The beginning of the Indiana Pacers NBA history was a far cry from their ABA dynasty days. Financial struggles contributed to many poor personnel decisions which led to the team losing a lot in those dark days as they barely survived the merger between the two leagues. Ironically, the Pacers first NBA season with any amount of success led to perhaps the worst trade in team history and may have prevented the franchise’s NBA accomplishments dwarfing those three ABA championships.
But that one season of modest success might not have happened in the first place without a bicycle accident.
In the 1980-81 season, Jack McKinney led the Pacers to the NBA playoffs for the first time in his first season as coach of the team after taking over for the retiring Bobby “Slick” Leonard. The previous season McKinney was with the Los Angeles Lakers, who won the title in Magic Johnson’s rookie season. So why would the Lakers get rid of their head coach after winning a championship?
If you watched the first season of HBO’s Winning Time, a dramatized version of the Lakers of that era, you know the answer. Early on in the season with the team at 10-4 on a rare day off, McKinney was riding his son’s bicycle to go play tennis because his family was down to only one car after a crash in Portland. The brakes failed on the bike and the accident that followed was nearly fatal for the coach. It would take McKinney weeks to recover as he was in and out of a coma, and his close friend and assistant coach Paul Westhead stepped into his place.
“The first three or four weeks, I was clearly taking care of the plants while the owner was on vacation,” Westhead told Sports Illustrated in May 1980. The interim coach led the Lakers to a 51-18 record the rest of the regular season as the Lakers took a cautious approach with McKinney’s health with the success of the team. After winning the NBA Finals, Westhead was given the head coaching job outright.
“Shoot, I’d have taken it too,” McKinney said in 2006 according to the LA Times. “But at the time, that hurt.”
So in the off-season with McKinney recovered from his traumatic head injury, he headed to Indianapolis to become the Pacers head coach. He was hired at the behest of a guilt-ravaged Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner, according to Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime, and he was the league’s Coach of the Year while leading Indiana to the postseason. But McKinney’s initial success was soon cut down when starting center James Edwards was lost in free agency to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In order to keep pushing for the postseason, McKinney traded a first-round pick in the 1984 draft for Tom Owens, a journeyman center on the tail end of his career, to fill the void that Edwards left.
“We have lost the services of James Edwards and I’m looking forward to Tom being our starting center,” McKinney said at the time according to Indy Star. “We want to encourage him to reach back and get a few of the years (he had) when I was coaching him (in Portland) and he was scoring 16 to 18 points a game.”
Owens only played one season for the Pacers averaging 10.5 points per game and the team missed the playoffs with a 35-47 record. In that same off-season, they had drafted a better replacement for Edwards at center in Herb Williams.
Indiana then traded Owens to the Detroit Pistons for a second-round pick in the 1984 draft and won a combined 46 games over the next two seasons.
The Pacers finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference in the 1983-84 season and McKinney was fired. That draft pick they traded away for a short-term fix ended up being the second overall selection in a loaded draft.
The 1984 NBA Draft is widely considered one of the best ever and ended up having five Hall of Famers. Hakeem Olajuwon went first overall to the Houston Rockets. The Portland Trail Blazers infamously took Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan fell to third with the Chicago Bulls.
We’ll never know if the Pacers would have made the same mistake as the Blazers or if they would have been wise enough to take the guy that ended up being arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, but Indiana had just taken a center the previous draft in Steve Stipanovich and still had Williams. So, it seems like Jordan would have been the pick if they had it. It’s certainly no guarantee that Jordan would have won six championships in Indiana like he did in Chicago. Maybe he wins more. Maybe less or even none. But he probably isn’t the reason the Pacers lose in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.
While the Pacers have these what ifs to ponder all because of a bike accident and the butterfly effect that followed, it changed the lives of those in the Lakers organization at the time as well. McKinney, who wasn’t even the Lakers first choice to fill their coaching vacancy, installed the system remembered forever as “Showtime” and Lakers guard Norm Nixon believes he should get more credit for that.
“I have no doubt that he would be,” Nixon told Pearlman when asked if not for the accident would McKinney be universally acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches in the history. “No doubt whatsoever.”
Pat Riley at the time of the accident was working on the Lakers broadcast team and Westhead brought him on as assistant coach. Riley ended up taking the job from Westhead a couple years later and winning four titles of his own with the Lakers.
“[McKinney] was a great coach,” Riley said in 2006 to the LA Times. “We used his system for three or four years after he left. If he hadn’t had the accident, he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ‘80s.”
Riley, of course, was the Knicks head coach during the first three 1990s playoff series featuring the Knicks and Pacers and eventually ended up as the Miami Heat’s team president and put together the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh that knocked the Pacers out of the playoffs three straight seasons including twice in the conference finals. It’s not an unfair question to ask whether Riley gets all of those opportunities without McKinney and thus whether that Heat team is able to torment the Pacers like it did.
“He always says, ‘This is the guy who made my career possible,’” McKinney told Pearlman of what Riley says of him. “’This is the guy.’”
Riley wasn’t overly confident about staying in the coaching ranks permanently at the time as he needed a promise from Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn that he would still have a job whenever McKinney came back before he took the assistant gig.
“I wanted to make sure I had a job,” Riley told the LA Times. “… I didn’t even plan on being an assistant coach. Before I knew it, I was coach. And the rest is history.”
For the Pacers, this is just one of many cruel turns of happenstance they’ve suffered by the hands of the basketball gods and an additional layer to an entry in a long list of what ifs.