The Men who Led the Lakers Partial Seasons
We wrap up our series on the men who led the Lakers with the men who coached partial seasons, helped along by longtime Laker Bill Bertka, who himself stepped into the head chair for three games across his long career as an assistant coach and scout and went 2-1.
RUDY TOMJANOVICH (2004-05)
When Phil Jackson retired for the first time following a tumultuous 2004-05 season that ended in a 4-1 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers turned to Rudy Tomjanovich.
An assistant coach to former Rockets and Lakers coach Del Harris for many years, Tomjanovich was a “master of mismatches,” according to Bertka, building his offensive game plan based on how teams were going to defend the things his team liked to do.
A five-time All Star as a player for Houston in the 1970’s, Tomjanovich reached the peak of his coaching career with back-to-back titles with the same Rockets in 1994 and 1995. He ultimately left the Rockets franchise after 33 seasons in 2003, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Tomjanovich inherited a newly-made roster due to the trading of Shaquille O’Neal to Miami, and with it began the season 12-8 before splitting the next 20 games to arrive at 22-18. He’d coach only one more game, however, officially resigning due to a health issue unrelated to the bladder cancer when the team was 24-19.
“We are very sorry that Rudy’s stay as the Lakers coach was so short,” said Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, at the time. “We respect Rudy’s concerns for his health, which is of course the paramount issue. While he won’t be our coach, I’m very pleased that we will be able to continue our relationship and that he’ll be contributing to our success in a different, but still important capacity.”
“He did a pretty good job early on before he got sick,” Bertka added. “We were more or less in disarray, the team going through a real shock, and it was a very difficult thing for Frank Hamblen to step in.”
LAKERS COACHING RECORD (Tomjanovich):
Regular Season: 24-19 (.558)
Total: 24-19 (.558)
FRANK HAMBLEN (2005)
A long-time Jackson assistant, the very-well schooled Hamblen did his best to usher the team through the turmoil of the coaching change, as L.A. managed just 12 wins in its next 41 games to finish the season 34-48. Hamblen, in fact, earned two more victories than the 12 with which he’s credited, as he coached L.A. to two wins when Tomjanovich was absent but had not yet resigned.
"If there's anybody that has a broad expanse of experience in this league, it's Frank,” added Bertka. “But that was just a tough situation."
It would be just the fifth time in franchise history that L.A. would miss the playoffs, but in the following year, Phil Jackson would return to the head coaching chair, Hamblen back to Jackson’s right, and the Lakers made it back to the playoffs.
LAKERS COACHING RECORD (Hamblen):
Regular Season: 12-29 (.293)
Total: 12-29 (.293)
KURT RAMBIS (1998-99)
Just 12 games into the lockout shortened 1998-99 season, Del Harris was fired as head coach, with assistant Kurt Rambis taking over after Bill Bertka won his only game in the head seat.
Under Rambis, the Lakers commenced by winning three straight games, then losing three straight, and then tearing off 10 straight victories. They’d continue to be streaky throughout the regular season, including a three-game stretch of losses preceding four straight victories to close the year at 31-19.
L.A. went on to defeat Houston 3-1 in the Western Conference First Round, but was subsequently swept by San Antonio in Round 2, thus ending Rambis’ stint in the head chair, as Phil Jackson came in to begin the 1999-2000 campaign.
LAKERS COACHING RECORD (Rambis):
Regular Season: 24-13 (.658)
Playoffs: 3-5 (.375)
Total: 27-18 (.600)
MAGIC JOHNSON (1993-94)
When the 1993-94 Lakers faltered to the tune of a 27-37 record, coach Randy Pfund was fired by GM Jerry West.
"Obviously we weren't doing well, and management was concerned with the direction we were going," said Bill Bertka. "So Jerry called me and let me know I had to coach the games on the road, and we lost to Houston as Hakeem Olajuwon went off against us down the stretch, but we came back in the final minute and won in Dallas. When I got home, that's when they announced that Magic Johnson was taking over."
So Bertka split his two games before giving way to Johnson, whose short coaching stint began in style with five wins in six games. However, things quickly turned for the worse, the team losing 10 straight games to close the season at 33-49, just the fourth time to that point in Lakers history that the Purple and Gold would miss the playoffs.
LAKERS COACHING RECORD (Magic):
Regular Season: 5-11 (.313)
Total: 5-11 (.313)
Editor's Note: Jack McKinney suffered a bad fall on his bicycle after starting the 1979-80 season 10-4, as we detailed here: Jack McKinney, 1979-80.