The Lakers Have Been Through This Coaching Drama Before (31 Years Ago)

Two games later, it all blows up. Magic Johnson, already clashing with Westhead's restrictive style, snaps after the coach yells at him during a late timeout. The Lakers win, but Magic trudges to the locker room and shocks the sports world by publicly requesting to be traded.

Buss, of course, would sooner trade his own limb than Magic—and he's already decided to axe Westhead. Knowing, unfortunately, that Magic will get the heat for this, Buss fires Westhead the next day.

Melodrama ensues. Magic is immediately vilified, because to the public it appears he, Magic Johnson—a player—has essentially fired his own coach. It's unheard of and threatening. Sports aren't supposed to work like this.

Melodrama ensues. Magic is immediately vilified, because to the public it appears he's essentially fired his own coach. Sports aren't supposed to work like this.

But before people can even assimilate that, before the season-long cascade of boos are directed at Magic, even by his own fans, before Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, the dean of American sportswriters, calls Buss "an unfit owner," before the avalanche of letters to the editor denouncing Magic as a spoiled, temper tantrum-throwing egomaniac are printed ... the Lakers have to, you know, pick a new coach.

Hastily, Buss debates his options with Sharman and West. They want Westhead's assistant, Pat Riley, who had never coached at any level before two years ago. Buss is unsure, worried that Riley would be in over his head. In fact, Buss wants West to coach the Lakers, and says that if he does, Riley could stay on as his assistant co-coach, or something, and West can slowly turn the reins over to Riley. Or not. The details are fuzzy for everyone. West kind of agrees, but leaves that meeting thinking that Riley is the head coach, and West will be the sort-of assistant. So West offers the job to Riley, who accepts ... and is flabbergasted hours later at the press conference as Buss announces Jerry West as the Lakers' coach. West strides to the podium, and immediately makes his own announcement: Riley is actually the coach, and he, Jerry West, will be working for Riley. Now it is Buss's turn to be flabbergasted. Confusion reigns. As the press conference breaks up, writers and TV reporters literally don't know who the coach is.

Turns out it's Riley. And suddenly the Lakers play faster, easier, and rip off 17 wins in the next 20 games. Showtime is back, and the L.A. fastbreaks all the way to the NBA championship, the first of four titles that the previously unknown Riley will win in the next seven years, on his way to becoming a basketball legend.

Cut to now.

As soon as Brown was fired on November 9th, rumors abounded that the Zen Master, Coach Phil Jackson, he of the triangle offense and 11 NBA titles (including the five he won with Kobe Bryant during his previous two stints as Lakers coach), would return as coach for a third and final run with the purple and gold.

In fact, Jackson left a Saturday interview with Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak under the impression he'd been offered the job and had until Monday to decide for sure.

Apparently not. Because Sunday at midnight Jackson was roused by a Kupchak phone call saying, actually, the Lakers have decided to hire someone else, fast-break guru Mike D'Antoni, as the coach.

Jackson is floored. His agent says the whole mess "is indicative of the shabby way that organization is being run."

Again ... sound familiar?

So now, what will happen? Could the 1981 parallels continue and D'Antoni ride a wave of Nash-led fast break passes to Kobe and pick-and-rolls with Howard, all the way to the title, like Riley did with Magic and Kareem Abdul Jabbar? This being L.A., the land that loves a good sequel, it's hard to bet against Showtime II.

Presented by

Kennedy Cosgrove is a former sportswriter for The Los Angeles Times who has also covered UCLA basketball for Scout.com.

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