The name hangs there; awkwardly suspended as if attached to the string of a balloon. I am looking at Jack McKinney. Jack McKinney is looking at me. It is a warm February day in Naples, Florida. We are on an enclosed patio. Small glasses of ice water have been served. The wind whistles in the background.
I am the journalist, here to interview the greatest NBA coach 999 of 1,000 basketball fans have never heard of. Jack McKinney is here to answer my questions. And yet, he can’t. The replies start, then stutter, then stop, then start again. The thoughts seem on point, turn left, hit a traffic circle and wind up somewhere in Bethesda. There are, he insists, wonderful basketball memories circulating throughout his 77-year-old brain; joyful tales of his eight years as the head coach at St. Joseph’s University; tender moments with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton and …
“What’s your name again?” McKinney suddenly says, his eyes gazing downward.
“Jeff,” I say. “Jeff Pearlman”
“That’s right. I wrote your name down five different times before you came here. It’s embarrassing, the way my memory …”
From the next room, his wife Claire speaks up. “No sob stories, Jack!” she says.
With that, Jack McKinney refocuses. He looks at me, rubs his chin. “What were we talking about?” he asks.
“Spencer Haywood,” I say. “You coached him …”
“I coached Spencer Haywood?”
On the table, I have placed a manila folder. It is labeled JACK MCKINNEY in brown marker. Inside are photocopies of 30 or so articles, chronicling the rise and fall of the man who, in the summer of 1979, was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers to coach a team that featured Abdul-Jabbar, the six-time NBA MVP, Haywood, a four-time NBA All-Star, as well as a rookie point guard from Michigan State named Earvin (Magic) Johnson. The clippings tell the story of a 44-year-old basketball lifer finally getting his shot. “He created Showtime,” said Norm Nixon, Los Angeles’ All-Star guard. “That should never be forgotten. Jack McKinney created Showtime.”
Yet now, as we sit here on a patio, sipping ice water to dull the awkwardness, the man who created Showtime barely remembers creating Showtime. The Lakers jumped out to a 9-4 start that season, and fans loved the way his team played. The Lakers were neon lights along the Sunset Strip. Johnson and Nixon formed perhaps the fastest backcourt in NBA history. Haywood seemed revived and Abdul-Jabbar, the standoffish icon, was smiling and laughing.
Back in the day, when the NBA was still relatively bare-boned, teams employed one head coach and one assistant. McKinney’s sidekick was Paul Westhead, another young Philadelphia guy who played for his boss at St. Joseph’s.
On the morning of November 8, 1979, the phone in McKinney’s Palos Verdes home rang. This was the Lakers’ first off day of the young season, and Westhead was itching for some time on the nearby clay court. It was 9:30 am, and the call woke McKinney from his sleep.
“Want to play some tennis?” Westhead asked.
“I’ve got the court for two hours,” Westhead said. “We can play singles at 10, maybe dome doubles with the girls at 11.”
“OK,” he said. “Give me a chance to get some coffee. I can be there in a half hour.”
McKinney showered and drank his morning joe. When he entered the garage, McKinney found that Claire had taken their one car. Leaning against the wall, however, was his son John’s red-and-white Schwinn Le Tour II.
Sure, it’d been a while since Jack McKinney had ridden a bike. But he certainly knew how. “Of course I did,” he says. “Of course …”
The name is stated again, only this time with more confidence. “I coached him in Milwaukee, right?”
“No,” I say. “With the Lakers.”
McKinney glances at me, initially puzzled, then dejected. He knows I am here in my quest to tell the story of the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers; a story that, were it not for a day off and a tennis game and a vacant garage and a wobbly bicycle and awful luck, would feature Jack McKinney as a star, not merely a small-ish name halfway through the credits. That’s what haunts everyone who knows and loves the man. Not the accident, per se, but what could have been had the accident never occurred. If—on the morning of November 8, 1979—Jack McKinney decides to ignore the phone; or opts to sleep in, or jogs the 1 ½ miles, is Paul Westhead known as one of the godfathers of fast-break basketball and the famed guru who ran Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble to 160-point games at Loyola Marymount? Is Pat Riley an eight-time NBA champion and multi-millionaire pitchman?
Is Jack McKinney universally acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association?
“I have no doubt that he would be,” said Nixon. “No doubt whatsoever.”
As we sit here, still talking, still sipping water, McKinney glances through the folder, searching for faded memories and long-lost sparks. He would coach again, hired by the Indiana Pacers at the behest of a guilt-ravaged Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner. Yet despite being named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1980-81, he was never the same. Members of the Pacers took the unprecedented step of writing their names in black marker along the front of their shorts so their coach wouldn’t get confused. Later, in a game during his final coaching stint, with Kansas City, several Kings players told the media that, during a timeout, McKinney characterized a play as one “just like we did against St. John’s”—a reference to the New York City school he coached against while at St. Joseph’s.
Ultimately, McKinney left the NBA altogether, devoting the remainder of his working days to selling sporting goods. He watched the NBA from time to rime, but the pain of what could (and should) have been far outweighed any moments of joy. McKinney is not a bitter man, but he is human. “Life isn’t always fair,” he says. “I’m OK with how everything has turned out. I’m loved. But, well, it’s not always fair …”
In his apartment, there is only a single hint that he ever coached the Lakers—a crystal wife carafe with LAKERS etched along the side. Occasionally Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, will leave McKinney tickets for a game. “He always says, ‘This is the guy who made my career possible,’” McKinney says. “’This is the guy.’”
There is a long pause. A long, lengthy, painful, awkward, ugly pause. I want to ask Jack McKinney so many things but, come the end of our interview, I simply shake his hand and thank him for the time.
Before me is the man most responsible for the birth of the Showtime era of professional basketball.
If only he could remember it.
Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s
by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeff Pearlman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.