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Winning Time: How Paul Westhead really prepared to be Lakers coach

Paul Westhead was more experienced as a head coach than “Winning Time” gives him credit for, but stepping in for his “brother” Jack McKinney with the Lakers was still a difficult process.

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Los Angeles Lakers head coach Paul Westhead, 1980 NBA Western Conference Finals Set Number: X24444 TK2

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.

The logistics of replacing a head coach on the fly as the Lakes had to do in 1979 are hard to truly contextualize, let alone fully grasp. Unlike the modern NBA, there were not big coaching staffs ready to absorb the new responsibilities. And even if there had been, no team would have ever been prepared to lose a head coach to a bike wreck that puts him in a hospital bed in a medically-induced coma.

The sixth episode of “Winning Time” captures the chaos of the 36 hours between Jack McKinney’s bike wreck and the team’s game against the Denver Nuggets. What it perhaps most accurately depicts is the relationship between McKinney and Paul Westhead, one in which they considered each other brothers.

As Pearlman writes, Westhead was focused on many things ahead of the team’s game against Denver, but none of them were the game itself (emphasis mine).

The last thing Westhead cared about was the basketball. Here was his dear friend, the man who had brought him along to the NBA, listless and lifeless. And yet, he had no choice but to think about basketball. The Lakers employed one assistant coach, and a matchup against the Denver Nuggets was scheduled at the Forum in roughly twenty-four hours. The next morning, Westhead arrived at the gymnasium on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, where the team held its game-day shootarounds. He wasn’t sure what to say or, for that matter, what to do. Many players first learned of the accident when they entered the gym. Those who read the Los Angeles Times that morning found but a four-paragraph mention of the accident. It failed to make the front page of the main or sports sections:

...

“I was the accidental head coach,” said Westhead. “The substitute teacher. I entered the gym and I was, literally, the only person there at first. Then people start to arrive, and it’s me, the trainer and the players. There was never anyone saying, ‘Here’s what we want you to do.’ I was lucky that this was just a shootaround. I didn’t have to coach just yet.” When practice ended, Westhead ran into Sharman. The general manager offered an empathetic pat on the back, and these words: “You’re doing it. Because it’s either you or the janitor. Take your pick.”

There were some minor inaccuracies along the way. No one aside from family was allowed to see McKinney — Jack’s wife Claire lied and said Westhead was his brother, another example of how close they were — including Dr. Jerry Buss and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who tried to visit McKinney. It’s unlikely the whole team waited for him outside the hospital, especially given the timeline and the fact few players even knew before shootaround the next morning.

There’s no record of the press conference Westhead had before his first game. Again, logistically, there wasn’t that much time to have a press conference. And the media wasn’t out of the loop, especially since the wreck was in the LA Times.

It is a bit exaggerated how inexperienced Westhead was. He was in his first year as an NBA coach and was a college professor the year prior, but he also was serving as the La Salle University men’s basketball coach. He spent nine seasons as coach of the Explorers, leading them to two NCAA Tournament appearances.

So, while he was inexperienced as a professional NBA head coach, he was not solely a man who had been teaching in the English department the year prior, even if he was, in fact, a Shakespeare enthusiast. He even had this hilariously odd quote about Shakespeare and the NBA:

“If Shakespeare had been in pro basketball, he never would have had time to write his soliloquies. He would have always been on a plane between Phoenix and Kansas City.”

Lastly, there was no big change in the lineup as Westhead apparently was heavily deliberating ahead of the Lakers’ game against the Nuggets. In the locker room before the game, Westhead benches Spencer Haywood for Michael Cooper. In reality, neither Cooper nor Haywood started the game.

Cooper had started three games prior that season, but he was never a regular starter throughout the year and he did not make a move into the starting lineup against Denver. He did play 24 minutes off the bench while Haywood played 29.

