He might have proved to be one of the winningest coaches in Lakers history. Unfortunately, he wasn't on the job long enough to find out.
The phrase "it might have been" certainly applies to McKinney, who had all the pieces in place for a long and successful tenure on the bench before a tragic bike accident brought a sudden end to his days as the Lakers' coach.
After 22 years coaching high school and college, McKinney was hired to coach the Lakers on July 30, 1979. It was his first head coaching job in the NBA, and it happened to be the most coveted gig in the league. He had a championship-caliber team led by superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and rookie sensation Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He had Jim Chones, whom McKinney had fought to acquire; Michael Cooper, who had impressed his coach with his summer league play; and talented veterans such as playmaker Norm Nixon and slick forward Jamaal Wilkes. The talent and chemistry seemed to mesh and the Lakers won nine of their first 13 games. Then, on Nov. 8, it happened.
It was an off day for the Lakers, so McKinney and his assistant coach Paul Westhead set up a tennis date. His wife had the car, however, so the 6-foot-2, 190-pound coach took his son's bike and began pedaling through Palos Verdes. As he came to the bottom of a hill, he tried to brake gently but the bike came to an abrupt stop, sending McKinney flying over the handlebars and crashing headfirst to the pavement.
McKinney, unconscious, was taken by ambulance to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance and placed in intensive care. He was later diagnosed as suffering severe head injuries, a facial fracture and a fractured elbow. Three weeks later, McKinney had improved enough to go home, but he was still in pain, his mental capacities were diminished and his reflexes were slow.
Westhead, suddenly thrust into the coach's role, stuck with McKinney's system until his best friend felt able to resume command. There was one small problem: owner Jerry Buss liked how the team was playing under Westhead and had no intention of upsetting the applecart. So McKinney began to scout, the Lakers would go on to win the championship -- their second in Los Angeles -- and the writing was on the wall. He was fired May 13 and went into seclusion for months.
The next season McKinney won the coach of the year award with Indiana, leading the Pacers to the playoffs for the first time since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.