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Winning Time: But really, who the heck was Jack McKinney?

Many fans know about Pat Riley and Paul Westhead, but the latest episode of “Winning Time” details the Lakers coach that preceded both of them: Jack McKinney.

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Los Angeles Lakers Scout Jack McKinney, 1980 NBA Finals Set Number: X24443

Each week, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points by using the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

As the title of the episode states, many Lakers fans were likely asking “Who the f--- is Jack McKinney?” during the latest episode of “Winning Time.” Nearly everyone is aware of Pat Riley, and many know of Paul Westhead, but very few have probably heard of McKinney.

Originally introduced in episode three, McKinney became Plan B for the Lakers after Tarkanian turned down the team’s offer in the wake of the murder of his agent, Vic Weiss.

But who on Earth was he?

McKinney was an assistant coach for the Bucks from 1974-76 — overlapping with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for one season in Milwaukee — before heading to Portland from 1976 to 1979, and helping the Trail Blazers win a title in the process.

But after only spending a handful of years in the NBA — even if he had been a coach in some capacity at some level since 1959 and had multiple NCAA Tournament appearances at Saint Joseph’s — the Lakers turned to McKinney.

In the show, McKinney is a confident man applying for the job and certain he’s a viable candidate for it, but in reality, coaching the Lakers was something he could hardly believe was a possibility, as Pearlman’s book notes.

The long-distance phone call made no sense. Jerry Buss? Who the hell was Jerry Buss? Jack McKinney sure didn’t recognize the name, even as Bill Sharman, the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, explained to him that the franchise was under new ownership, and that a coaching change had to be made, and that he—yes, he!—was being strongly considered.

...

And yet . . . as he sat on a couch inside his hotel room on Lake Maggiore, Italy, on the morning of July 11, 1979, McKinney realized that this was 100 percent serious, that Jerry Buss was the new owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and that he had been told there was an obscure, understated assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers who knew the game as well as anyone in basketball. “We love a lot about you,” Sharman said. “Dr. Buss would like you to fly to Los Angeles and talk about the coaching position.”

They spoke for a while, the fifty-three-year-old GM and the forty-four-year-old assistant coach, then agreed McKinney should leave Italy (and the basketball clinic he was running alongside Allessandro Gamba, the Italian national team coach) to come to Los Angeles in two days to chat face-to-face. As soon as he hung up the phone, McKinney’s thoughts spun round and round. He’d always believed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could be an improved rebounder and shot blocker. He’d always thought Jamaal Wilkes could be a lockdown defender. He knew that, with two legitimate point guards—Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson—in the backcourt, the Lakers could run opponents to near death. He knew the Lakers needed a legitimate power forward. They also needed to be tougher. Meaner. Less giving, more attacking. “It was a dream job,” McKinney said. “You’re talking about a roster with historic talent, maybe just requiring some tweaks.”

Many have considered Riley and Westhead to be the originators of Showtime. But while those two may have perfected it in many ways, it was McKinney who first had the idea of turning it up a notch on the court and running, running, running, which he revealed in his introductory press conference.

When asked to explain his coaching philosophy, McKinney didn’t hesitate. “A constant running game,” he said. “I’d like a moving offense, rather than having everyone else standing around watching Kareem all the time and putting pressure on him. I think we can do that. When you have someone like Magic, I think you can do that. We’ll run every chance and under every possible situation.” Watching the press conference on a television from inside his room at the Plaza Hotel, Earvin Johnson was beaming from ear to ear. The words were music.

The entirety of the third episode plays out at training camp for the Lakers and features a roster resistant to McKinney’s playstyle. In reality, the Lakers weren’t against McKinney’s style as, surprisingly, a more open, fast-paced offense was a lot of fun to play in.

In fact, while it’s not as explicitly stated that the players loved the new style in the book, the tome does point out that Johnson loved the idea in the passage above, and a Sports Illustrated article from Pearlman written in 2014 paints a much different picture than the near-mutiny by the players portrayed in the episode.

Jack McKinney, the longtime coach at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia who had spent the previous three seasons assisting Jack Ramsay with the Trail Blazers. McKinney was immediately embraced by the Lakers players, who loved his up-tempo, run-at-all-costs philosophy. With Johnson spearheading the system, Los Angeles jumped out to a 10—4 start.

The only legitimate friction during training was that between Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon. Predictably, having two starting-caliber point guards in an era well before positionless basketball led to some disagreements.

