Jack McKinney may have gone down as a Lakers legend, but an untimely head injury ended his tenure as head coach of the team 13 games in. McKinney debuted the up-tempo style that became known as Showtime. The style won the Lakers the NBA championship in 1980 under coach Paul Westhead. Pat Riley went on to experience prolonged success using Jack’s system. 

“If he hadn’t had the accident, he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ‘80s,” Pat Riley told The Los Angeles Times.

Jack’s story features in Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty on HBO. Episode five depicts an accident that likely caused Jack McKinney’s death decades later. 

Jack reportedly died due to complications caused by a brain injury

In the final scenes of episode 5, we see Jack McKinney narrowly avoid being hit by a car. Moments after avoiding disaster, he falls off his bike and hits the pavement. This depiction of Jack’s life-changing 1979 injury isn’t entirely accurate. 

On 8th November 1979, Jack was riding his bicycle in Los Angeles to play tennis with Paul Westhead. The gears locked as he approached a stop sign, sending Jack over the handlebars and headfirst onto the concrete.

Jack suffered a severe concussion and was in a coma for three days. McKinney recovered from his injuries but never coached the Lakers again. 

McKinney passed away in September 2018 in hospice care in Bonita Springs, Florida, aged 83. Susan McKinney, his daughter, said that complications from the brain injury led to his death. 

Jack left behind his wife Claire, daughters Susan and Anne, and sons John and Dennis. “Life isn’t fair,” McKinney told Jeff Pearlman. “I’m OK with how everything has turned out. I’m loved.”

McKinney’s injury caused the gradual decline of his career

McKinney started his coaching career at Saint Joseph’s University, where he previously played under coach Jack Ramsay. He was fired in 1974 following a protest over a poor showing in the NCAA men’s tournament. 

Jack joined the Milwaukee Bucks several months later as an assistant to Coach Larry Costello. Two seasons later, Portland Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay hired him as an assistant. McKinney and Jack built an offense that won the NBA championship in 1977. 

“He was happiest at Portland,” McKinney told The New York Times. “When you’re winning a championship everything is good, and he felt valued working with Jack.”

Following the unfortunate end to his Lakers career, Jack joined the Indiana Pacers, where he won the Coach of the Year award in his first season. He left the Pacers following a string of poor results; his subsequent stint with the Kansas City Kings ended after nine games – McKinney was a coach in decline. 

“I think the effects of the head injury made it too stressful – he had so many balls in the air as a coach – and it became too much,” Claire said. “He came home one day and said, ‘I’m going to retire but don’t tell anyone.”

We’ll always wonder what could have been had Jack made it to his tennis game with Paul Westhead in early November 1979.

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