When Los Angeles won the National Basketball Association championships last May, officially the head coach was Jack McKinney -- except that Mckinney hadn't been with the team since November 1979.
Instead, Jack was recuperating from a freak accident (a fall from his son's bicycle) and the Lakers were being run by his close friend and assistant coach, Paul Westhead.
However, Westhead was employing the same basic system that Jack had installed months before during training camp. By March, McKinney, now out of the hospital , was pressuring Owner Jerry buss to allow him to return to the bench.
but Buss, partly because he didn't think Jack was 100 percent physically and partly because he felt the team had adjusted well to Westhead's control, demurred. There were several arguments, Jack was fired on May 17, and the job given permanently to Westhead at a huge increase in salary.
That's the background on McKinney. The updat on Jack, who less than a month later was hired to rebuild the Indiana Pacers, is that he is probably going to be this season's NBA Coach of the year.
To appreciate the turnaround Jack has achieved in Indiana, you first have to be aware of the multiple team problems that made the Pacers (37-45 last season) hardly more than a schoolyard basketball team.
Five "Whoppers" wouldn't have been enough to satisfy all of the individual shooting appetites; defense was a word used to fill up a distionary; and strong periods of play were invariably followed by mediocre ones. If anyone cared much , it didn't show.
It is difficult when meeting McKinney on a casual basis, because he is such a self-effacing man, to realize right away his ability to get to players -- to sell an idea or a program. But his words do sink in; his sincerity is unmistakable; and he knows the game.
"When Jack asked me to cut down on my scoring and become more of a team player, I have to admit I was skeptical," said George McGinnis, a lifetime 22.4 NBA scorer. "After nine years of doing things my own way, I didn't want to start over.
"Well, the man was right," McGinnis continued. "I'm doing things now that I never did before -- things that don't show up in the box score but that help you win. The other thing is that I'm happy playing this way -- happier even than when I was shooting the ball all the time."
What McKinney has done is tighten up the defense; restructure the offense so center James Edwards plays midway up the foul line; and make excellent use of rookie reserves Lou Orr of Syracuse at forward and Jerry Sichting of Purdue at guard.
Edwards, despite pretty good statistics and a flair for shot blocking, has never been considered physical enough for his position by NBA standards. But Mckinney got some help on the boards before the season opened by trading with Milwaukee for 6 ft. 7 in. George Johnson, who can either start or fill in for McGinnis or Mike Bantom.
While starting guards Johnny Davis and Billy Knight aren't considered much as playmakers, the Pacers run as often as they can and have learned to take the best percentage shots when forced into a deliberate offense. Reserve backcourt help is provided by Dudley Bradley and Don Buse.
"When you consider what Jack had to work with in what was basically an undisciplined situation, there isn't a coach in the league this year who has accomplished as much in such a relatively short period of time," one NBA scout told me. If Indiana continues to play close to .600 basketball for the rest of the season, the way it has so far, the Pacers will have no trouble making the Eastern Conference playoffs. What happens after that is probably out of McKiney's hands, since most of the teams he'll be playing have superior personnel.