Each week, we’ll revisit the latest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-check or add more detail to some of the key and more important plot points using the book. “SHOWTIME: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980s” By Jeff Pearlman.
The clash between Paul Westhead and Jack McKinney ended in episode nine of “Winning Time”, with Dr. Jerry Buss making the decision to have Westhead coach during the playoffs.
As we discussed in our first fact-checking piece from the penultimate episode of the first season, the timeline of the decision in the show did not match the timeline of the decision in real life. But the circumstances surrounding it unfolded the same way.
As the show displayed, McKinney struggled with her memory after the accident. The point was really hammered home in a few scenes on Sunday, including him getting lost in the halls of the Forum as he tried to get out.
Another occurrence of McKinney’s troubles came when he was home with his wife, and Dr. Buss stopped by for a visit. It seems the visit could have been to tell McKinney he would be the moving forward coach, but at the front door, McKinney didn’t recognize Buss, at which point Buss seems to change his mind. It’s implied that the timing was one of the key factors – and perhaps the main and final one – in Buss’ eventual decision 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 one instance where McKinney failed to recognize Buss. In “Showtime,” Pearlman wrote about the recovery process McKinney went through and the impact it had on him and his family prior to his eventual firing, and the section included a moment when McKinney failed to acknowledge his Boss (emphasis mine):
Fired? Just because his name stopped appearing in the Los Angeles Times doesn’t mean McKinney’s fight for survival was unremarkable. He had been in a coma for three days and in a semi-comatose state for three weeks. More than 40% of head injury victims never return to normal and 60% cannot return to work within the first year. Between the time of the accident and his phantom dismissal, McKinney had gone 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 balance. I lost all power on one side of my body. If I bent down to pick something up, I would fall. Dennis McKinney, Jack and Claire’s youngest child, remembers his father once offering to drive him to high school. “He thought he was doing better than he really was,” Dennis said. “The ride was terrifying. Right, left, right. Just swerve everywhere. My father’s balance was really off balance. In December, doctors thought McKinney might attend a Lakers 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 eldest. “Even when he was at his lowest, in so much pain, struggling just to remember, he told us he was going to beat him. And he believed it.”
Tragically enough, McKinney would never fully recover from his injuries, and even later admitted to Pearlman that “Dr. Buss wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t ready. When interviewing Pearlman for the book decades later, he also had no recollection of the team he had coached Spencer Haywood on.
McKinney would go on to coach the Pacers after Buss helped him land a head coaching job the following season. But as he won Coach of the Year in 1980-81 after leading Indiana to 44 wins and a playoff berth, his memory problems persisted and eventually forced him out. the league (emphasis mine):
As we sit here, still talking, still sipping water, McKinney glances through the file, searching for faded memories and long-lost sparks. He would be a coach again, hired by the Indiana Pacers at the request of a guilt-ridden Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers. 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 on the front of their shorts so their coach wouldn’t be confused. Later, during a game during his last coaching stint with Kansas City, several Kings players told the media that, during a timeout, McKinney called a play “just like we did against St. John’s” – a reference to the New York School he coached against while at Saint Joseph’s a decade earlier.
Ultimately, McKinney left the NBA altogether, devoting the rest of his workdays to selling sporting goods. He watched the NBA once in a while, but the pain of what could have (and should have) far outweighed the bits of momentary joy that came from sitting on the couch for the Lakers-Celtics. McKinney is not a bitter man, but he is human. “Life isn’t always fair,” he says. “I’m okay with how it all turned out. I’m loved. But hey, it’s not always fair…”
In his apartment, there is only one clue that he ever coached the Lakers – a crystal wine decanter with LAKERs engraved on the side. Occasionally, Riley, now president of the miami heat, will leave McKinney tickets to a game. “He always says, ‘He’s the guy who made my career possible,'” McKinney said. “It’s the guy.”
McKinney – who died in 2018 – was also the subject of a separate piece by Pearlman for Athleticism shortly before his death, a story that focused more on his life after basketball. It’s a rather poignant story that shows the sad reality of the situation and McKinney’s continued cognitive decline, but also how his family rallied around him.
Still, it was a sad end for someone who should at least be considered the father of Showtime.
When did Jeanie Buss actually get involved with the Lakers?
One aspect that we haven’t discussed as much is Jeanie’s involvement with the front office and the franchise in the first season of “Winning Time.” In short, she wasn’t as 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 considers applying for an official position in the front office but is afraid her father won’t allow it. Note that in the spring of 1980, she would have been only 18 years old.
In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jeanie was helping lead the Los Angeles franchise in TeamTennis, a co-ed tennis league. She was named general manager of Dr. Buss’ LA Strings team in the league at just 19 in 1981. While that league ultimately failed, Jeanie had quickly started to make a name for herself even at a young age.
When the Strings went bankrupt, Jeanie also ran another dog-cart club, the LA Blades of the Roller Hockey International (RHI) league. “Jeanie’s knowledge is unparalleled in getting a second-tier sport off the ground,” said Ken Yaffe, NHL Liaison Officer with RHI. “Although the leadership meetings were male dominated, Jeanie was very strong-willed and never backed down.” She was an outspoken opponent of supporting struggling franchises, and although other owners dismissed her on this 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 an official capacity. In 1995, Jeanie began serving as an alternate governor for the team on the NBA Board of Governors. She is now, obviously, the organization’s chief decision maker and became the first female team governor to win an NBA title in 2020.
“I hope it’s not the last,” she said. Told The Los Angeles Times in 2020.
Considering there’s been virtually no mention of the tennis league and Jeanie already works at the Forum, that doesn’t seem like the route the show is going. Which, from a storytelling standpoint, makes some sense, but is worth noting nonetheless.
Most of the stories in this article via “SHOWTIME: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980s” by Jeff Pearlman, which is must-read for “Winning Time” fans and Lakers fans in general, and served as source material for the show. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed at itunes, Spotify, embroiderer or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.