THE RISE & FALL OF JACK MC KINNEY : Since That Terrible Day in 1979 When He Took a Spill on His Bicycle, Life Has Turned into a Roller Coaster of Highs and Lows for the Ex-Laker, Ex-Pacer, Ex-King Coach and Current-King Scout

Times Staff Writer

'I was not mentally on top of things. I wasn't ready to make decicions and then this (being fired) was being pressed on me. My dream world was sort of shattered. I was out of a job and I had to think what to do. I had to think of my family.'

--JACK McKINNEY

Sue McKinney had received these phone calls before and she knew just what to do. She would be a good listener, she would offer consolation, she would give her best keep-your-chin-up speech. Later, she might cry.

It was Dad. And the news wasn't good.

"It's the same call I get whenever he gets fired," Sue says. "He calls up and says, 'I want you to know this before it gets into the newspapers.' "

Jack McKinney had called each of his four children that Sunday night in November. He had called his parents in New Jersey. He had called his in-laws. Covered all the bases, just as he'd done six months earlier when the Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Assn. had told him they would no longer need his services as coach.

He didn't want anyone close to him to learn the news the way he had when the Lakers fired him. His son, John, heard it on television and relayed the report to his stunned and astonished father. That, of course, was years ago.

This was different. There had been a press conference and now reporters were calling as well as a few friends, but McKinney didn't want to talk anymore. Tomorrow would be soon enough. He wanted that night only to be alone with his family, alone with his thoughts.

"It's no fun anymore," he told Sue. "It's too much pressure. I can't get through to the team. Maybe it's them, maybe it's me. But something is not clicking."

He wasn't fired this time. He had quit, and, in a way, that was even worse. Nine games into the Kansas City Kings' season, McKinney walked away from a four-year contract worth $500,000 and from a job that has fired his soul for 27 years.

Worst of all, there was no one to blame this time but himself. McKinney knew he had failed.

He thought he had hit bottom. He hadn't. That would happen a day later.

Yeah, he read about it in the papers.

In earlier days, in better days, Jack McKinney had said that he didn't want "to go to every league city and have there be a story based on the coach getting over a stupid bike ride."

That was during his first year with the Pacers, a season after the stupid bike ride had cost him his job with the Lakers and very nearly his life. McKinney took over a mediocre Pacers' team, coached it into the playoffs and, for his efforts, was named the NBA coach of the year. Life was good. He had every reason to believe the nightmare of the year before was over, a nightmare he had shared with the world. Everyone knew how, 17 days into his only season as Laker coach, on Nov. 8, 1979, he had fallen off his bike and lapsed into a coma only to wake up and find that Paul Westhead, his best friend, had taken his job.

But it was not over. The stupid bike ride will not go away. Even today, it follows him, it haunts him.

When McKinney walked away from the Kings, who had only won once in nine games, there was a story in the next day's Kansas City Times quoting unidentified players as saying that McKinney had lapses of memory and that he didn't always designate the play he meant to call. His ability as a coach was questioned. A larger question looms: Has McKinney ever completely recovered from that bizarre biking accident in Palos Verdes?

"Jack is identical to the way he was before the accident," said Jim Lynam, coach of the San Diego Clippers, who played for McKinney at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and is a close friend.

Kansas City General Manager Joe Axelson, who has hired McKinney back as a scout, sent an extraordinary, two-page letter to each of the NBA's general managers defending McKinney's memory as well as his ability to coach, saying the Kings' players "simply let him down by playing below the level of their abilities."

Players in Kansas City and Indiana tell a slightly different story. They talk of a coach who does have some memory lapses and of a coach who, by his own admission, has trouble remembering names. They also say that on occasion he has called a play the team no longer uses.

During a huddle near the end of his time with the Kings, McKinney told his players to run a play "the way we did against St. John's."

"He knew what the play was," said Kings' guard Don Buse, who had also played under McKinney at Indiana. "We had just come back from New York. That's the kind of mistake anyone can make. He made a couple of mistakes like that, but I think too much has been made of it. It didn't have anything to do with what happened. It didn't affect his coaching. His methods just weren't working.'

