The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s are undoubtedly one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Behind Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Pat Riley they made nine NBA finals and won 5 of them. Their epic battles with the Larry Bird lead Celtics established what a rivalry should be, and they helped usher in the NBA to it’s glory days.
But what if I told you that the brand of basketball synonymous with that era and the Lakers themselves was not put in place by Pat Riley? What if I told you that this whole era got started by a man that NBA history has largely forgotten, and who coached the Lakers for just 14 games? You’d say I was crazy, right? Well, it’s the truth.
The 1970s Lakers were a rollercoaster. They had the star power that is always associated with the Lakers, they had names like Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, but they never dominated the decade. They were just one of the many teams that won NBA championships during that era. The late 70s in particular were a difficult era for the team. From 1975 to 1977 they did not make the playoffs in the beleaguered west, and they had no star.
Everything began to change in 1976 when they acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks. The next season the team lost star, Gail Goodrich, to the New Orleans Jazz. At first, this move does not seem important, Goodrich was an aging star and if you looked at his numbers with the Jazz he did not contribute much and the team saw success. But this was an era when teams losing free agents had to be compensated for their loss. The Lakers were originally going to get the Jazz first-round pick in 1978, but the team wanted the cheap talent and instead opted to give the Lakers their first-round pick in 1979.
The decision to give the Lakers their 1979 pick instead of their 1978 pick turned out to be disastrous for the Jazz. The 1977-78 Jazz were not a bad team and had it not been for injuries to Pete Maravich they would have likely made the playoffs. The 1978-79 Jazz were a disaster finishing with the worst record in the league and before the season ended they announced that they would be leaving the swampy bayou’s of Louisiana for the snow-covered mountains of Utah.
As the Jazz was packing up the Lakers were getting their first-round pick. The Jazz had been so bad in their last season in New Orleans that they got the #1 pick. That #1 pick got conveyed to the Lakers who used it to select Michigan State product, Magic Johnson.
At the end of the 1978-79 season, the Lakers reassigned head coach Jerry West to an office role. West’s first move as head coach was to hire Portland Trailblazers assistant coach Jack McKinney as head coach. The move was welcomed by center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who did not like West’s tempo and play calls. He had also worked with McKinney when McKinney was an assistant coach with the Bucks.
McKinney wanted to bring a more up tempo pace to the game, this sentiment was shared by the Lakers new owner Jerry Buss. So the Lakers began adding pieces to help establish this type of tempo.
Johnson who had played all five positions at Michigan State was slated to play point guard, even though the Lakers had All-star Norm Nixon at point guard. They would star Nixon in the backcourt with Johnson giving them two great ball handlers. The Lakers then swung a blockbuster trade with the now Utah Jazz, where the Lakers sent forward Adrian Dantley to the Jazz in exchange for Spencer Haywood.
Having Johnson, Nixon, and Jamal Wilkes in the backcourt gave the Lakers a lot of versatility, as did having agile big-men Haywood and Abdul-Jabbar in the frontcourt. This combination was hard for other teams to match.
Early on though it did seem like Showtime may never get off the ground. The Lakers struggled in the preseason and in their first game against the San Diego Clippers they fell down by 20 points. But Show-time basketball showed that it could be a useful tool in overcoming deficits. Johnson got more comfortable as the game went on and was able to lead the team back for their first victory of the season.
Even with the early struggles, McKinney was adamant that his system would work. The Lakers started the season just 2-2 and scored over 110 points just once – hardly a face-paced offense. But as the games went on and Johnson got more familiar with the systems things began to change. Wins began piling up and the players looked better in the system.
But when things started to look good for the Lakers tragedy hit. On November 8, McKinney was riding his bike when he had an accident and hit his head. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors did not think he would survive. While the Lakers waited Paul Westhead was named interim head coach.
McKinney would persevere and survive, but he could not return to the coach. While he was recovering Westhead was taking the Lakers to new heights using McKinney’s system.
The Lakers would finish with the top spot in the west with a record of 60-22. Showtime had proven to be a success and the style had brought a lot of positive attention to the league, which is something the NBA desperately needed. The Lakers would go on to the NBA finals and win their first of 5 NBA titles of the 1980s.
The Lakers, worried about McKinney’s mental faculties, and prompted by the success of the Lakers under Westhead, decided to fire Jack McKinney on May 13, 1980. When the Lakers fired McKinney they lead the Philadelphia 76ers 2-games-to-1 in their best of 7 NBA finals series. This marks the only time an NBA coach has been fired while his team is still in the NBA playoffs.
The Lakers would of course go on to bigger and better things, but Westhead too was fired early in the 1982-83 season and replaced by Pat Riley. Riley would guide the Lakers to 4 more NBA titles and would take Showtime basketball to the level that we are all familiar with.
McKinney would get another shot at the NBA the following season. He was hired as the head coach of the Indiana Pacers. He tried establishing a system similar to showtime in Indiana but lacked the personality to match the Lakers. Still, he managed to lead the Pacers to a 44-38 record and won NBA coach of the year. That would be the high point of McKenny’s coaching career, the Pacers would struggle the next four seasons and he was fired after the 1984 season. He would get one more opportunity with the Kansas City Kings, but after a 1 and 8 start was let go. He would never coach in the NBA again.
Many early showtime Lakers credit McKinney for establishing the showtime system. Pat Riley, who was the third assistant on McKinney’s bench once said “Jack would have won 5 or 6 titles had it not been for his accident.”
How different would the NBA had been had McKinney not had the accident and won the 5 or 6 titles as Riley said. Would Riley have ever gotten an opportunity to coach, and later become a GM and build the Miami Heat dynasties? Would the Lakers-Celtics rivalry be as bitter and competitive?