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Winning Time: Was Pat Riley really an instant success with the Lakers?

After one of the wildest days in Lakers history, Pat Riley took over the Lakers and was almost immediately an instant success.

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Los Angeles Lakers Assistant Coach Pat Riley and Coach Jerry West Set Number: X26282

Each week of season two, 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 with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

There have been many wild days in Lakers history throughout the years. In recent years alone, the day the team passed on Phil Jackson and hired Mike Brown, the Dwightmare, the day LeBron James was signed and perhaps even the most recent trade deadline all were particularly chaotic days.

But it’s hard to imagine a 24-hour span more insane than the one in 1981. All within one day, Magic Johnson demanded a trade, Paul Westhead was fired barely 18 months after winning an NBA title and Dr. Jerry Buss had one of the most bizarre press conferences announcing Jerry West and Pat Riley as co-coaches, a move neither person wanted.

All of it is absurd. Let’s take a deeper look at it.

The fallout

Predictably, there was quite a big mess after Magic demanded a trade. Dr. Buss was quite angry that Magic didn’t talk to him first before going to the media. Westhead was forced to answer questions about the matter to the media, but it was in the newspaper he learned of a meeting between Buss, Bill Sharman and Jerry West...and not him.

In his memoir The Speed Game, Westhead described the ensuing hours that unfolded after the trade request.

On the flight back to Los Angeles, I read that there was to be a meeting to resolve the issue. I went directly to my office in the Forum to fill Bill Sharman in with the details of the incident and prepare a strategy for handling Magic. No one was there; nor was there any message of a pending meeting. The media continued to report a meeting of Jerry Buss, Bill Sharman, and myself con- cerning Magic, but I couldn’t get any details.

If that didn’t raise any red flags, Westhead’s daughter likely did. The lunch with his daughter did actually happen and she did correctly predict he was going to be fired by the Lakers.

There was some sense of security for Westhead, who had signed a new contract. And up to that point, there was no precedent of a star player forcing ownership’s hand to get a coach fired.

But there’s a first time for everything.

The decision

In hindsight, it seems implausible to consider keeping any coach over Magic Johnson, but, again, Dr. Buss was in unchartered waters in 1981. He was aware the situation was going to be framed in a way where whoever he picked would be seen as having forced the other one out.

Scott Ostler and Steve Springer of Winnin’ Time offered insight into Dr. Buss’ thinking:

“If I fire Westhead, everybody will say it’s because of Magic,” Buss thought, “and that’s bad. On the other hand, if I don’t fire Westhead, it will be because of Magic. In other words, if I don’t do what I had already intended to do, then I will have actually done what I will later be accused of doing - making my decision because of Magic. It’s the damnedest thing. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Magic’s reaction change my decision.

Ultimately, after a fair amount of deliberation, Dr. Buss fired Westhead. It was the right move, but it wasn’t the clear move necessarily in the moment. And Westhead, whose memoir was published in 2020, seemed to still hold perhaps a bit of resentment.

I felt as though it was an important time for Jerry Buss to show Magic that he must conform to the team and that no amount of pressure by him would allow Magic to have his own way... .. I felt that this was a perfect opportunity for Jerry Buss to show Magic that the owner was in charge of the team off the court....Unfortunately, Jerry Buss decided not to deal with the Magic Johnson case but, rather, eliminated the problem by firing the coach.

It was the third coach the Lakers had parted ways with since the end of the 1979 season, though West’s coaching career coming to an end was a little different. Still, it was quite the turnover for a franchise wanting to establish itself as one of the best.

The succession plan...or lack thereof

It is true that Dr. Buss fired Westhead without a plan of who would succeed him, which would further indicate that it wasn’t a move he had considered before Magic’s demand. Ideally for him, West would have taken the seat again, but West very much did not want that.

But Dr. Buss definitely did not quite understand that feeling from West. So much so that there were, legitimately, mixed signals in a face-to-face meeting. West was under the impression he would serve as an assistant to Riley. Buss was under the impression West would slowly hand over the reins to Riley over time.

And thus, the two walked into the press room, sat down in front of the media and uncorked one of the more bizarre pressers. The scene in the show was pretty much a direct recreation of it.

Dr. Buss stumbled over his words trying to explain the decision he just made to name an offensive captain and co-coaches. West stepped to the podium and said he would be working for Riley.

In the modern era, it would have been memed and mocked until the end of times. The Lakers looked like a three-ring circus, to be blunt. It was pretty terrible optics, but at the end of the day, Riley was seen as the one in charge.

The fan’s reaction to Magic

It was an entirely different era of basketball in 1981 in many ways, including how fans saw players. Magic was seen as the man who ran a coach out of town.

He was booed by fans in the first game after Westhead’s firing and for weeks after. Those 7-Up commercials were pulled because, as 7-Up vice president David Smith said Magic’s “behavior left something to be desired,” as detailed in an old LA Times article.

Predating Facebook posts and tweets were letters to the editor and the LA Times had some dandies in the immediate aftermath of Westhead’s firing. Old Takes Exposed would have had an absolute field day with these takes.

Please convey my congratulations to Magic Johnson. He has perfected his transition game to its ultimate level. It has taken him only two seasons to go from Magic to Tragic. - GEORGE ROBOTHAM, Beverly Hills

I just can’t believe it. A winning coach is fired because an overpaid, spoiled-rotten superstar has a temper tantrum. In spite of my admiration for Abdul-Jabbar and Wilkes, I have had it with the Lakers. No more will I go to their games or watch them on the tube. Further, the respect I had for Jerry Buss has gone aglimmering. Regarding Tragic Johnson: Maturity, where art thou? - JOHN F. HOWARD, Los Angeles

I certainly hope Gerber’s baby food signs Magic to a contract. - BETH ENGEL, Anaheim

I didn’t believe even the enormously talented Magic Johnson was worth $25 million, but if, as recent events suggest, Magic’s responsibilities include not only playing but coaching and general managing, Jerry Buss might have gotten a bargain after all. - NEIL THOMPSON, Los Angeles

This is only a small handful of examples of the general sentiment. According to the LA Times on Nov. 25, 1981 — a week after his trade demand and Westhead’s firing — they had received 45 letters to the editor with 33 of them being anti-Magic and Buss.

Magic, and to a similar degree Dr. Buss, had positioned themselves as enemies No. 1 in Los Angeles.

The team’s reaction on the court

The best way to solve all these issues? Win basketball games. And the Lakers did a lot of that right away, winning 17 of the first 20 games Riley coached. They ran into some issues, going 14-18 over the next 32 games.

Riley’s job, though, never really seemed to be in trouble as that part was a bit dramatized. But he was empowered by Buss to be the coach, which led to a real come-to-Jesus meeting in the locker room. Everyone was called out and in a ruthless way Riley was known for.

Magic described part of the memorable speech to the team in his memoir, Magic:

Riley had entered moments before with a scowl on his lips and fire in his eyes. He’d lit a cigarette to calm himself, and now he slowly scanned the room, going from player to player, challeng- ing each with a glare. Each player, in turn, averted his eyes. I leaned against my locker, my arms folded against my chest, and stared blankly across the room. “Chickens----,” Riley muttered as he took a deep draw on the cigarette...

[“If”] you want to win, you have to be like this.” He raised his fist, clenching it tightly and squeez- ing until it quivered. “You have to be tight.

It worked. The Lakers won 10 of their last 12 games of the regular season, then swept the Suns and Spurs in the playoffs to reach the Finals. Awaiting them was a familiar foe, but not one in green.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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