Times Staff Writer

Consider this dream sequence:

As the final buzzer sounded ending the 2006 NBA Finals, Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal held the ball high above his head in triumph as his teammates mobbed him near midcourt at Staples Center.

O’Neal gave a grudging hug to teammate Kobe Bryant, and a sincere embrace to his coach, Paul Westhead, but reserved his warmest greeting for the basketball legend emerging from the stands, General Manager Jack McKinney, a winner of six NBA titles as a head coach and now enjoying his third title as the Lakers’ front-office guru.

It was McKinney, the creative force behind ‘80s Showtime, who had persuaded O’Neal and Bryant that they could coexist in a system that would produce greater glory. It was nothing new for McKinney, who had done the same thing decades earlier with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.


O’Neal and McKinney got in only a few words of congratulation before they were pried apart from the microphone by Pat Riley, who has amassed an impressive resume as a broadcaster in the three decades since his playing career ended.

That scene may be seem to come from some alternate basketball universe, a bizarre fantasy league or perhaps a video game programmed by a frustrated Lakers fan. But it’s a look at what might have been if only ...

If Nov. 8, 1979 had not been the Lakers’ first day off in McKinney’s first season as their head coach; if Westhead, then his assistant, had not asked McKinney to play tennis at their Palos Verdes condos; if Claire McKinney, Jack’s wife, had not already taken their car that morning to go to a class with Cassie Westhead, Paul’s wife; if McKinney had not hopped on his son’s bike; if McKinney had worn a helmet; if the bike’s gears had not given out; if he hadn’t been riding down a hill at the time....

That’s a lot of ifs, a lot of circumstances that came together to create a horrific moment in McKinney’s life, a moment that forever changed his fortunes, those of his family, Westhead, Riley, the Lakers and the NBA in general.

As Riley prepares to defend the 2006 NBA title won by the Heat, his fifth championship and Miami’s first, he knows all too well that he might have completely missed his legendary coaching career had it not been for McKinney’s bicycle accident. And he wouldn’t have been there to bring O’Neal to Miami.

Decades ago, Riley was content as Chick Hearn’s broadcasting sidekick for the Lakers until Westhead, who replaced McKinney, asked Riley to be his assistant. Then Westhead was fired and Riley became the head coach.


“I didn’t even plan on being an assistant coach,” Riley said. “Before I knew it, I was coach. And the rest is history.”

Some of the NBA’s most memorable history.

“[McKinney] was a great coach,” Riley said. “We used his system for three or four years after he left. If he hadn’t had the accident, he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ‘80s.”

Today, about 100 miles away from Riley and the Heat, on the other side of Florida, McKinney, now 71, and living in a gated community in Naples, concedes he still thinks about what might have been.

“Of course I have to wonder how long I would have gone on with the Lakers, if I’d still be coaching,” he said in a soft voice, “but I’ve learned to accept it and finally found peace of mind.”


Before joining the Lakers, McKinney had been head coach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and a pro assistant with Milwaukee and Portland. Then McKinney left the Trail Blazers to become head coach of the Lakers for the 1979-80 season with a starting salary of $120,000.

McKinney quickly designed a system he felt would take advantage of both Abdul-Jabbar’s inside game, which included the deadly sky hook, and a fastbreak offense that could be ignited by rookie Magic Johnson’s razzle-dazzle style. And the players bought into it.


At one preseason practice in Palm Desert, Abdul-Jabbar was struggling with his passes, the balls sailing over his intended targets.

“This place is starting to look like LAX,” McKinney said.

The gym became quiet.

“I thought we almost had a new coach right there,” guard Norm Nixon later told McKinney. “Nobody ever talked to Kareem like that before.”

McKinney’s innovative approach yielded immediate results. The first signs of a style that would become known as Showtime were evident as the Lakers moved out to a 9-4 start.

It would end there for McKinney, end the next morning at the bottom of a hill with his body sailing over the handlebars of the malfunctioning bike. He landed headfirst on the pavement and slid another 12 to 18 feet before coming to a sickening stop, a pool of blood quickly forming under his head.

When paramedics found McKinney, they weren’t sure he’d live. He had a severe concussion and a fractured cheekbone along with a fractured elbow and various cuts and bruises.

He remained in a coma, his wife living at his bedside.

When he awoke and she placed a newspaper article about the accident in front of him, McKinney asked, “Is this me they are talking about?”


