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The Fall Guy

McKinney got the Lakers on the road to Showtime, but he wasn't able to get there because of accident

October 27, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

NAPLES, Fla. — Consider this dream sequence:

As the final buzzer sounded ending the 2006 NBA Finals, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal held the ball high above his head in triumph as his teammates mobbed him near midcourt at Staples Center.

O'Neal gave a grudging hug to teammate Kobe Bryant, and a sincere embrace to his coach, Paul Westhead, but reserved his warmest greeting for the basketball legend emerging from the stands, General Manager Jack McKinney, a winner of six NBA titles as a head coach and now enjoying his third title as the Lakers' front-office guru.

It was McKinney, the creative force behind '80s Showtime, who had persuaded O'Neal and Bryant that they could coexist in a system that would produce greater glory. It was nothing new for McKinney, who had done the same thing decades earlier with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.

O'Neal and McKinney got in only a few words of congratulation before they were pried apart from the microphone by Pat Riley, who has amassed an impressive resume as a broadcaster in the three decades since his playing career ended.

\f7 That scene may be seem to come from some alternate basketball universe, a bizarre fantasy league or perhaps a video game programmed by a frustrated Lakers fan. But it's a look at what might have been if only ...

If Nov. 8, 1979 had not been the Lakers' first day off in McKinney's first season as their head coach; if Westhead, then his assistant, had not asked McKinney to play tennis at their Palos Verdes condos; if Claire McKinney, Jack's wife, had not already taken their car that morning to go to a class with Cassie Westhead, Paul's wife; if McKinney had not hopped on his son's bike; if McKinney had worn a helmet; if the bike's gears had not given out; if he hadn't been riding down a hill at the time....

That's a lot of ifs, a lot of circumstances that came together to create a horrific moment in McKinney's life, a moment that forever changed his fortunes, those of his family, Westhead, Riley, the Lakers and the NBA in general.

As Riley prepares to defend the 2006 NBA title won by the Heat, his fifth championship and Miami's first, he knows all too well that he might have completely missed his legendary coaching career had it not been for McKinney's bicycle accident. And he wouldn't have been there to bring O'Neal to Miami.

Decades ago, Riley was content as Chick Hearn's broadcasting sidekick for the Lakers until Westhead, who replaced McKinney, asked Riley to be his assistant. Then Westhead was fired and Riley became the head coach.

"I didn't even plan on being an assistant coach," Riley said. "Before I knew it, I was coach. And the rest is history."

Some of the NBA's most memorable history.

"[McKinney] was a great coach," Riley said. "We used his system for three or four years after he left. If he hadn't had the accident, he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the '80s."

Today, about 100 miles away from Riley and the Heat, on the other side of Florida, McKinney, now 71, and living in a gated community in Naples, concedes he still thinks about what might have been.

"Of course I have to wonder how long I would have gone on with the Lakers, if I'd still be coaching," he said in a soft voice, "but I've learned to accept it and finally found peace of mind."


Before joining the Lakers, McKinney had been head coach at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and a pro assistant with Milwaukee and Portland. Then McKinney left the Trail Blazers to become head coach of the Lakers for the 1979-80 season with a starting salary of $120,000.

McKinney quickly designed a system he felt would take advantage of both Abdul-Jabbar's inside game, which included the deadly sky hook, and a fastbreak offense that could be ignited by rookie Magic Johnson's razzle-dazzle style. And the players bought into it.

At one preseason practice in Palm Desert, Abdul-Jabbar was struggling with his passes, the balls sailing over his intended targets.

"This place is starting to look like LAX," McKinney said.

The gym became quiet.

"I thought we almost had a new coach right there," guard Norm Nixon later told McKinney. "Nobody ever talked to Kareem like that before."

McKinney's innovative approach yielded immediate results. The first signs of a style that would become known as Showtime were evident as the Lakers moved out to a 9-4 start.

It would end there for McKinney, end the next morning at the bottom of a hill with his body sailing over the handlebars of the malfunctioning bike. He landed headfirst on the pavement and slid another 12 to 18 feet before coming to a sickening stop, a pool of blood quickly forming under his head.

When paramedics found McKinney, they weren't sure he'd live. He had a severe concussion and a fractured cheekbone along with a fractured elbow and various cuts and bruises.

He remained in a coma, his wife living at his bedside.

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