Once practice officially began, the Magic Johnson Show kicked into high gear. Johnson dove for loose balls, soared for rebounds, boxed out bigger players and recklessly tossed elbows. When Nixon told him to cool it, the rookie talked trash right back. “Don’t be intimidated by a kid,” he barked. “Don’t be intimidated. . . .” In particular, Nixon seemed to resent the way Johnson took the offense into his own hands. McKinney wanted the rebounder to immediately turn and pass up the court. When Johnson grabbed a ball off the boards, however, he dribbled. “Norm would flash across the middle and Magic would ignore him,” said Carter. “Norm would get very agitated, and there was this undercurrent with Magic not following the rules.”

But the two made it work, even if it wasn’t always smooth sailing. And speaking of not being smooth sailing...

A feisty Magic Johnson

One of the final scenes of training camp in the episode involves Magic Johnson fighting teammate Ron Boone, a brawl that actually did happen in real life, as first portrayed in Pearlman’s book:

One player in particular had little interest in any of the Magic hoopla. Ron Boone, an eleventh-year swingman fighting to make the team, had seen this sort of nonsense before, and he had no stomach for it. A one-time eleventh-round draft pick out of Idaho State, Boone had spent his entire career in the shadows of pretty boys and golden children. “Boone was a tough, crafty guy,” said Michael Cooper. “He’d been around the block.” During a particularly heated practice, Boone intentionally smacked Johnson in the back of his head with a forearm while fighting for a rebound. Johnson glared at Boone. “You better know,” he said, “I’m going to get you back.”

“Keep moving, rookie,” Boone replied. “You’re not going to do anything.”

Johnson turned and punched Boone in the neck. Boone fell to the ground. “Don’t you ever do that shit to me again!” the rookie screamed, as Boone charged toward him. McKinney ejected both men from practice, and as he walked toward the locker room, Johnson scanned the court and hollered, “I might be a rookie, but none of you guys are gonna punk me!” Boone uttered nary another word. His days with the team were numbered.

“Ron had averaged a lot of points [with Utah] in the ABA, and he thought he was something special,” said Cooper. “Magic went to work on him—hard.”

“Just knocked Ron Boone on his ass,” said Lon Rosen, an intern with the team. “Earvin was respectful, but he did not take anything.”*

Obviously, since most of you have not heard the name Ron Boone, he was traded before the season started by the Lakers. Turns out that fighting the No. 1 pick wasn’t great for your job security, even in the 80’s.

That dang glass of orange juice

A funnier set of scenes in the episode is Magic’s rookie duties of bringing Kareem orange juice and a newspaper every morning. And every morning, Cap would turn away the orange juice.

That was not only a very real rookie duty...

As Johnson spent his time in Palm Desert bounding around like a new puppy, Abdul-Jabbar went about his routine. Every year, Lakers veterans were allowed to “adopt” a rookie during camp, so Kareem paired with Magic. Instead of demanding he sing the Michigan State fight song or act out scenes from What’s Happening!!, Johnson merely had to fetch Abdul-Jabbar the morning New York Times, as well as a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. “I think Kareem was happy to have Earvin on the team,” said Paul Westhead, the assistant coach. “But did he make a fuss about it? Certainly not.”

... but it was also one Magic learned and later used himself once he became a veteran to his very own rookie, Earl Jones:

Jones actually lasted much of the season with the Lakers (again, rare is the team that cuts its first-rounder), but spent most of the time stashed on the injured list with sesamoiditis—technically an inflammation under the big toe, but really a twelve-letter word that translated to “This kid can’t play and we have to do something with him.” He appeared in two games, missed his only field goal attempt and was dumped at season’s end.

Though he brought little joy to West, Riley and Johnson (who, during training camp, made Jones fetch him the requisite glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and USA Today every morning), both Rosenfeld and Lon Rosen, the team’s director of promotions, considered him a gift from the Lord Almighty.

A Lakers mascot?

Mentioned seemingly in passing during one of the meetings back at the Forum, the idea of a mascot was proposed, specifically one called “Slam Duck.”

Stunningly, that was a very real proposal, though not how it played out in the episode. In reality, it was Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis that proposed the idea of Slam Duck — not two nameless staffers, as the show portrays — and their proposal was quickly shot down by Dr. Jerry Buss.

“He was an edgy duck with a Mohawk and a piercing,” said Rambis. “We hired a cartoonist to draw him up, and we thought we could send him to schools instead of the players. Dr. Buss looked at it and said, ‘No way. No possible way.’ In hindsight, he was right. But the duck was cute.”

Again, it really can’t be overstated how incredible of an idea Slam Duck is, and it’s really one that Jeanie needs to bring up again now that she’s in charge.

All stories from this article via “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” by Jeff Pearlman, which is a must-read for fans of “Winning Time,” and Lakers fans in general, and served as the source material for the show. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.