Last Friday night
Jack McKinney, 45, officially began his comeback as a pro basketball coach,
when the Indiana Pacers opened their 1980-81 schedule with a 110-91 victory
over the New Jersey Nets. Eleven months ago, while riding his son's bicycle,
McKinney was the victim of a freak accident that dramatically changed—and very
nearly ended—his life. His ordeal was made even more trying by the events that
followed—a tangle of broken promises, broken friendships and broken hearts. And
now, with everyone in the NBA looking over his shoulder, he's trying to put his
career and his life back together again.
could not have occurred at a more inopportune moment for McKinney. After 22
years as a coach in high school and college and as a pro assistant, McKinney
had, on July 30, 1979, reached the zenith of his profession. He had been hired
as a head coach in the NBA. Not only that, but as the boss of the prestigious
and glamorous Los Angeles Lakers he had easily the most coveted job in the
league. McKinney was living a dream, making the big bucks and the even bigger
contacts that could've been so lucrative in ensuing years. Before last season
began, his life could not have been sweeter or more exhilarating.
There were more
than personal reasons for McKinney's sense of satisfaction. First and foremost
was the big guy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had helped McKinney land the L.A. job
and who appeared to have recaptured his zest for the game. There was Magic
Johnson, a flamboyant and loosey-goosey rookie whose infectious winning
attitude is a rare commodity in the pros. And there were Jim Chones, whom
McKinney had fought to acquire; Mike Cooper, who had impressed McKinney with
his play in a summer league; and talented veterans, like playmaker Norm Nixon
and high-scoring Forward Jamaal Wilkes. Not only was the talent there, but it
seemed to mesh in just the right way; the "chemistry" was right. In
last fall's exhibition games, McKinney's Lakers exhibited the discipline, the
professionalism, the poise and the hustle so notably absent on Los Angeles
teams of recent years. After the Lakers won nine of their first 13
regular-season games, observers concluded that McKinney had laid a solid
foundation for bringing the NBA championship to Los Angeles and for bringing
new distinction to his own career.
But then, on Nov.
8, the sweetness ended. Because it was a day off for the Lakers, Paul Westhead,
McKinney's closest friend and handpicked assistant coach, called to see if
McKinney wanted to play tennis. McKinney did. But since his wife, Claire, had
the car, McKinney, who is 6'2", 190 pounds, grabbed his son's bike and
began pedaling through Palos Verdes to the courts at Westhead's
He proceeded down
a steep hill, gradually gaining momentum. Approaching the intersection of
Whitley Collins Drive and Stonecrest Road, he applied the brakes softly, just a
tap to slow down. But for some reason the bike stopped abruptly, sending
McKinney flying over the handlebars and crashing to the concrete, headfirst,
face down, his body skidding along the street like a tossed stone along the
surface of a pond. An ambulance attendant took one look at the bloodstained and
unconscious man on the pavement and whispered to a companion, "No way.
There's just no way this guy's going to make it."
lifted into the ambulance, which had been called to the scene by a passing
motorist, and rushed to Little Company of Mary Hospital. He was placed in
intensive care and later diagnosed as suffering severe head injuries, a facial
fracture and a fractured elbow.
condition was so grave that, as his father, Paul, puts it, "Any moment
could have been his last." Only members of his family were allowed to
visit; as far as the McKinneys were concerned, that group included Westhead.
Claire told doctors that the 41-year-old Westhead was "Jack's brother,"
and Westhead said at the time, "Claire isn't that far off. Jack has been
like a brother to me."
After three weeks
McKinney had improved enough to go home, but his mental faculties were
diminished, his reflexes impaired, his balance unsteady. His recovery was slow
and frustrating. At times the pain was severe. He underwent intense
physical-therapy sessions. He also decided to sue the manufacturer of the
bicycle for unspecified compensatory damages because McKinney contends that the
bicycle was defective.
gone, Westhead, who had never coached a pro team before that season, saw to it
that the Lakers stuck to McKinney's system. By the end of January, McKinney
felt ready to resume control, but he says that owner Jerry Buss "thought it
best that I wait. Buss had a plan worked out to resolve the delicate matter of
who would be coach, and I thought it a good and fair one." McKinney began
scouting for the Lakers. Westhead, when questioned by reporters, would reply,
"I'm only watching the plants while the real owner is on vacation." He
watched them well: L.A. went on to win the NBA championship.
McKinney may have
been discouraged by not coaching, but at least Buss had eased his fears about
his job being in jeopardy. Or so he thought. But there was strong feeling that
McKinney's dismissal was only a matter of time. As the season wore down, the
Lakers appeared to be phasing him out. It seems likely that Westhead knew, or
at least strongly suspected, that he had the job.