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Winning Time: Are Jeanie Buss and Jack McKinney’s portrayals accurate?

Both Jack McKinney and Jeanie Buss have been constants in “Winning Time,” but how accurate have their portrayals been as the show gets close to wrapping up its first season?

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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 standoff between Paul Westhead and Jack McKinney came to a conclusion in episode nine of “Winning Time,” with Dr. Jerry Buss making the decision to have Westhead coach through the playoffs.

As we discussed in our initial piece fact-checking the penultimate episode of season one, the timeline of the decision in the show did not match the timeline of the decision in real life. But the circumstances around it did play out in a similar fashion.

Like the show displayed, McKinney did struggle with his memory after the accident. The point was really hammered home in a couple of scenes on Sunday, including him getting lost in the hallways of The Forum as he’s trying to exit.

Another occurrence of the issues McKinney was experiencing came when he was at home with his wife, and Dr. Buss stopped by for a visit. It appeared the visit could have been to tell McKinney that he would be the coach moving forward, but at the front door, McKinney didn’t recognize Buss, at which point Buss seems to change his mind. It’s implied the moment served as one of the key factors — and maybe the main and final one — in Buss eventually deciding to go with Westhead as head coach for the rest of the year.

While that’s not exactly how the situation played out in real life, there was an instance in which McKinney did not recognize Buss. In “Showtime,” Pearlman wrote about the recovery process McKinney went through and the impact it had on him and his family before his eventual dismissal, and the section included a moment when McKinney didn’t recognize his boss (emphasis mine):

Fired? Just because his name ceased appearing in the Los Angeles Times didn’t mean McKinney’s fight for survival wasn’t remarkable. He had been in a coma for three days and a semicomatose state for three weeks. More than 40 percent of head-injury victims never return to normal, and 60 percent can’t return to work within the first vear. Between the time of the accident and his phantom dismissal, McKinney had been through months of excruciating physical and cognitive therapy. “I had so many things [affected] by the fall,” McKinney said. “My mouth, my lips, plastic surgery, a broken bone in my ear that controls your equilibrium. I lost all the power on one side of my body. If I leaned over to pick something up, I would fall over.” Dennis McKinney, Jack and Claire’s youngest child, remembers his father offering to drive him to high school one day. “He thought he was doing better than he really was,” Dennis said. “The ride was terrifying. To the right, to the left, to the right. Just swerving all over. My dad’s balance was really off.” Come December, doctors thought McKinney could attend a Laker game as a spectator. He was warmly approached by Buss, who asked how his rehab was going. McKinney remained silent. Not out of rudeness—he didn’t recognize the man.

“But my dad was such a positive guy,” said Susan McKinney-DeOrtega, his oldest child. “Even when he was at his lowest, in so much pain, struggling just to remember, he told us he was going to beat it. And he believed it.”

Rather tragically, McKinney would never fully recover from his injuries, and even later admitted to Pearlman that “Dr. Buss wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t ready.” In interviewing with Pearlman for the book decades later, he couldn’t remember which team he coached Spencer Haywood on, either.

McKinney would go on to coach the Pacers after Buss helped land him a head coaching job the next season. But while he won Coach of the Year in 1980-81 after leading Indiana to 44 wins and a playoff berth, his memory issues persisted, and eventually forced him out of the league (emphasis mine):

As we sit here, still talking, still sipping water, McKinney glances through the folder, searching for faded memories and long-lost sparks. He would coach again, hired by the Indiana Pacers at the behest of a guilt-ravaged Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner. Yet despite being named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1980-81, he was never the same. Members of the Pacers took the unprecedented step of writing their names in black marker along the front of their shorts so their coach wouldn’t get confused. Later, in a game during his final coaching stint, with Kansas City, several Kings players told the media that, during a time-out, McKinney characterized a play as one “just like we did against St. John’s”—a reference to the New York City school he coached against while at Saint Joseph’s a decade earlier.

Ultimately, McKinney left the NBA altogether, devoting the remainder of his working days to selling sporting goods. He watched the NBA from time to time, but the pain of what could (and should) have been far outweighed any morsels of momentary joy that came from sitting on the couch for Lakers-Celtics. McKinney is not a bitter man, but he is human. “Life isn’t always fair,” he says. “I’m OK with how everything has turned out. I’m loved. But, well, it’s not always fair...”

In his apartment, there is only a single hint that he ever coached the Lakers—a crystal wine carafe with LAKERs etched along the side. Occasionally, Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, will leave McKinney tickets for a game. “He always says, ‘This is the guy who made my career possible,” McKinney says. “This is the guy.”

McKinney — who passed away in 2018 — was also the subject of a separate piece from Pearlman for The Athletic shortly before his death, a story that looked more into his life after basketball. It’s a rather harrowing tale that shows the sad reality of the situation and McKinney’s continuing cognitive decline, but also how his family rallied around him.

Still, it was a sad ending for someone who should at the very least be regarded as the father of Showtime.

When did Jeanie Buss actually get involved with the Lakers?

One of the aspects we haven’t discussed as much is Jeanie’s involvement with the front office and franchise in season one of “Winning Time.” The short of it is that she was not remotely this involved with the Forum or the Lakers at that time, but would eventually gain that level of power and more.

For example, in episode nine, Jeanie is debating applying for an official position in the front office but is afraid her dad won’t allow her to. It should be noted that, in the spring of 1980, she would have only been 18 years old.

In reality in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jeanie was helping run the Los Angeles franchise in TeamTennis, a mixed-gender tennis league. She was named general manager of Dr. Buss’ L.A. Strings team in the league at just 19 years old in 1981. While that league eventually failed, Jeanie had quickly begun to make a name for herself even at a young age.

When the Strings went belly-up, Jeanie was also running another dog-cart club, the L.A. Blades in the Roller Hockey International (RHI) league. “Jeanie’s knowledge is second to none in getting a second-tier sport off the ground,” says Ken Yaffe, the NHL’s liaison to RHI. “Though the executive meetings were male-dominated, Jeanie was very strong-willed and never caved in.” She was an outspoken opponent of propping up ailing franchises, and though other owners overruled her on that issue, it cost them dearly. RHI collapsed last year.

It wasn’t until a decade later in the 1990s that Jeanie made her way to the Lakers in any sort of official capacity. In 1995, Jeanie began serving as the Alternate Governor for the team on the NBA Board of Governors. She is now, obviously, the top decision-maker in the organization, and became the first female team governor to win an NBA title in 2020.

“Hopefully not the last,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2020.

Considering there’s basically been no mention of the tennis league and Jeanie is working at the Forum already, that doesn’t seem to be the route the show is taking. Which from a storytelling perspective makes some degree of sense, but is worth noting nonetheless.

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.