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After the Fall
Richard O'Connor
October 20, 1980
A year ago Jack McKinney was the coach of the Lakers and Paul Westhead was his best friend. But a near-fatal bicycle crash changed all that. Now McKinney is starting a new life with a new team in Indiana
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October 20, 1980

After The Fall

A year ago Jack McKinney was the coach of the Lakers and Paul Westhead was his best friend. But a near-fatal bicycle crash changed all that. Now McKinney is starting a new life with a new team in Indiana

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"Fairfield."

McKinney perks up perceptibly. "That was a great game," he says. "If you remember, it was the televised game of the week. It was at Fairfield. You guys had a good fast-breaking team, although not much height. And, if you remember, we were down at halftime, but we came back in the second half, mixing up our defenses, zones to switching man-to-man, and we stopped you cold. And on offense, if you recall, Jimmy O'Brian kept coming up to the top of the key and hitting those jump shots down the stretch. God, was he happy when we won! He was hugging me like mad when the game ended."

This remarkable feat of memory—with every detail correct—is in marked contrast to an incident that took place earlier in the evening at a Sea Isle restaurant. McKinney was sitting at a table, engrossed in a conversation about basketball, when suddenly his eyebrows knotted together. He looked puzzled, confused. He began moving his hands quickly up and down his chest and thighs, tapping his body as if he were frisking himself. Then, he stood and said, "I must have left my glasses at the bar."

The fact that McKinney had not brought his glasses to the restaurant raises some questions: Is he not fully recovered from his head injuries? Is he just absentminded? Or was this just a meaningless, isolated incident of forgetfulness?

After returning to the table—without his glasses—McKinney explained, "It happens that I sometimes forget things, or I have a little trouble with names, but otherwise I'm fine. And my doctor can certify that."

That evening, on his way home, McKinney is riding in a car when someone makes a kidding reference to his problems with bicycles. The grin on his face fades slowly, almost sadly. He exhales and says, "It's hard to believe, isn't it, how a silly thing like a bike could wreak such havoc on a man's life."

The car passes through the quiet streets of Sea Isle City. McKinney gazes out the window, his reflection captured in the glass. "It has been good for the family to be here," he says. "I just wanted out of L.A. I told my wife that everything there had bad memories. I said, 'Let's get away, let's go to Jersey and see the family.' And it has been good for us, all of us."

Later, walking upstairs to the second-floor quarters where he is staying with Claire and three of his kids, McKinney stops and says, "You know, life always goes on. I'm glad I have my life. And my family. Often when I was down, that was the only thought that cheered me up. It made basketball seem so irrelevant."

At 11:30 that night McKinney and Ann prepare for a late run by sitting Indian-style on the floor of their summer rental, bending, twisting, stretching their bodies. On a nearby table is a small blue card that reads: SUCCESS IS TO BE MEASURED NOT SO MUCH BY THE POSITION THAT ONE HAS REACHED IN LIFE AS BY THE OBSTACLES WHICH HE HAS TO OVERCOME WHILE TRYING TO SUCCEED. "Ann puts these around as inspiration to the whole family," says McKinney.

Soon, they bound down the stairs of the apartment and out into the balmy night air. "I've only recently started to work out again," says McKinney, panting lightly. "Before the accident I jumped rope 300 times a day, swam a lot, ran and ate only fish on the road. I felt I was in great shape. Then, of course, after the accident I stopped doing anything for a while. Because of the accident my whole right side was anemic, weak. I said to the doctors, 'You guys have got to give me something to do, something to build myself up.' They didn't prescribe a thing. So I started jumping rope. First 25, then 30, then finally 300. And now I'm running again. But not hard. Usually a mile or so every day. And recently I got a huge pin taken out of my elbow, and so I hope I can maybe try a little tennis."

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