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THE RISE & FALL OF JACK MC KINNEY : Since That Terrible Day in 1979 When He Took a Spill on His Bicycle, Life Has Turned into a Roller Coaster of Highs and Lows for the Ex-Laker, Ex-Pacer, Ex-King Coach and Current-King Scout

January 14, 1985|MIKE LITTWIN | Times Staff Writer

'I was not mentally on top of things. I wasn't ready to make decicions and then this (being fired) was being pressed on me. My dream world was sort of shattered. I was out of a job and I had to think what to do. I had to think of my family.'


Sue McKinney had received these phone calls before and she knew just what to do. She would be a good listener, she would offer consolation, she would give her best keep-your-chin-up speech. Later, she might cry.

It was Dad. And the news wasn't good.

"It's the same call I get whenever he gets fired," Sue says. "He calls up and says, 'I want you to know this before it gets into the newspapers.' "

Jack McKinney had called each of his four children that Sunday night in November. He had called his parents in New Jersey. He had called his in-laws. Covered all the bases, just as he'd done six months earlier when the Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Assn. had told him they would no longer need his services as coach.

He didn't want anyone close to him to learn the news the way he had when the Lakers fired him. His son, John, heard it on television and relayed the report to his stunned and astonished father. That, of course, was years ago.

This was different. There had been a press conference and now reporters were calling as well as a few friends, but McKinney didn't want to talk anymore. Tomorrow would be soon enough. He wanted that night only to be alone with his family, alone with his thoughts.

"It's no fun anymore," he told Sue. "It's too much pressure. I can't get through to the team. Maybe it's them, maybe it's me. But something is not clicking."

He wasn't fired this time. He had quit, and, in a way, that was even worse. Nine games into the Kansas City Kings' season, McKinney walked away from a four-year contract worth $500,000 and from a job that has fired his soul for 27 years.

Worst of all, there was no one to blame this time but himself. McKinney knew he had failed.

He thought he had hit bottom. He hadn't. That would happen a day later.

Yeah, he read about it in the papers.

In earlier days, in better days, Jack McKinney had said that he didn't want "to go to every league city and have there be a story based on the coach getting over a stupid bike ride."

That was during his first year with the Pacers, a season after the stupid bike ride had cost him his job with the Lakers and very nearly his life. McKinney took over a mediocre Pacers' team, coached it into the playoffs and, for his efforts, was named the NBA coach of the year. Life was good. He had every reason to believe the nightmare of the year before was over, a nightmare he had shared with the world. Everyone knew how, 17 days into his only season as Laker coach, on Nov. 8, 1979, he had fallen off his bike and lapsed into a coma only to wake up and find that Paul Westhead, his best friend, had taken his job.

But it was not over. The stupid bike ride will not go away. Even today, it follows him, it haunts him.

When McKinney walked away from the Kings, who had only won once in nine games, there was a story in the next day's Kansas City Times quoting unidentified players as saying that McKinney had lapses of memory and that he didn't always designate the play he meant to call. His ability as a coach was questioned. A larger question looms: Has McKinney ever completely recovered from that bizarre biking accident in Palos Verdes?

"Jack is identical to the way he was before the accident," said Jim Lynam, coach of the San Diego Clippers, who played for McKinney at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and is a close friend.

Kansas City General Manager Joe Axelson, who has hired McKinney back as a scout, sent an extraordinary, two-page letter to each of the NBA's general managers defending McKinney's memory as well as his ability to coach, saying the Kings' players "simply let him down by playing below the level of their abilities."

Players in Kansas City and Indiana tell a slightly different story. They talk of a coach who does have some memory lapses and of a coach who, by his own admission, has trouble remembering names. They also say that on occasion he has called a play the team no longer uses.

During a huddle near the end of his time with the Kings, McKinney told his players to run a play "the way we did against St. John's."

"He knew what the play was," said Kings' guard Don Buse, who had also played under McKinney at Indiana. "We had just come back from New York. That's the kind of mistake anyone can make. He made a couple of mistakes like that, but I think too much has been made of it. It didn't have anything to do with what happened. It didn't affect his coaching. His methods just weren't working.'

But even McKinney's daughter, Sue, says McKinney is not the same.

"He was always forgetful," Sue says. "But it has been worse since the accident. Sometimes he calls me Claire. That's my mother's name."

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