Paul Westhead's unpopularity with his players -- specifically Magic Johnson -- has cost him his job as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite the team's five-game winning streak and the fact that he led the Lakers to the NBA championship two seasons ago, Westhead was relieved of his duties yesterday after a meeting with the team's owner, Jerry Buss.
Pat Riley, the Lakers' radio broadcaster two years ago until elevated to assistant coach by Westhead, and former coach Jerry West, will be the replacements.
"I feel Pat Riley is very capable of of coaching the team, but I feel that we need a new offensive coach," Buss said. "I asked Jerry if he would take that job and, because of his relationship with Pat, I feel the two of them can coach the team together with Jerry in charge of the offense in particular."
West, who played 14 years with the Lakers and was selected to the All-Star Game 13 times, coached the team for three years before resigning because, he said, he was tired of life on the road. His teams were 145-101.
"As I see it, my role is as an assistant coach," he said. "I'm going to work for Pat. This will not be a permanent situation for me. I will feel much more comfortable with Pat taking over.
"I don't think the changes will be very major," West continued. "I will be here until Pat can get along by himself. Nobody is happy about this situation."
One person who obviously is happy is Johnson, who triggered the change by criticizing Westhead after the Lakers' 113-100 victory Wednesday night at Salt Lake City.
"We don't see eye to eye on a lot of things," Johnson said. "I'm not having any fun and it's nothing to do with my teammates. I want to leave. I want to be traded. I just can't deal with this no more. I'm going in and ask him (Buss) to deal me."
Buss, who gave Johnson an unprecedented $1 million a year contract covering 25 years last summer, expressed shock at Johnson's statement, but insisted later that it had nothing to do with the decision to replace Westhead.
"Obviously it was a difficult decision for us," the flamboyant owner said at a press conference. "There is no way to criticize anybody. I was disappointed in not seeing an exciting team once again. This started after the first or second game."
"This almost happened a week ago," a team spokesman told The Washington Post before the press conference. "Wins and losses had nothing to do with it. It's just that nobody could get along with him.
"The players are unhappy with the new offense and he wouldn't listen to any advice. He had problems dealing with (General Manager) Bill Sharman and Jerry West. It was just a matter of time."
After directing the Lakers to the title, Westhead was given a four-year contract worth $1 million. Buss said he would live up to the terms and also indicated that Westhead might have a job in the various Buss enterprises.
"This decision started materializing after the first game (a double-overtime loss at home to Houston on national televison) and reached this proportion somewhere in the last few days," Buss said. "The final decision was reached this morning."
Westhead's appointment as head coach two years ago was controversial. He was in a precarious position as coach of La Salle when his old coach and friend Jack McKinney asked him to come to Los Angeles as his assistant. When McKinney suffered a serious head injury after falling off a bicycle, Westhead was promoted Nov. 9, 1979. Once the Lakers reached the NBA final, Buss decided to keep Westhead and let McKinney go.
Last season, the Lakers finished second in the Pacific Division with a 54-28 record and were upset by Houston, 2-1, in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Westhead decided to revamp his offense and install a more controlled set. This, obviously, has restricted the free-wheeling Johnson, who is not one of the team's most disciplined players.
The outspoken 22-year-old guard is averaging 17.4 points and a league-leading 10.3 assists per game and, now, apparently will withdraw his request to be traded. That leaves unanswered the question: What team would pick up his $25 million contract?