Skip to main content

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Details The Issues Between Magic Johnson And Paul Westhead: "When You Try To Reign In A 22-Year-Old Elite Athlete From Pushing Himself To Be His Best, You’re Going To Get Conflict."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Details The Issues Between Magic Johnson And Paul Westhead: "When You Try To Reign In A 22-Year-Old Elite Athlete From Pushing Himself To Be His Best, You’re Going To Get Conflict."

The 1979-80 season was the birth of the Showtime Lakers but things got off to a rough start for the team. Their coach Jack McKinney suffered a serious accident early on during the season and his assistant Paul Westhead had to take over. Despite the switch, the team flourished which led to Westhead getting the job and they went on to win the title.

The following season, however, the Lakers would get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Houston Rockets and tensions were mounting behind the scenes between Magic Johnson and Westhead. The team had enjoyed all this success with McKinney's up-tempo offense which benefitted Johnson, but Westhead wanted a more methodical way of going about things which inevitably led to conflict. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on his substack, recounted how things soured between the two which eventually led to Westhead being fired.

via Substack:

"After that victorious Final, both Magic and Paul were at career highs and confident of their skills."

"Here was the problem: The Lakers were used to outrunning teams and Magic was a key part of that strategy because he had an uncanny intuitiveness about when to drive and when to pass. He was the first part of our offense and I was the second part in the post. We were less choreographed and more like jazz, anticipating each other’s moves, reading the body movement, reacting to the notes the other was playing."

"Paul had a more methodical, tactical approach. He added more set plays that stifled Magic’s spontaneity and killed our fast-break advantage. Magic couldn’t be Magic. When you try to reign in a 22-year-old elite athlete from pushing himself to be his best, you’re going to get conflict."

As is often the case, when a star player and the coach don't get along, it is the latter who ends up getting the boot. Westhead's departure led to Pat Riley getting the job and we all know what happened after that. The Lakers under Riley would make it to the Finals in 7 of his first 8 seasons and they won 4 titles in the process to establish themselves as one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

In this piece, Kareem also recounted how after the 1980 Finals, Magic tried to give him the Finals MVP award, but he refused to accept it. The two, despite their polar opposite personalities and egos, managed to stay together, and the Lakers benefitted greatly from it.