Los Angeles — The World Champion Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association have a new head coach! Actually Paul Westhead has been there all the time -- first as chief assistant to Jack McKinney and, since Nov. 8, when McKinney fell off a bicycle and was seriously injured, as interim head coach.
Recently Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss made it official, giving Westhead a four-year contract that will exceed $1 million, including insurance and bonuses.
Before that there were reports that Buss might be considering Coach Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas for the Laker job and that the owners of the NBA San Diego Clippers were interested in Paul.
Los Angeles, under Westhead, went 50-18 during the regular season and 12-4 in the playoffs, which concluded on May 16 with LA beating the Philadelphia 76ers 4 games to 2 for the NBA title.
The forgotten man in all this, of course, is McKinney. Jack got pushed so far back on the Lakers' rear burner that when Buss told him he wouldn't be back and he boiled over, the Los Angeles press hardly seemed to notice.
McKinney is almost a three-part question when it comes to fairness and tact. That is, how do you treat the man who hired Westhead to be his assistant; who established the formula in training camp that the Lakers rode to the title; and who still has a year left on his contract?
Buss (and admittedly not all the reasons are known here) has chosen to keep Westhead and drop McKinney. Jack did get a share equal to the Lakers' playoff money, and several NBA franchises without coaches (San Anotonio, Detroit, Washington, and the new expansion franchise in Dallas) are interested in him.
But you don't have to own a degree in human relations to guess how McKinney feels at this point.
Originally Jack's health was Buss's primary concern when McKinney wanted to return as the Lakers' coach in February. Jerry wasn't satisfied with the reports he had been getting on Jack and understandably wanted to make sure that McKinney was 100 percent physically and mentally before taking him back.
But as the Lakers moved closer to a division title and the playoffs, Buss began to feel that any change in command at the coaching level might cause problems. Most people high up in the Laker organization whom Jerry queried agreed with his decision of "why take a chance?"
And in retrospect, since LA won its division title and later the playoffs, Buss's decision looks good.
Where McKinney and Westhead stand with each other at this point is mostly speculative. Their families and wives, who were very close and frequently saw a lot of each other socially, aren't visiting as often as they did. But there has been no open break.
Perhaps Westhead's strongest asset as a coach is his ability to get along with players while still getting them to produce.
Paul handled center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this season in much the same way the Red Auerbach once handeled Bill Russell and Alex Hannum handled Wilt Chamberlain.
During the year there was a lot of personal contact between Westhead and Kareem, a lot of talk that resulted more in suggestions from Paul than commands, and no comment at all from the Laker coach on those few occasions when Abdul-Jabbar did not come to play.
Few coaches expect their players to get up for all 82 games, because of the NBA's heavy travel schedule, road boredom, and physical toll extracted every season. They will accept rest stops from their stars, just as long as they aren't too close together.
With a new franchise in Dallas next season (the Mavericks), the Lakers will be able to protect eight team members in the forthcoming expansion draft, but will lose their 9th, 10th, or 11th player.
While LA is hoping that Dallas takes Spencer Haywood, who got along neither with Westhead nor most of his teammates this season, they know realistically that it's probably going to be forward Marty Byrnes.