Dr. Buss and his mother

The show has, obviously, taken some creative liberties along the way, including — as far as we can tell — pretty much everything about Dr. Jerry Buss’ mother, Jessie, portrayed by Sally Field.

In reality, there isn’t really any information about her readily available, meaning basically everything has been made up. Field admitted as much in an interview with Tim Lammers of Looper.

“The whole series, the whole tone of it, is fun in that it has a lot of drama, a lot of physicality, and a lot of humor — and dark humor,” Field told Looper in an exclusive interview. “It’s what Adam McKay does so beautifully ... We had to invent a lot of Jessie because there’s not a lot of real information on her, in trying to think of who she might have been. I really was the mad woman in the attic that they locked me in, and I didn’t get to see anybody else. Luckily, Hadley, in the form of Jeanie, would come and visit me and Jerry, John C. [Reilly], would come and visit me. It was great to have that and to have my relationships with them that we created, and that we suppose they actually had.”

Those liberties also include Jerry potentially selling the team over to his ex-wife, a deal that was supposed to be formally finalized by Jessie. In the episode, Jerry finds the papers in his mother’s apartment but, in reality, there’s no record of that having even been a possibility discussed.

None of this isn’t to say he didn’t have a good relationship with his mother. As a single mom, she raised Dr. Buss in Wyoming while working as a waitress and paying rent with tips. She taught him to play cards, a hobby he enjoyed throughout his life (from a 1980 profile of Dr. Buss in People Magazine):

“I could play a reasonable hand of bridge by the time I was 4,” Buss remembers. “We’d gamble for chocolate bars. In the beginning she’d have this tremendous edge, but then I’d get to where I could compete with her and she’d switch games. She was always very proud of me that way. She gave me a lot of confidence.”

Once he made his fortunes, Dr. Buss made sure to take care of his mother, paying for her apartment in LA that priced out at $1,000 per moth as well as a “new car, china, crystal and silver” and vacations to Hawaii. In that sense, their relationship was as strong as the show suggests, just without some of the details included.

Magic Johnson’s missed opportunity with Nike

One of the other over-arching storylines is Magic Johnson courting a number of shoe companies. Eventually, he signs with Converse — a deal that actually happened — but not before an intriguing offer made by Nike.

In reality, a young Phil Knight did indeed make a pitch to Magic, one that included a fair amount of stock options. In 1979, Nike was still a privately-owned company that was not at the level of Converse or Adidas. Still, the company was interested in Magic and made a pitch to him that couldn’t match financially with Converse, but did feature an offer that would have been worth much, much, much more eventually.

Magic talked about the deal on The Ellen Show in 2017:

When I first came out of college, all the shoe companies came after me and there was this guy, Phil Knight, who had just started Nike. All the other companies offered me money, but they couldn’t offer me money because they just started. So he said, ‘Stock. I’m going to give you a lot of stock.’ I didn’t know anything about stock. I’m from the inner city. We don’t know about stocks, you know, at that time. Boy, did I make a mistake. I’m still kicking myself. Every time I’m in a Nike Store, I get mad, right? I could have been making money off of everybody buying Nikes right now.

The exact amount of stock has not been mentioned, but simply considering what their stock prices were when they went public in 1980 and what they are now? You can safely assume it was a good chunk of change that Magic missed out on, a rare business misstep for a man who has made plenty of shrewd deals and investments to build up a sizable fortune throughout his life since the NBA.

Interestingly, Thomas Day, who appears as an advisor/agent of sorts during the show, appears to be a fictionalized character as well.

Jack Nicholson cameo

Early in the episode, there’s a brief, but hilarious, Jack Nicholson cameo during Dr. Buss’ meeting with the bankers he spends the episode negotiating with. Nicholson sends over a bottle of wine to their lunch table to which Dr. Buss tells the camera he had to “comp his season tickets to get him to do that.”

The idea of that happening is hilarious and could have, technically, been possible as Nicholson was a season ticket holder starting in 1970, at least according to Wikipedia.

Most 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.