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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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Finally, McKinney sought the advice of a psychiatrist. "Yeah, I guess he helped," says McKinney. "He encouraged me not to give up. He said I was too young to abandon my career. He convinced me I still had a lot to offer."

McKinney was bothered most—and is bothered still—by the fact that he was fired before the promised meeting with Buss and Westhead took place. He understands that it probably wouldn't have altered anything. But it does appear that Buss could have handled the situation with greater tact and consideration by evading the reporters' questions on McKinney's status until after the playoffs. Then McKinney could have found out firsthand about the firing, and not after a million other people. It would have lessened the hurt, preserved his dignity, and maybe, just maybe, allowed his relationship with Westhead to continue. The two men have rarely spoken since.

For his part, Westhead says, "I didn't know the firing was to take place, and when I found out, there was nothing I could do." Regarding his relationship with McKinney, Westhead says, "It may take time to patch things up." But if the future is uncertain, there is no question about the past. "I guess you could say that without Jack I wouldn't have had many jobs in my career."

What also galls McKinney is Buss' words to him the day after the firing, when McKinney demanded a face-to-face confrontation. "Jack, don't go to the papers with this," Buss said. "In three days the whole thing will blow over."

McKinney says he stood frozen with anger. "Maybe for you, Jerry," he replied, "but it will affect my whole life."

And now he says, "And it has, too, especially my outlook. I was once a very naive man. In the past I always believed everyone. Now, reluctantly, I am more careful around people. I'm also less outgoing. I've become more introverted. And I don't get as excited as I used to about things. Most of all, I'm cautious, very cautious in dealing with people. For the first time in my career I've hired an agent, Howard Slusher."

A week after the conversation on the beach, McKinney is driving with Pacer P.R. man, Ed McKee, to a speaking engagement in Anderson, Ind. He places one arm over the front seat of the car and starts talking about his prospects for the season. "I'd like to run the same kind of offense we had in Portland," he says. "And my aim is that we play .500 ball and make the playoffs." That's a lofty goal, considering that the Pacers have had a losing record all four seasons that they've been in the NBA.

After about an hour the car pulls into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. Moments later McKinney is striding through the lobby and into a small banquet room, unnoticed and unrecognized. Finally, the program chairman of the Anderson Noon Exchange Club greets him and directs him to a long buffet table laden with salads, fruit, chicken and beef stew. McKinney passes through the line without saying a word and without taking much food. He settles into a seat on the dais, and picks at a piece of chicken with his fork. He doesn't talk to any of the other people at the head table. He seems distracted, bored, out of his element. At last he's introduced to the audience of about 50. The applause is short but gracious.

"It's nice to be here," he begins. He pauses, chuckles to himself. "Then again, after coming from L.A., it's nice to be anywhere." He points randomly to his right. "Seriously, though, it's nice to be here. Why, I haven't seen old Buck Rice over there in 10 years—but I certainly remember the suit." A few more jokes follow, but it's obvious that he isn't comfortable. McKinney's business is coaching, not talking.

After giving a short rundown on the Pacers' prospects, he opens the floor to questions, and one man asks, "Why did you take the Pacer job?"

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