Obituaries

Jack McKinney, who got Laker dynasty off and running, dies at 83

Mr. McKinney, flanked by Brad Holland and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coached the Lakers briefly in 1979.
NICK UT/Associated Press/file 1979
Mr. McKinney, flanked by Brad Holland and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coached the Lakers briefly in 1979.

NEW YORK — Jack McKinney, who brought the up-tempo style of play that came to be known as Showtime to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 but lasted only 13 games as their coach after a bicycle accident put him in a coma, led to his firing, and left a haunting “what if” over his career, died Tuesday at a hospice in Bonita Springs, Fla. He was 83.

His daughter, Susan McKinney, said the cause was complications of the brain injury.

The 1979-80 season was one of transformation for the Lakers. They had a new owner, Jerry Buss, who wanted his team to be flashy and entertaining. In his heralded rookie point guard, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Buss believed he had his floor leader for the future.

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Mr. McKinney had never been a head coach in the NBA and was not a high-profile candidate for the Lakers job. He had been an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Portland Trail Blazers when they won the 1976-77 NBA championship.

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With the Lakers he had a roster filled with talent, including Johnson, who almost immediately became a superstar; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the center who would score the most points in NBA history; and the guard Norm Nixon.

“Jack was all about utilizing the speed and quickness of the guard play, and Kareem was right with it as well,” Brad Holland, a rookie guard on the Lakers that season, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “And Magic came in and just really revolutionized the game.”

On Nov. 8, 1979, with the Lakers at 9-4 in their young season, Mr. McKinney was riding his bicycle in the Palos Verdes neighborhood of Los Angeles to play tennis with Paul Westhead, his friend and Lakers assistant coach.

Approaching a stop sign, the gears on his bicycle locked; Mr. McKinney flew over the handlebars, and his head smashed into the pavement, causing a serious concussion. He was in a coma for three days. While he was recovering, Buss named Westhead the interim coach.

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Westhead went on to lead the Lakers to a 60-22 record and the NBA championship, a season of glory that featured Johnson as the team’s main attraction. Westhead’s reward was Mr. McKinney’s job.

Tantalizing questions lingered about Mr. McKinney’s career. If not for the injury, would he have won the 1980 championship that Westhead did? Would Mr. McKinney have led the Lakers to subsequent titles, as Pat Riley did, and be universally acclaimed as the architect of Showtime?

“If he hadn’t had the accident,” Riley told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ’80s.”

Mr. McKinney felt that his short tenure with the Lakers precluded him from having a part in the franchise’s folklore.

“I just put in some ideas that were accepted, and the rest was up to Paul and Pat and some great players,” he said.

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Mr. McKinney soon returned to the sidelines for the 1980-81 season as head coach of the Indiana Pacers and was voted Coach of the Year. But the Pacers declined over the next three seasons, and he was fired in 1984. The Kansas City Kings (now the Sacramento Kings) quickly hired him, but he lasted only nine games, eight of them losses. Players told the local media that Mr. McKinney had had memory lapses while coaching.

“I think the effects of the head injury made it too stressful — he had so many balls in the air as a coach — and it became too much,” his wife, Claire (Cranny) McKinney, said by telephone. “He came home one day and said, ‘I’m going to retire but don’t tell anyone.’ ”

He left coaching and worked for a company selling sportswear to Philadelphia’s professional teams and running coaching clinics around the world. He spent the 1993 season as a Philadelphia 76ers television analyst.

John Paul McKinney was born July 13, 1935, in Chester, Pa. His father, Paul, was a police detective, and his mother, Jen McMahon, was a homemaker.

At St. James High School, he played basketball under coach Jack Ramsay, a future NBA head coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “To me he’s a great teacher of life, particularly of how to get along with people,” Mr. McKinney told Sports Illustrated in 1982. “He always looked upon that as being the most important requisite for being a successful coach.”

Ramsay also coached Mr. McKinney at Saint Joseph’s University, later recommended that Mr. McKinney take the coaching job at St. James after his college graduation, and then invited Mr. McKinney to be his assistant with the Saint Joseph’s Hawks.

Mr. McKinney succeeded Ramsay as the Saint Joseph’s coach, compiling a 144-77 record over eight seasons and leading the team to four NCAA men’s tournament appearances.

He was fired in 1974 following a first-round loss in the tournament, prompting a protest by nearly 1,000 students.

He was hired by the Bucks a few months later as an assistant to coach Larry Costello.

After two seasons, Mr. McKinney joined Ramsay with the Trail Blazers as an assistant for three seasons.

“He was happiest at Portland,” his wife said. “When you’re winning a championship everything is good, and he felt valued working with Jack.”

In addition to Claire McKinney and his daughter Susan, he leaves another daughter, Ann McKinney Holtbe; two sons, John and Dennis; and eight grandchildren.