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Contrary to the ‘Winning Time’ portrayal, Paul Westhead was an instant success with Lakers

While “Winning Time” may have portrayed Paul Westhead’s first season with the Lakers as a struggle, the reality was anything but, as he found instant success in charge.

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Los Angeles Lakers head coach Paul Westhead, 1980 NBA Finals Set Number: X24508 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.

Throughout the series, “Winning Time” has played it pretty fast and loose with the facts — literally what makes these weekly articles possible — but this week’s episode is the most egregious example of them taking creative liberties with actual, verifiable truths yet.

The basis of the whole episode is that Paul Westhead is struggling in his first season and the Lakers are debating whether to wait on Jack McKinney to be healthy once again, or to hire Elgin Baylor to replace him. Struggles on a Christmas holiday road trip — a fictitious one that we’ll discuss later — led to the team being on the brink of firing Westhead before a game in Boston.

In reality, no part of that was true in any sense, really.

To say that Westhead found success in his first season in Los Angeles would be putting it mildly. His longest losing streak was two games, and that only happened twice. He had four separate win streaks of at least five games.

Early on in his tenure, or at least during the time period of the episode, Westhead remained adamant that he was a placeholder for McKinney, as Pearlman notes following the team’s win over Denver in Westhead’s first game in charge.

Afterward, Westhead and his players took ten minutes to meet in the locker room. They talked about marching forward; about being strong; about the upcoming schedule and the following day’s practice. Mostly, they talked about McKinney, and playing on his behalf.

“It should be very clear that this is Jack McKinney’s team,” Westhead later said, “and I am just running out the string until he returns. I have no intention of changing anything. There will be variations, but they will be variations, not changes. I will accentuate what we’ve been building on, which is the running game, but it’s not new.

“Even if we go 71-0 the rest of the season, it’s still Jack McKinney’s team.”

Relations between Westhead and McKinney weren’t entirely open throughout the former’s tenure in charge, though. The families, who long considered themselves more like one extended family than friends, stopped seeing each other as often to avoid the awkwardness of the situation. So, while the phone conversation between Westhead and McKinney in the episode could have happened, it’s unclear exactly how much interaction the two had once Westhead entrenched himself as head coach.

Given everything above, it should go without saying there was no “do-or-die” ultimatum ahead of the Lakers’ game in Boston. In reality, the Lakers went into that game with a 30-15 record and as winners of five of their last seven.

And, likewise, Elgin Baylor was not waiting on the doorstep to take over the head coach position. He was a candidate for the assistant coaching opening that Buss eventually allowed Westhead to give to Riley instead.

On November 16, more than a week after McKinney’s accident, Buss finally allowed Westhead to hire his assistant of choice. The owner had been pushing for Elgin Baylor, the former Laker All-Star who lived locally. Westhead, however, wanted a recently retired journeyman named Pat Riley.

Buss hemmed and hawed when Westhead initially pushed forth the idea. The former Laker player, who had averaged 7.4 points over a ten-year career, was performing quite capably in his third season as Chick Hearn’s on-air broadcasting sidekick. Furthermore, as far as coaching material went, Riley impressed no one. ”He really had the potential to have a long, great career in the booth,” said Keith Erickson, who replaced Riley when he shifted to the bench. “Chick could be very difficult to work with. He was a wonderful man, but demanding. Pat had the right temperament.”

Baylor was, indeed, fresh off a 26-56 season in charge of the Jazz. But that would be his final stop on the sideline before eventually entering the front office later in his career.

An awfully convenient schedule

To say the show took some creative liberties with the schedule would be an understatement. We’ve mentioned that the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the show portrayed in the episode, but let’s look at the specifics.

The Houston game, the first time the show portrays Westhead as a hapless man on the sideline, was actually a game the Lakers won in late February at The Forum. It did not come six weeks after McKinney’s accident, as the show says, either.

The show then discusses a three-game Christmas road trip with stops in Indiana, Detroit and Boston. There was no road trip around Christmas, and the Lakers didn’t even play on Christmas. There was a road trip that included games against the Pacers, Pistons and Boston, but it was a five-game trip that also included stops in Milwaukee and Washington, too.

That road trip, which started on Jan. 2, did not feature the Lakers losing to Indiana (they won, 127-120), nor did it feature them losing to Detroit (they won, 123-100), though the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the league, as noted in the show. There were then games in Milwaukee and Washington before Magic’s first trip to Boston to play Larry Bird and the Celtics.

In the episode, the game features the Lakers jumping ahead quick, the Celtics responding and the Lakers eventually winning, which is close to what happened. In reality, Boston led 34-21 after the first quarter before the Lakers stormed back in the third quarter to take a 77-74 lead going into the fourth.

The game, however, did not end on a game-winning Cooper layup at the buzzer. Instead, Norm Nixon was fouled with three seconds remaining and made a pair of free throws to give the Lakers a two-point win. The whole game can be found on YouTube.

A quick scan of the game would indicate that Riley was not ejected, as he was in the show. Magic was also pretty terrible in the game, scoring a single point on two shot attempts with three rebounds, two assists, two steals and three turnovers in 21 minutes.

Fortunately, Magic went on to have one or two better games in The Garden.

Is this much fabrication really necessary?

So, what’s the point of all these “creative liberties” then? It’s creating a compelling storyline to casual fans or those unfamiliar with the Lakers and the Showtime Era. One of the oldest storytelling tropes are the plucky underdogs overcoming all the odds to reach the mountaintop.

But that wasn’t these Lakers. Not even close.

As I noted earlier, Westhead was really, really damn good from day one with this team. Hell, the team was really good from day one under McKinney. The show itself already had an episode portraying how good the team was. And sure, losing McKinney could have sent the Lakers into a spiral, especially once they were taken over by a fresh-faced head coach in Westhead, but that isn’t what happened.

And it’s not any less compelling to play out the story as it actually happened. The Lakers running riot over the NBA in Magic’s first season is plenty compelling in its own right, with the rookie and McKinney — and to a lesser extent Westhead — orchestrating a revolutionary offense that teams had no answer for.

From a storytelling perspective, sure, it’s easier to have the Lakers play the Pistons and Celtics back-to-back to have Magic interact with future wife Cookie and rival Larry Bird in the same episode. But having them lose a pair of games to the Pacers and Pistons all while making Westhead look like a head coach lacking confidence or talent? Why?

It’s not a more compelling storyline than the truth. Westhead not missing a beat as the Lakers race away with the Western Conference is intriguing. The Lakers blitzing the league is intriguing. There’s more than enough built-in drama that could be elaborated upon, to the point that this feels like an unnecessary liberty to take.

Perhaps it won’t be a big deal to a regular viewer. But as a Lakers fan, it’s an odd choice and borderline annoying. I want to watch the Lakers dominate the league as they did, not cosplay as some professional version of the Bad News Bears.

For a show with so, so many hits this season, this feels like one of their biggest misses to me so far.

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.