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What really happened to Jack McKinney?

McKinney had a bicycle accident after his brakes locked when he was nearing a stop sign. McKinney’s head hit the concrete, giving him a concussion and putting him into a three-day coma. This event dramatically changed the course of his leadership of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jack McKinney was one of the best assistants in the NBA in the 1970s, winning a title with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977. McKinney was brilliant at producing an exciting offence and it caught the attention of Jerry Buss who had recently purchased the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Buss appointed McKinney as coach for the 1979-80 season, as he wanted a great offensive mind to work with towering centre Kareem Abdul Jabbar and first overall pick Magic Johnson. After 13 games, it was going well for McKinney as the Lakers sat at 9-4 despite Johnson playing point guard when many thought he would need to be a forward at the Pro level.

On November 8th 1979, McKinney was cycling to go to meet his Lakers assistant Paul Westhead. During this bike ride, his brakes locked as he was approaching a stop sign. Going over on his bike, McKinney badly hit his head on the pavement. 

After hitting the pavement, McKinney sustained a very bad concussion as well as being in a three-day coma. The injuries were life-threatening and incredibly serious. When he was at the hospital, McKinney was diagnosed with severe head injuries, a facial fracture and a fractured elbow. Thankfully, McKinney would survive and eventually recover from his injuries. 

During his recovery, McKinney’s assistant Paul Westhead would be named as the Lakers interim head coach, the same assistant McKinney had been cycling to when he sustained the injuries. 

It was originally thought that McKinney would return as head coach of the Lakers after recovering from his injury. But Westhead’s Lakers were performing very well and there were worries about whether McKinney’s mental facilities would completely return. So instead, Westhead was installed as permanent head coach and McKinney was fired

Where did Jack McKinney coach after the Los Angeles Lakers? 

After his time with the Lakers came to an abrupt end, McKinney was recommended to the Indiana Pacers on the word of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who supposedly felt guilty about firing McKinney after his head injuries. 

McKinney was hired by Buss’ business partner and owner of the Pacers Frank Mariani. There were not massive expectations for the Pacers, as they had not made the playoffs since joining the NBA in 1976. 

But with McKinney organising an offence where seven players averaged more than 10 points per game, the Pacers finished in the playoff places for the first time in their NBA history. It was such an impressive feat that McKinney was awarded Coach of the Year, with the Pacers winning seven more games than the previous season. 

He would remain in Indiana for three more seasons but failed to reach the playoffs again, coming close the next season. After a dismal 26-56 season, McKinney was fired as the head coach. 

McKinney would have a short spell as the head coach of the Kansas City Kings but resigned from the position after just nine games in charge. During his time with Kansas City, McKinney was struggling with his memory stemming from the cycling accident, as well as losing his passion for coaching. 

McKinney would never return to basketball coaching despite getting various offers after leaving the Kings. After coaching, McKinney would move back to his native Pennsylvania where he worked as a sales representative as well as occasionally doing analysis for the broadcast of Philadelphia 76ers games. 

Why is Jack McKinney considered a “What If”

What If moments in sports captivate fans and bring some incredible ideas of what reality could look like if there were the smallest of changes in history. McKinney is considered a what-if after his coaching career was derailed because of the cycling injury. 

When McKinney had his accident in 1979, the Lakers were sitting in a good position at 9-4 after the first 13 games of the season, despite the team most recently coming off the back of a loss to the Golden State Warriors. McKinney had integrated first overall pick Magic Johnson into the team very well. 

Johnson was the focal point of McKinney’s fast-paced offence that had seen him become so successful as an NBA assistant to teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers. After the cycling accident, McKinney never had the same success as a coach, while the Lakers launched a dynasty. 

When you think of the head coach of the Showtime Lakers, you think of Pat Riley who guided the team to four of their five titles. You might even think of Paul Westhead who was the coach when the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals, having taken over from McKinney after his cycling accident. 

The thing that both of these coaches have in common is that they both used the fast-paced offence that McKinney had installed when he was head coach. Pat Riley was seen as a tactical genius and the Laker’s offence was pretty much unstoppable in the 1980s and it was down to McKinney. 

It is why former Lakers guard at the time Norm Nixon credits McKinney with the creation of the Showtime Lakers. Riley said similar things, that McKinney could have won five or six titles with the Lakers if it was not for his accident. McKinney could have had a career similar to Riley’s incredible coaching career. 

We saw that McKinney was a good coach after he left the Lakers when he took the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs for the first time in their NBA history, being awarded Coach of the Year. McKinney gave up basketball coaching all together just four years after his accident, partly because he was still struggling with his memory after the crash. 

If it was not for a cycling crash, Jack McKinney could have been considered one of the best head coaches in the history of the NBA and the orchestrator of the Showtime Lakers.