But even McKinney's daughter, Sue, says McKinney is not the same.

"He was always forgetful," Sue says. "But it has been worse since the accident. Sometimes he calls me Claire. That's my mother's name."

In fact, the stories of his pre-accident forgetfulness are semi-legendary. Someone was always finding McKinney's lost whistles, clipboards, shoes. There's a story about the time when as an assistant in Milwaukee he had left his raincoat in a bathroom in the Atlanta airport. It seems he came back months later, only to find the raincoat hanging just where he had left it.

"I've always had this problem with names," McKinney says. "I could never remember Mark Olberding's first name. I called him Hank. We used to laugh about it. I'd say, 'All right Hank, or whoever the hell you are, go out and do something.'

"A lot of people have this problem. If you had it, there would be no taint. But if I have this problem, the players, the public, the press think it's because I had a brain problem. I assume the accident has made it a little worse. But not remembering names has nothing to do with being a basketball coach."

The words come out slowly. McKinney speaks very deliberately. You can almost see him forming the words in his mind before they leave his mouth. Those who know him say he always spoke slowly, but maybe not quite as slowly.

It is not a subject, understandably, that McKinney is eager to discuss. "I'm tired of reading stories about poor little Jack," he says. But he is a man who finds it hard to say no, and he sits down with a reporter to tell the story of his basketball life.

He tells the story well. He does forget the occasional name, but he has no problem recalling the facts and how they have shaped his life. There seems to be nothing wrong with his mind; in fact, he is intelligent and lucid by any standard. He looks good, like a healthy, 49-year-old jogger, which is what he is. There are times during a three-hour interview when the painful memories seem to press at him, but for most of the time he is relaxed, even happy.

That's because he says his story has a happy ending, or at least a happy midpoint.

"Immediately afterward, I felt like a failure, wondering if I made the right decision," he says of his resignation. "I talked to myself--'It was the right decision because it was the decision you made. Don't look back. You've been through that.'

"I couldn't put the pieces together. I couldn't see the picture being formed. I started questioning myself. What's happening? Was it them or was it me? I knew I couldn't go through another season like that. I'd already been through two (disastrous seasons) with Indiana. . . . I knew it would bug me all year. Why not just release myself from all this pressure and let myself sleep at night?

"Now I feel relaxed. I feel like a burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. There is no more pressure. It just feels good."

Somebody once called Jack McKinney's life the kind Shakespeare wrote plays about, but there is an important difference. Life outside the theater goes on and on and on. The sadness doesn't end when the curtain falls, the blood is real and the pain burns a hole deep into your heart.

You do not forget.

Coaches may be hired to be fired, but the rule seems almost capricious in the way it has been applied to McKinney. As much as to Shakespeare, McKinney's life belongs to the theater of the absurd.

McKinney had been fired from his first job, as coach of his alma mater, St. Joe's. All he had ever wanted to be was the St. Joe's coach. He got the job after five years as an assistant, succeeding his idol and mentor, Jack Ramsay. McKinney's team won the conference title the year he was fired and he had been named the league's coach of the year. Students demonstrated for McKinney's return, but to no avail. And to this day, McKinney does not know why he was dismissed. Years later, the school would induct him into its hall of fame. Tuck this away for your basic definition of irony.

Ready to take a job in the business world, McKinney was rescued by the NBA. He became an assistant coach in Milwaukee, where he met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Then he joined Ramsay in Portland where the Trail Blazers won a championship. The Lakers thought a disciple of Ramsay might do the same for them.

The Lakers were extremely talented, but they had not thrived under Jerry West, who stepped aside after the 1979 season. In a watershed year, Jerry Buss bought the Lakers, Magic Johnson signed with the Lakers and Jack McKinney came on to coach the Lakers. Each deserves some of the credit for the Lakers' NBA title that season, but McKinney says that most of it should go to Magic.

