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Remembering Jack McKinney

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Jack McKinney coached the Pacers to their first winning season in the NBA, but also traded away a future pick they could have used to draft Michael Jordan.

McKinney, who died on Tuesday at age 83, replaced Bobby "Slick" Leonard in 1980 after Leonard had completed 12 seasons as the head coach. Leonard, who had led the Pacers to three championships in the American Basketball Association in the early 1970s, struggled through five consecutive losing seasons before being released by first-year owner Sam Nassi at the end of the 1979-80 season.

McKinney came to the Pacers as both an accomplished coach and sympathetic figure. A protégé of Jack Ramsay, who would coach the Pacers later in the 1980s, he had been a successful head coach at St. Joseph's College and then worked as an assistant NBA coach in Milwaukee and Portland.

His big break arrived when the Lakers hired him to become their head coach for the 1979-80 season. He inherited a dominant center in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a rookie point guard in Magic Johnson. But after directing them to a 9-4 start, he suffered severe head injuries in a bicycle accident and was replaced by his assistant Paul Westhead.

The Lakers went on to win 60 games and the NBA championship that season, and the job was given to Westhead.

Although embittered by that experience, the 44-year-old McKinney quickly got back into the NBA. He rejected interest from Detroit and the expansion Dallas franchise to become the Pacers' head coach on June 2, 1980. He led them to their first winning record (44-38) and playoff appearance in the NBA in his first season. Although they lost both games to Philadelphia in the best-of-three first-round series, the fans were so happy with the reversal of fortune after five consecutive losing seasons that many of them gave the players a standing ovation as they left the court after the Game 2 loss at Market Square Arena.

McKinney was selected the NBA's Coach of the Year for that season, surpassing San Antonio's Stan Albeck in the voting, 27-25. His next two teams dropped to 35 and 20 wins, however, as Nassi liquidated the roster to curb financial losses. McKinney's team improved to 26 wins during the first year of ownership for Mel and Herb Simon, but he was replaced after that season by George Irvine.

Martinsville native and Purdue grad Jerry Sichting, who played all four seasons for McKinney, once said he didn't believe McKinney every fully recovered from the head injuries suffered in the bicycle accident.

"He was great in how he treated people and his knowledge of the game, but he was forgetful with names and stuff like that," Sichting said. "You couldn't do anything but feel sorry for him when those things came up. He also had trouble concentrating when it got really loud in the arena. I...learned a lot from him, but there's no question that bicycle wreck had an impact on him."

Dick Vertlieb, who had been hired as the Pacers' general manager when McKinney was brought in to coach, was let go after the 1980-81 season. That left McKinney in charge of the basketball operations that summer, and he made a fateful trade that had monstrous ramifications three years later.

Pacers center James Edwards signed an offer sheet from Cleveland for four years and $3.2 million in June of '81. Nassi, discouraged by the Pacers' poor attendance throughout their playoff season, was either unable or unwilling to match it, so McKinney replaced Edwards by trading the franchise's 1984 first-round pick to Portland for journeyman center Tom Owens.
Irvine, who McKinney had hired as an assistant coach, once said McKinney's plan was to try to gather enough talent to make the playoffs again the following season and parlay that into a head coaching position with a better-funded franchise.

It didn't work out. Owens averaged 10.5 points and five rebounds for the Pacers in 1981-82, then was traded to Detroit for a second-round draft pick. As for the pick the Pacers sent to Portland to acquire Owens, it became the second overall selection in the 1984 draft. The Blazers used it to select Sam Bowie, passing on Jordan, who went third to Chicago.

McKinney did indirectly contribute to the Pacers' future success, however. He hired Irvine, who, when he became head coach, hired Donnie Walsh as an assistant. Walsh became the Pacers' general manager in 1986 and constructed teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals five times in a seven-year period beginning in 1994, culminating in an NBA Finals appearance in 2000.


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