly developed an instinct for survival on the streets of southwest Philadelphia, described by Lynam as a blue-collar area in those days. His father was a foreman at a locomotive company. By the time he was 11, Lynam had jobs as a newspaper carrier and clerk at a grocery store. He also cut grass and even hung around the poolrooms.