There is a story, of course, to McKinney's hiring. The day before McKinney was supposed to leave for Italy to do a clinic, Bill Sharman called and said the Lakers wanted to talk to him about the coaching job. When Sharman learned of McKinney's plans, he said that would be perfect because Buss was also leaving for Europe. They could meet there.

As it turned out, Buss didn't go, and one week into a two-week clinic McKinney got another call from Sharman asking if he could rush home. He said he sure could. But he needed someone to do the second week of the clinic, so he called his pal, Paul Westhead, who was then coach at LaSalle.

"My wife was supposed to meet me in Paris, so I told Paul to bring his wife," McKinney says. "I got to the Milan airport at 10 a.m. for an 11:30 plane. Paul arrived at 10:30 and we talked about what he had to do at the camp. The good part of the story is that I went back and got the job. The bad part is that Paul went to Paris, with my reservations, my hotels, my trip."

McKinney laughs. "I haven't been to Paris yet."

Another story, told by a friend of McKinney: Buss told McKinney that after the season he'd give him a trip to Paris. The season ended just a little differently.

It ended for McKinney when he fell off that bike. The Lakers' record was 9-4 and the team was developing into a powerhouse. Westhead, McKinney's childhood friend whom he had picked to be his assistant, took over the team, using McKinney's system, and took the Lakers to the title.

No one knows exactly what happened to McKinney when he was riding the bike. One witness said he was going down a steep hill and that he lost control. McKinney doesn't remember. He was taken to the hospital, in a coma. He remembers almost nothing about the first month after the accident. He knew only that he wanted his job back and he wanted it back immediately.

"I didn't realize I wasn't capable of getting back," McKinney says. "Everyone told me, but I didn't believe them. The Lakers realized it. They kept telling me to wait a month or so. I was constantly bitter about not being able to get back my job."

He would sit, sometimes, and just stare. He did not understand how seriously he had been injured, how close he had come to dying.

"He wanted to coach before he could drive," Sue McKinney says. "He just wanted it so badly."

As the season continued and the Lakers grew better, McKinney had more difficulty dealing with life. And when Buss chose to go with Westhead instead of McKinney, it was a blow to McKinney not unlike the blow to his head. He couldn't face the depression alone and decided to consult a psychiatrist.

"My mind kept whirring," McKinney says. "I felt extreme dejection. I couldn't fathom how the Lakers could do that to me. I didn't see how they could do without me. Looking back, I don't think Paul did anything wrong (in taking the Lakers' job). Back at that time, I wasn't thinking rationally. All I was thinking was that poor little Jackie was hurt and it was everyone's fault.

"I was not mentally on top of things. I wasn't ready to make decisions and then this (being fired) was being pressed on me. My dream world was sort of shattered. I was out of a job and I had to think what to do. I had to think of my family. I had kids in college, kids in high school, and there wasn't any future for me at that point. I had a lot of questions to figure out and it was hard because I didn't have the rationality to do it."

He left Los Angeles for the New Jersey shore, where his parents were staying. Then Sam Nassi, who then owned the Pacers, called and offered him the coaching job. He was back. Everything would be all right. He would even be able to reconcile his feelings about Westhead.

But at a rookie camp, McKinney found that he had trouble catching the ball and that he could not do some of the things physically that he was used to doing. Depression set in again.

"I questioned whether I was ready," McKinney says. "I just didn't know how it would work out."

That's what life is all about, of course, this business of how it will come out in the end. Despite his apprehensions, McKinney did well that first year in Indiana, and all concerns about his fall seemed to have disappeared. But there were new problems. Nassi wanted to sell the Pacers, and he wasn't going to pump any money into them. Four starters were lost to free agency in two seasons, and the Pacers, who never had an All-Star in McKinney's four seasons, slid into the bottom reaches of the NBA standings.

"We'd take one step forward with a draft pick," says George Irvine, now the Pacers' coach and then McKinney's assistant. "And then we'd take two steps backward when we'd lose a veteran player. It was very frustrating."

