On November 18, 1981 the Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 113-110 for their fifth win in a row and improved their record to 7-4.
The next day owner Jerry Buss fired head coach Paul Westhead.
In early 1979, Westhead replaced offensive guru Jack McKinney after the head coach was severely injured in in a bicycle-riding accident and led the Lakers to the 1979-80 NBA Championship. The next year, they were beaten in the first round of the playoffs, but had struggled all season to overcome the loss of Magic Johnson to a knee injury. He returned for the postseason, but it wasn’t the same Laker team.
So feeling his team needed a new style, Westhead came up with this brilliant piece of strategy: Take the greatest running team in the history of the NBA and turn it into a plodding, set-offense team. Even though they won seven of their first eleven, Johnson told the media in Utah that night that he hated the offensive switch, didn’t want to play for Westhead anymore and would like Dr. Buss to trade him.
There was no chance of Buss trading Johnson, and by 5 p.m. on the 19th of November, Westhead was gone and the Pat Riley Era began.
Think about the parallels to the firing of Mike Brown.
The Lakers’ new offense was plodding along with a 1-3 record when it went to — you guessed it, Utah — on Wednesday and proceeded to play another non-competitive game. The next day the team was back at practice and management was deciding Brown’s fate. By 9:30 Friday morning, Jerry Buss fired Mike Brown.
It definitely took Brown by surprise.
“It was somewhat of a shock, yes,” said Brown’s agent, Warren Legarie, Friday afternoon. “Mike called at 9:38 this morning to tell me. Obviously any coach in the NBA is judged by winning and losing, and Mike understands that. He just wishes that he had a chance to keep it going, because he really believes that once the team got healthy and everyone was comfortable with the offense, it would have been a great team.” You could almost hear Westhead’s agent saying the same thing 30 years ago.
Westhead and Brown may have eventually been proven right, but for many of the same reasons that cost Westhead his job, Brown suffered the same fate.
And like the Lakers of 1981-82, they won their first game under the new coaching staff. Those Lakers ended up destroying the San Antonio Spurs on a Friday night at The Forum, 136-116. This edition did the same on a Friday night at Staples Center, hammering Golden State 101-77. The remaining question is who parallels Pat Riley in this version of the story.
40-year NBA veteran Bernie Bickerstaff is the interim head coach, and he may leave the job undefeated. There are strong rumors that the Lakers are trying to lure Phil Jackson back to the sidelines. If not him, Mike D’Antoni and Brian Shaw are said to be next on the list, with Nate McMillian a possibility.
Kobe Bryant — who according to GM Mitch Kupchak will likely be consulted about the hiring — is squarely behind a Jackson return. Or a D’Antoni hiring. Shaw getting the job would suit him well, too.
“There’s obviously some pretty good coaches available out there,” Bryant said. “Phil would be a great option … he teaches basketball at a genius level. For him, I think it’s all about health. How he feels and how it would affect him doing the job. I think he’d be interested if his health is good.”
Kobe has talked many times about growing up in Italy while his dad, Joe, was playing there, and D’Antoni being his favorite player in the Italian League.
“Like I said, there are a lot of great coaches out there right now, and (D’Antoni) would be another guy I’d absolutely be in favor of, and what he brings to a team.”
He and Shaw were also very close while Laker teammates and that continued while Shaw was an assistant coach under Jackson. They were together for all five of Bryant’s championships. “Everybody knows my affinity for Brian Shaw. I’ve made that clear.”
When asked who he might prefer for his new leader, Dwight Howard smilingly declined to answer.
“I learned from everything that happened to me last year, so I’m staying away from that one,” said Howard, referring to his on-again, off-again battles with former Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy.
So, another Laker drama day is in the books, with the next act being the speculation and scrutiny that goes along with anything done by pro sports’ most glamorous team.
By the way, the 1981-82 season had all the makings of a disaster. Magic was booed mercilessly for the first few games after he forced the regime change. And no one thought the Lakers would recover to get anywhere near the NBA Finals. But it didn’t quite turn out the way most thought it would.
The Lakers re-instituted the fast-break offense under Riley and Bill Bertka, ran opponents into oblivion, and beat the Philadelphia 76ers and Julius Erving in six games to win their eighth championship in franchise history. They went to the Finals for four straight years, winning twice — finally beating Boston for a title in 1985, after eight consecutive Finals’ losses to the hated Celtics.
Laker management and fans are hoping for similar results this time around.