When you hear a Lakers guard and center clash over the style of play the team should play, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal come to mind. But that was just a remake of an original from 1981. It starred Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Paul Westhead as the three main protagonists. If you think Ben Simmons is being a drama queen, imagine the time Magic would have if Twitter was around back in the early 80s.
“If you don’t keep him, I’ll go wherever he’s coaching.”
Paul Westhead’s journey to the Lakers head coaching job is a wild one. Jack McKinney hired him as an assistant before the ’79/’80 season, and then a terrible bicycle accident changed everything. The Lakers were 10-4 when McKinney and Westhead agreed to play a game of tennis. While riding his bike to the match, McKinney fell and hit his head, sustaining a serious injury.
Westhead took over as interim coach and led a rookie Magic and superstar Kareem to the title in the 1980 Finals. Not bad for a guy who just started coaching at any level in the NBA. When Kareem twisted his ankle, Westhead made the historic decision to play Magic at the center position, leading to one of the greatest Finals performances ever – 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists. Johnson fell in love with his new coach and made sure Jerry Buss knew about it.
“If you don’t keep him, I’ll go wherever he’s coaching.”Magic Johnson, Philadelphia Inquirer
Buss quickly signed Westhead to a three-year deal, and everything was roses in LA. As fate would have it, Westhead would suffer the same fate as the man he inherited – he was replaced with the assistant coach he brought in to coach for the first time. You might have heard of Patrick James Riley.
Westhead’s firing caused a lot of drama because of poor timing if we are to believe Jerry Buss. Magic was so frustrated with the style of play, a slow pace centered around iso plays for Kareem, he asked for a trade. (funny how many times iconic Lakers actually requested to be traded). To give you some context – Johnson was recovering from a cartilage tear in ’80/’81. He played only 37 games and wasn’t 100% in the playoffs.
“As I saw it, Magic’s major problem was that he was struggling to get by defenders who were easy marks before, and now, out of frustration, he was finding fault with the system.”Paul Westhead, The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball
The relationship fractured in Salt Lake City. After Magic intentionally ignored Westhead’s defensive instructions following a time out, the coach reprimanded him privately and in public. That night, Johnson told a reporter he wanted out, explaining he wasn’t “having any fun.” The following day, Jerry Buss fired Paul Westhead, and Pat Riley was the head coach. It took a year to go from “If you don’t keep him, I’ll go wherever he’s coaching” to “it’s me or him.”
After the fact, Buss tried to convince everyone he had decided to fire Westhead days before Magic’s comment and that it was all a big coincidence. No one really believed him, but it didn’t matter. Pat Riley took over, and soon, Magic’s big smile was back in the Forum. “It’s show time again.”