Players slipped away and, in McKinney's last two seasons, the Pacers failed to win as many as 30 games. McKinney says he took the losing well enough. Others say that he began to withdraw, especially in the fourth season when new ownership came in and Irvine was elevated from assistant coach into the front office. A rift developed between the coach and his former assistant.

"I made a trade that Jack didn't like," Irvine says. "I traded Billy Knight, who he had wanted to trade. But when we made the trade, he thought that we weren't left with any veteran players. We just didn't see it the same way."

People began telling McKinney that Irvine was after his job. Irvine denies it was true, and McKinney says he never believed it anyway. But the relationship did become strained. Losing will do that.

"He was very positive in the first couple of years," says Indiana guard Jerry Sichting, who was there for all of McKinney's four seasons. "At the end, you could see how much it pained him. You could see it in his face. One game in Washington, he was lying down on the trainer's table after the game."

There were rumors in the papers that McKinney would not be asked back. He did not believe them.

"Jack is a trusting man," Lynam says. "He's the kind of person who believes things will work out for the best."

When the news came that he was fired, McKinney, against all evidence, was stunned.

"I've never sheltered myself against something like that," McKinney says. "I live in an optimistic dream world, thinking that everything will work out all right. When it happens, then I get jolted back into reality."

But then came another job. Kansas City called and McKinney came running. If he had any lapse of confidence after being fired, that was all gone. McKinney looked at the Kings as a team that had some pretty good players, a team that could win half its games.

It never worked. Some of the players objected to the way he was running his training camp. Some thought McKinney's offensive scheme too rigid.

"He did a lot of teaching," Olberding says. "We are a veteran team. We needed to get some work in to get in shape and he was talking philosophy. It just never jelled."

Says Don Buse: "There was something missing between him and the team."

As early as training camp, McKinney could tell it wasn't working. He tried everything he could--changing offenses, changing lineups--but the team was like a big mule that wouldn't be moved.

And the players started to notice his memory lapses.

"It was something we talked about," says Reggie Theus, who had said publicly he did not care for McKinney's offensive system. "But nobody had a problem with it. Some guys might joke about it. He joked about it, too. Sometimes we would act like nothing happened. But that wasn't what was wrong with the team. We just couldn't seem to put everything together. It was nothing against Jack.

"We were better than that. We knew it and he knew it. Everybody was frustrated."

No one was more frustrated than McKinney. He had never been through anything like it before. If he wasn't winning at Indiana, he told himself it was because the players weren't good enough to win with.

The Kings were a .500 team. Under Phil Johnson, who replaced McKinney, they are two games under .500. Under McKinney, they were 1-8.

Finally, McKinney went to Axelson and said he wanted to quit. Axelson said he should think about it, and McKinney did. He waited a few games, but there was no chance. What else could he do?

And yet, people everywhere who knew McKinney were shocked.

"He's so competitive," Irvine says. "He's so persistent. I could not believe that he'd resign. He just isn't that kind of individual."

Sichting said: "I was shocked. It just didn't seem like Jack."

Even Jim Lynam, who knows how the pressure of losing can make a man crack, didn't know that McKinney would.

"He told me he just couldn't go through it again," Lynam says.

And now?

"He doesn't know what he's going to do," Sue says.

What he did right away was get the entire family together for the first-ever midwinter ski trip to Colorado. It wouldn't be the worst thing if that became an annual event. On his first day off the job as coach and on the job as scout, he brought home a dozen roses for his wife.

He's off the burnout trail for now. Whether he'll want to coach again or whether anyone will want him to coach again cannot yet be known. McKinney says he is in no hurry to find out. "For the first time in 27 years as a coach, I had failed," McKinney says. "But I got over that quickly. I don't know how or why, but I did. I'm happy now. Maybe someday the coaching bug will bite me again. I don't know."

He smiles as he says the words. He's still in the business he loves, but the pressure is gone.

"I remember when I was an assistant coach," McKinney says. "You never got blamed for what went wrong, and if something went right, you might get a pat on the back. And, now being, a scout, you get to be near the game you love and you get to have dinner with your wife some nights. That's not that bad a way to live. "

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