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Jack McKinney's bike ride changed Lakers' history

Fallen coach soon lost his coaching job, and Showtime went on without him.

February 09, 2012|By Helene Elliott
  • Former Lakers Coach Jack McKinney coached the team to a 9-4 record before suffering a serious head injury after crashing on his bicycle. The Lakers went on to win the NBA title later that season.
Former Lakers Coach Jack McKinney coached the team to a 9-4 record before… (Los Angeles Times )

This was not your typical in-season coaching change, but few are as monumental.

If Lakers coach Jack McKinney hadn't decided to ride his bike to a tennis date with assistant Paul Westhead on Nov. 8, 1979 the course of the team's history might have been different — and so would the course of several men's lives.

McKinney had left an assistant's job in Portland to coach the Lakers in 1979 and soon installed the foundation of the Showtime era. His team was humming along at 10-4, his relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar solidifying into a deep trust, when McKinney hurtled over the handlebars of his bike and struck his head on the pavement, sustaining a serious head injury.

Westhead was appointed the interim coach and he asked player-turned-broadcaster Pat Riley to become his assistant. Riley took the job only after broadcast partner Chick Hearn promised to take him back when McKinney returned.

"I wanted to make sure I had a job," Riley told The Times in 2006.

McKinney's recovery was slow, and owner Jerry Buss offered Westhead the job on a permanent basis. Initially unsure, Westhead accepted. "Shoot, I'd have taken it too," McKinney said in 2006. "But at the time, that hurt."

Westhead was 50-18 and the Lakers won the NBA title. McKinney coached the Indiana Pacers for four seasons and spent nine games with the Kansas City Kings in 1984-85 before resigning. He didn't coach in the NBA again, unwittingly becoming a footnote to the history of a team that in 1980 began a run of five titles in nine seasons.

"It would be nice to be remembered as part of that," McKinney said in 2006, "but I was there too short a period to be linked to Lakers folklore. I just put in some ideas that were accepted and the rest was up to Paul and Pat and some great players."

Westhead was on the wrong end of a coaching change 11 games into the 1981-82 season after he clashed with Magic Johnson and other players. He was replaced by Riley, who won the title that season as well as in 1985, '87 and '88.

Riley left the Lakers in 1990 and coached the New York Knicks for four seasons before moving on to Miami as president and coach. He coached the Heat eight seasons before stepping back and giving the job to Stan Van Gundy.

Riley returned to the bench in December 2005 after Van Gundy resigned to spend more time with his family. The Heat was 11-10 at the time.

"I have a responsibility to this team and to the players that I traded for, the picks," Riley told reporters. "And I think right now, at this moment, that I'm the best person to do that."

And he was. Riley's team, with Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, was 41-20 and beat Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit and Dallas to win the franchise's first title.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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