CLIPPERS’ JIM LYNAM : The Pressure Is Always On : This Coach Has Johnson, Nixon, Walton and a Team Under .500

Times Staff Writer

There were 56 seconds left in a recent game between the Clippers and Denver Nuggets, and it didn’t seem that the Clippers could blow a 10-point lead in so short a time. They even had possession of the ball. But Coach Jim Lynam, who had watched his team lose its previous seven games, wasn’t accepting victory yet.

Lynam, as usual, stalked the sideline, yelling at his point guard to run the offense, and at the officials to call Denver for using a zone defense. As he watched the guard kick the ball out of bounds, Lynam turned toward the press table and unleashed a verbal barrage. It all was captured by a microphone being used by Clipper guard Norm Nixon, serving as a radio analyst while nursing an injury.

“Coach, loosen up your tie,” Nixon said, smiling. “Relax.”

Half an hour after the game, which the Clippers won despite their coach’s fretting, Lynam still hadn’t loosened his tie. An intense and driven man, Lynam rarely relaxes and savors a win. In the National Basketball Assn., there is always another opponent to prepare for, always another game in the next day or two.


“After most games, it’s hard to tell whether the team has won or lost by looking at Jimmy,” Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said. “That’s how intense he is.”

These days, the tie seems to be tightening around Lynam’s neck. The Clippers have been perplexingly inconsistent all season, losing five straight games in November, winning six straight in early December, and just recently losing seven straight. All told, it’s added up to a sub-.500 record from a team that had been expected to win at least half its games.

Naturally, when a team that features such quality players as Bill Walton, Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson is going bad, the coach takes much of the blame. Less than a month into the season, Lyle Spencer, then a columnist for the Herald Examiner, speculated about Lynam’s job status, and that sort of talk is revived every time the Clippers lose consecutive games. Lynam is in the last year of a two-year contract.

Before the Clippers broke their latest streak with the victory over Denver, Scheer fueled the speculation when he said: “Nothing’s forever, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make a coaching change. I’m not going to give Jimmy a vote of confidence because that’s the kiss of death, but I’m not pointing the finger at him, either.”

After the Clippers had won two straight, Scheer tempered his comments.

“I’ve never, in 15 years in basketball, encountered this type of season,” Scheer said. “It’s impossible to figure. Jimmy is the same coach today, after two straight wins, as he was last weekend after seven straight losses. Whether that’s lack of leadership by the front office, the coach or the team, I don’t know.”

One thing Scheer does know is that Lynam, 43, will work as hard, as long and as intensely as always to try to turn things around. In almost 20 years of coaching, on the collegiate level and most recently as an assistant and head coach in the NBA, Lynam has experienced few losing seasons.

Since playing for Portland Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, Lynam has held college assistant jobs at Fairfield in Connecticut and American University in Washington, D.C., and was head coach at St. Joseph’s for three seasons. In 1981, Lynam’s undermanned St. Joseph’s team upset DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Mideast Regionals.

He left St. Joseph’s to become Ramsay’s top assistant with the Trail Blazers. The Clippers hired him before the 1983-84 season to replace Paul Silas, but his record in just under a season and a half with the Clippers is 47-73.

“The pressure of the job goes with the turf,” Lynam said. “But what happens a lot of times is that people tend to look at things on the short term. If you’re going to do a good job, you do it over a stretch. In the NBA, you’re going to experience highs and lows. If we’re in a losing streak, I’m going to be frustrated at that time, but I know over 82 games you’re going to have that. You just try to have the team become consistent.”

It is consistent with Lynam’s personality that he approaches the current situation with a shrug of his shoulders. If the Clippers’ slow start is bothering Lynam, he doesn’t let it show. He appeared as intense during a recent two-hour lunch as he does on the court. He waves his hands to emphasize a point, and speaks in a fast, choppy tone with a distinct Philadelphia accent.

The oldest of 11 children in a strict Irish Catholic family, Lynam quickly developed an instinct for survival on the streets of southwest Philadelphia, described by Lynam as a blue-collar area in those days. His father was a foreman at a locomotive company. By the time he was 11, Lynam had jobs as a newspaper carrier and clerk at a grocery store. He also cut grass and even hung around the poolrooms.

“We weren’t well-off, but we certainly never wanted for anything,” Lynam said. “But like most large families, you became independent at an early age. Hey, you found a way to make a buck.”

One way Lynam found was by hustling some of the local bar patrons into wagers. Back in his teen-age years, Lynam was known as The Kid because of his slight build--he’s 5-feet 9-inches--and baby face. Lynam’s best friend was Herb Magee, now a basketball coach at Philadelphia Textile College. Back then, Magee was called The King.

They took advantage of Magee’s uncanny ability to spell and pronounce any word backward.

“I think Herb dramatizes what we did a little bit, but I won’t say it never happened,” Lynam said. “Not only could he spell backwards, but he could pronounce backwards, too. Any word. The longer the word, the easier it was. That’s what got a lot of guys. They’d give him words with several syllables, but those were the easiest for him. You’d be surprised the people we got to go for it.”

The adventures of The Kid and The King were only ways to amuse themselves when not participating in sports, though. More than anything else, sports occupied Lynam’s growing-up time. He tried all sports, but by the time he had reached eighth grade he had made the choice to play only basketball.

