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Paul Westhead vs. Magic Johnson: The battle that foretold the future of modern sports | Mike Sielski

If you think the recent power plays by Carson Wentz, James Harden, and others are new, think again. Magic pulled one off 40 years ago, and it cost Westhead his job.

Magic Johnson (left) and Paul Westhead led the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1980 NBA championship. Then the modern power dynamics of pro sports began to play out.
Magic Johnson (left) and Paul Westhead led the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1980 NBA championship. Then the modern power dynamics of pro sports began to play out.Read moreMARTY LEDERHANDLER / AP

Paul Westhead is 82 years old and had knee surgery not long ago, a procedure that kept him hospitalized for a day or two until he could prove to his doctors that his legs were strong enough to keep him steady on his feet. So the power plays and free-agent machinations that lately have occupied the attention of so many who follow the NBA and NFL have been only at the back of his mind, but he can still see the connection between them and him.

From James Harden to Carson Wentz, from Russell Wilson to Deshaun Watson, athletes are demanding trades, dictating terms, determining where they want to play and whom they want to play for. It seems a fresh, unprecedented trend. It isn’t. If you think this push toward player empowerment started with LeBron James building that Miami super-team in 2010, with his hand-picking his head coaches and using his relationships and influence to shape his teams’ rosters since, take a step back and take in the panorama. Westhead can clue you in to the movement’s long history and, especially, its true origins, to his conflict 40 years ago with the man who was becoming basketball’s biggest star.

Long before James bounced from the Heat back to the Cavaliers to the Lakers, before Wentz soured on the Eagles or Harden forced the Rockets to trade him, there was Westhead vs. Magic Johnson. There was a battle that began less than a year after Westhead coached the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship over the Sixers, that signified how the power dynamic between pro coaches and players was shifting. There was Westhead – out of West Philadelphia, having coached high school ball at Cheltenham and college ball at La Salle – failing to see that Lakers owner Jerry Buss would regard Johnson as the more valuable asset, that a coach’s traditional authority couldn’t compare to an athlete’s ability to draw fans and win games.

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“I learned too late. I was fired,” Westhead said in a phone interview. “Coming from La Salle, I was a child. I took over and was able to sustain myself because I knew basketball. I’d been the head coach at La Salle for nine years. I knew how it went. I knew who to play. I knew who the better players were. I knew what to do in a timeout. And when you have very good players, it works. But what I didn’t know was the whole player/owner/agent triangle. I was totally naive. Did I figure it out? No.”

Westhead wrote a memoir, The Speed Game, that was published last year and that reads as fast as his teams played. He fascinated the country with Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble, and Loyola-Marymount’s breakneck basketball in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007. One of his players, Spencer Haywood, hired a hitman to have him killed. But in The Speed Game, all those storylines are secondary to the two years that Westhead spent as Johnson’s coach, his ally, and then his foil.

Westhead joined the Lakers as an assistant to his mentor Jack McKinney. After McKinney suffered a serious head injury from a bicycle crash and could no longer coach, Westhead took over the team early in the 1979-80 season. His decision, once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar badly sprained his ankle, to start Johnson at center in Game 6 of the ’80 Finals not only led to the remarkable performance that defined Johnson’s career – 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists in a 123-107 Lakers victory at the Spectrum – but also earned him Johnson’s trust and affection. At least at first. During the Lakers’ championship parade, with Westhead’s future as head coach still uncertain, Johnson approached Buss and said, “If you don’t keep him, I’ll go wherever he’s coaching.” Buss and Westhead agreed on a three-year contract.

Buss’s and Johnson’s commitment to Westhead, though, meant nothing next to Buss’s commitment to Johnson. A cartilage tear in his left knee limited Johnson to 37 games the following season, and the Lakers lost in the playoffs’ first round to the Houston Rockets when he missed a last-second shot that could have won the series. Nevertheless, Buss signed him to a contract that, at the time, seemed absurd: $25 million for 25 years. The deal intensified a rivalry between Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar over who would be the alpha Laker, the two marking their territory based on who got the ball in crunch time and where each of them sat on the team plane.

Westhead already had aligned himself with Abdul-Jabbar, emphasizing him more in the offense, viewing him as the central figure on the Lakers, seeing Johnson labor to return to full strength and speed after his knee injury. “He was unwilling to cooperate with the program unless it was on his terms,” Westhead writes. “As I saw it, Magic’s major problem was that he was struggling to get by defenders who were easy marks before, and now, out of frustration, he was finding fault with the system.”

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But Buss, by signing that check, had shown everyone whom he regarded as the team’s central figure – and where Westhead really ranked in the pecking order. One night, against the Jazz in Salt Lake City, Johnson ignored Westhead’s defensive instructions during a timeout. Westhead reprimanded him, both during the game and privately afterward. Johnson told a reporter that he wanted the Lakers to trade him.

“Magic was so accustomed to success and everything going his way that he could not accept valid criticism,” Westhead writes, in a line that could easily apply to the forces that led to Wentz’s departure from the Eagles. Except Buss wasn’t about to trade Johnson. Hours after the Lakers landed in Los Angeles, Buss and general manager Bill Sharman fired Westhead. The team had won five straight games, but the coach had lost the star.

“I had that expectation, when that kind of conflict cropped up, that management would say, ‘Magic, we understand you’re going through some hard times now, but you need to respond to your coach going forward because he’s our coach,’” Westhead said. “That clearly didn’t happen. I think that would be a warning sign that more of this did come.”

The word warning is a tad strong, given that the Lakers won four more championships over the next seven years with Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, with Pat Riley having replaced Westhead, with Showtime taking over Hollywood. Magic Johnson got the money and delivered the glory, got everything he wanted, got what the best and highest-paid professional athletes have been seeking ever since. Now more than ever, they’re equipped to get it for themselves, sometimes at the cost of a coach or general manager’s job. That’s the game now. That became the game then, as Paul Westhead learned too late. Call them selfish. Call them empowered. Just don’t call what they’re doing new.