Westhead was named interim Lakers coach and he asked Riley to join him on the bench. Riley hesitated. After a nine-year playing career, he was enjoying the game from behind the microphone, and he assumed McKinney’s absence would be brief. It was Hearn who convinced Riley to make the leap, guaranteeing him his announcing job would still be there.

“I wanted to make sure I had a job,” Riley said. “Once Jack came back, Paul would slide back into the assistant’s job. You didn’t have 97 assistant coaches back then. Just one full time.”

It soon became obvious McKinney’s recovery was going to be slow. When McKinney attended a Lakers game at the Forum later in the season, owner Jerry Buss approached him and inquired about his health. McKinney didn’t answer. He didn’t recognize his boss.

While McKinney struggled to regain his faculties, the team he had assembled flourished, going all the way to the championship under Westhead.

Still uncertain about McKinney’s health, Buss offered the job to Westhead, telling him that whether he took it or not, Jack McKinney was not going to be the Lakers coach.

Westhead took it.

“Shoot, I’d have taken it too,” McKinney said. “But at the time, that hurt.”

McKinney was angry at Buss, angry at Westhead, but really angry at a faulty bike that had catapulted him from a dream team into a nightmarish existence.


“I understand now that Buss had to choose between a coach who had just proven himself and one who hadn’t been able to prove himself,” McKinney said.

Although there is occasional communication between the McKinneys and Westheads these days and the bitterness over Westhead’s promotion is long gone, the once-inseparable families have gone their separate ways. Westhead, fired after two years as Lakers coach, is now coach of the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, but still lives in L.A.

“We are still friends,” Claire McKinney said, “just not close friends. They are good people. It was just awkward. They didn’t know how to act and we didn’t either. It was difficult and so we took the route that was less painful.”

McKinney wasn’t done coaching, either. He was offered a head coaching job with the Indiana Pacers by owner Sam Nassi, a Buss friend, for the 1980-81 season.

“I wanted to know if Jerry Buss had anything to do with it,” McKinney said. “I didn’t want any connection with him.”

He was convinced by Nassi that Buss wasn’t involved, although Buss was actually trying to find employment for his old coach.


It started well. McKinney’s Pacers went 44-38 and he was named coach of the year in his first season.

But it ended poorly and McKinney was fired after going 125-203 over four seasons, including 26-56 in his final year, worst in the NBA that season.

McKinney took one more shot at the sidelines, but resigned after starting out 1-8 with the Kansas City Kings in the 1984-85 season despite a four-year contract worth $500,000.

“It was heart-rending,” said Jack Ramsay, his college coach at St. Joseph’s and the man McKinney served as an assistant at both St. Joe’s and in Portland. “When he quit, Jack told me, ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ ”

McKinney said, “I couldn’t come to grips with the losing, so I turned in my whistle. I just felt like I was going backwards going the wrong way. I needed to get away.”


Life is good for Jack McKinney. He and Claire will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They have four grown kids and eight grandchildren.


McKinney failed to get any coaching offers after Kansas City. “People perceived me as damaged goods,” he said. So he moved on, spending 16 years as a sales representative for a sporting goods company and doing occasional scouting for NBA teams, while Claire sold real estate. Now, he plays a little tennis and golf. Last year, he wrote a book on St. Joseph’s basketball.

But some bitterness still lingers.

On his finger, McKinney wears an NBA championship ring. Not from the Lakers, but the Trail Blazers for the 1977 title Portland won with McKinney as an assistant under Ramsay.

“The Lakers gave me a ring from the 1980 championship when I came back the next year as Indiana’s coach,” McKinney said. “There was no ceremony. Somebody from the organization -- I don’t remember who -- just slipped it to me in a box while I was sitting on the bench.”

Said Westhead: “It was an awful thing to have happen to a guy who worked so hard to get there and had it right there in front of him,”

But the words of praise sweetest to McKinney came when Abdul-Jabbar was asked to name his favorite coaches: “John Wooden and Jack McKinney.”

High praise for a guy who was Abdul-Jabbar’s coach for less than three months and 13 regular-season games. The team McKinney had a key role in assembling would go on to the NBA Finals eight times that decade and win five titles.


“It would be nice to be remembered as part of that,” McKinney said, “but I was there too short a period to be linked to Lakers folklore. I just put in some ideas that were accepted and the rest was up to Paul and Pat and some great players.”