“Once I got my teeth into it, I forgot everything else,” Lynam said. “I liked it because you could practice by yourself. My dad put up a backboard on a telephone pole down the block, and I played night and day, literally. I enjoyed watching it, too. I’d go to all the old (Philadelphia) Warrior games.”

Lynam was a talented point guard and got several college scholarship offers. He chose St. Joe’s, as the Philadelphia folks call it, because it was close to home and because Ramsay was the coach. According to Lynam, Ramsay made the most of Lynam’s talents--ball-handling, passing, free-throw shooting--and made him a good player.

With Lynam at point guard, St. Joseph’s made it to the Final Four in Lynam’s sophomore year.

“He was a very good college player,” Ramsay said. “He was better than you might think. A typical coach on the floor. Fiery. Intense. That year we went to the Final Four, Jimmy made the all-tournament team along with John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas (both of Ohio State). I could tell from his playing days that he was going to be a coach.”

Strangely, though, Lynam didn’t plan to become coach. Always fascinated with numbers, Lynam wanted to be a math teacher.

Lynam needed a fifth year at St. Joseph’s to earn a degree in mathematics, however, and he wanted a part-time job to support himself and his wife, Kay. While Lynam was relaxing at the beach one day, a priest walked up and asked him to become the basketball coach at a suburban Catholic high school.

Lynam took the job, not knowing what to expect. But, as he says, it was a way to put money into your pocket. Lynam’s team went 19-1 his first season and, like a first-time gambler who hits the jackpot immediately, he got the fever.

“(It was) the worst thing that could’ve happened to me,” Lynam said. “I thought coaching was easy.”

After two years in the high school ranks, Lynam returned to St. Joseph’s as Ramsay’s freshman coach and recruiter. After three seasons there, he began a coaching odyssey that included stops at Fairfield, back to St. Joseph’s as an assistant to Jack McKinney, on to American University and then back to St. Joseph’s as head coach before rejoining Ramsay at Portland in 1981.

Lynam appeared to be following the same course taken by McKinney and Paul Westhead, who went from college to professional coaching after serving under Ramsay. Without question, I’ve learned more from Jack than any other coach around,” Lynam said. “Jack was very good at giving me room and freedom to help coach the Blazers. He was very open to my suggestions. That kind of helped me get into position to become a head coach. It wasn’t a cold turkey thing.”

Lynam said the only real adjustment he had to make, going from being a head coach in college to an assistant in the NBA, was leaving his oldest daughter, Kathy, behind in Philadelphia so that she could finish her senior year in high school. Two years later, when Lynam took the Clipper job, he left another daughter, Denise, in Portland to finish her senior year of school.

That has sort of become a family joke that is current all over again. Lynam is in the final year of his two-year Clipper contract, and his son, Jim III, is a junior in high school in Manhattan Beach. This time, however, there is no guarantee that Lynam will even finish the season.

Publicly, at least, Clipper players stand by their coach. Derek Smith, a starting guard and the team’s leading scorer, was picked off the waiver list by Lynam last season. He says that Lynam saved his career.

“What’s important to me is his patience and willingness to teach the game,” Smith said. “A lot of people forget that you still need to learn when you get to the pros. He teaches me more than what I learned in college. He also simplifies things for you. He tells you exactly what he expects from you.

“You can’t blame Coach Lynam for what we’ve done. You can’t fault him for Marques’ injuries (a broken finger and a strained hamstring), can’t fault him for my broken finger (in the exhibition season) and for Bill Walton’s tendinitis in his ankle. And you can’t blame him for games like the one in Kansas City, where we forget how to play ball for a stretch.”

Even so, there are grumblings about Lynam’s insistence on using a set offense and minimizing fast breaks. Johnson, Nixon, Walton, Junior Bridgeman and others have said they would like to play a more wide-open game.

Lynam said: “I like to fast break, too, but to do that, you’ve got to get the defensive rebounds and play good defense. I was not comfortable, until recently, with letting Marques be Marques--that is, let him play his game. I mean, you want Marques to be Marques, Junior to be Junior and Walton to be Walton. I mean, you want them to be individual, but you want to run the pattern, too.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Lynam is in control of the Clippers, a team with varied personalities and several stars. He feels confident enough in his position to yell at superstars. During a loss last month in San Antonio, Lynam exploded at Johnson during a timeout, and Johnson stalked out of the huddle, although they have since worked out their differences. The other day at practice, Lynam yelled at, then fined, rookie guard Lancaster Gordon for trying a flashy slam dunk during a scrimmage.

“If someone’s not doing what they should, whether it be Marques or Jay Murphy, I’m going to deal with it,” Lynam said. “Whether they like it or not, I’m going to deal with it.”

Said reserve guard Bryan Warrick, who played for Lynam at St. Joseph’s: “He has always been that way. He relaxes more in the off-season, but you can’t tell it.”

Although life for Lynam may seem to be made up of nothing more than wins and losses, there really is more. Lynam says he escapes the rigors of coaching by playing tennis, running and riding a bicycle.

Scheer said that while he was in the locker room an hour before a recent game, he saw Lynam take a break from his game preparation to telephone his daughter at UCLA.

“It impressed me that he took time out to think about his family that close to a game,” Scheer said.

What Scheer probably didn’t realize was that father and daughter were talking about the family’s favorite subject: basketball.