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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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These stories seem to be the family's way of dealing with what was certainly the most frightening period of their lives.

"Shortly after that I went home, and by around New Year's I started taking rides and going out in public," McKinney says. "Also, I started running, jumping and working out some on the Nautilus machine. Then around mid-January I started scouting for the Lakers. By late January I felt I was ready to resume coaching, but Buss suggested we wait. And I agreed. But the idea was that I'd come back sometime during the season.

"Then, in mid-February the team is playing so well under Paul, making a real surge toward the playoffs. So I meet with Buss, and we decide it wouldn't be a good time to make a change. Personally, I felt it would be unfair to both Paul and the players. So the plan was that I would continue scouting, and after the season Paul and I would go away and resolve the situation. Granted, it would have been a ticklish thing, but at least we could have thrashed it out.

"I could feel that my help was not really being appreciated, but I continued to scout. Then comes the final series with Philly. After watching Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, meet my wife in Portland, where she has been visiting. While driving down to Los Angeles, we stop on the road to call home. John answers and says, 'Dad, have you heard the news?' I say, 'What news?' and he says, 'Dad, you've been fired!' " McKinney looks straight ahead, his outward calm covering the rage welling inside. "So I'm out. Just like that. And a few days later Paul gets hired for $1.1 million over four years." His voice trails off. "Terrific, huh?"

Buss's version of the firing is a little different, of course. "I didn't choose the timing," he says. "I'd called Jack and told him I wanted to meet with him privately when he got back from Philadelphia. I guess some reporters must have asked him why, and he said, 'I think I'm getting fired.' Next thing you know, I'm deluged with calls: 'Is Jack McKinney getting fired? Is Jack McKinney really getting fired?' Now what could I say? Say no, and then 10 days later maybe fire Jack? I would have lost all credibility."

Buss contends that his choice of Westhead over McKinney was "honestly a hard decision. If I'd chosen Jack, people would be asking why I didn't hire Paul, especially since he won the championship. Let me just say I was very impressed with Paul's style and his coaching ability on the floor."

Reasonable, of course, but then why did he make the comment at the time of the firing about preferring Westhead to McKinney because "Paul was a man you could have fun with"?

Buss seems miffed. "Jack had just come off a very serious accident," he says. "And if I'd given any other explanation, anything that might in the least have made it seem as if I was choosing Paul over Jack because one was a more competent coach than the other, it might have made other owners think that something was still wrong with Jack, that he was incapable of coaching. So I tried to avoid saying anything at all about competency. And this fun stuff seemed to work best. But I thought then, and I think now, that Jack is capable of coaching in the NBA."

After the firing, McKinney behaved as if in a daze. He stopped working out. He sat in his house, not talking, feeling despondent, humiliated and hurt. "Wouldn't you be despondent?" says one NBA assistant. "After all, your owner lies to you, and your best friend pulls a Judas. The whole thing sickened me."

"After I got axed, I simply wanted to quit life," McKinney says. "I plunged into a deep depression, and I didn't know what to do or where to turn. I was really confused. Claire and the kids were so great during that period, so understanding, but I just couldn't come out of it. I was just so stunned."

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