10.17.2008

Did Magic Get Westhead Fired?


1981-82 Boston Celtics

The above is the headline people wanted to see over all the LA stories this week, no matter what was contained in the copy. Wasn't this a case of an inmate-run asylum, of a petulant 22-year-old millionaire simply stamping his foot and getting his own way?

Nope.

Though a case can be made that Lakers' owner Jerry Buss has created a veritable Frankenstein's monster by giving Magic Johnson a huge 25-year contract, Magic Johnson, according to my information, did not get his coach fired on Thursday. He forced Buss' hand, sure, but not, from what I'm told, without reason.

The truth is that Paul Westhead, renowned Shakespearian scholar, was living the tragic hero role. Westhead's world was crashing down around him, and he didn't seem to know it.

The problem was his new offense. His team, with the exception of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, hated it. The complaints began following LA's second game of the season and never let up. Players chafed at Westhead's increasing, Hubie Brown- like control of each game.

The coach, whose college career at LaSalle had been marked by severe over- coaching complaints, was calling every halfcourt play from the sidelines. The running game fell apart completely. The only beneficiary of the offense was Kareem, who kept getting his 20-25 points a game. Magic, most effective in a transition game, took seven shots against Phoenix and nine against Utah.

The team was winning, but just barely. It can be argued that instead of defeating Houston, Portland, Phoenix, Indiana and Utah by a combined total of 11 points, the Lakers, with their front-line talent, might easily have won by 31. Or 51.

The tension was evident to everyone. Well, almost everyone. Westhead, like King Lear and Richard II, was oblivious to problems that challenged his existence. Says one observer, "It was obvious to everybody that had even a slight interest in the Lakers that Westhead had problems." And yet when Westhead was asked following the Utah game on Wednesday night whether the players were having difficulty adjusting to the new offense, he said "absolutely not."

Westhead and Magic clashed following the three-point triumph in Salt Lake City over the subject of Magic's alleged non-attention during a timeout with six seconds remaining. When Magic emerged from a five-minute closed-door meeting with Westhead, he blurted out a desire to be traded. "Do you know what you're saying?" inquired the ever-pragmatic Jamaal Wilkes. Magic knew. He was guilty of an impropriety, to be sure, but he was also voicing the complaint of all the regulars, with the exception of Kareem, who had been a steady defender of the coach.

The situation is not unique to the 1981-82 Los Angeles Lakers, and I can say from experience that there never is a smooth way out when player-coach problems erupt. Could the Lakers have banded together and talked to Westhead in a rational, civilzed manner, expressing their disenchantment with his offense and asking him to reconsider the policy? Sure, but for some reason that is seldom done. The Celtics could have done a similar thing with Tom Heinsohn circa 1975, but they didn't. Instead they aired private gripes and did some complaining on the side to Red. Meanwhile, they played pretty well and came back in 1976 to win another championship. Believe me, it was not a fun period in Celtics' history. It's equally obvious that this is not a yuck- it-up time in Laker history.

Dumping Westhead won't solve LA's internal problems. Magic is clearly not the same person he was two years ago. How could he be? He's been anointed by his owner. Kareem, Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper don't get high marks for their behavior, either, since they did very little to fit Magic into their scheme of things last season following his return.

You might argue that Westhead's downfall began on Feb. 27, when Magic was given a five-minute standing ovation during the intros and the other players looked at each other as if to say, "Hey, what about us?" You might also say that Buss turned the hourglass over on his coach when Magic airballed that final shot against Houston on April 5. King Lear, er, Westhead, took over from there, unwittingly knitting his own noose with this despised offense. What I'm suggesting is that the villainy is spread throughout the Laker organization, starting at the top.

Just be thankful that flamboyant Jerry Buss and his mercurial superstar player are Out There while stolid Harry Mangurian and his countrified superstar are Right Here. If there is one thing I'm completely sure of, it's that all of us who care about basketball in Boston lucked out with a pair of aces from the deck when we were dealt Harry and Larry.

But I can't say that Magic fired this coach. Next time, maybe. That 25- year contract will haunt Los Angeles forever.

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