The Flip of a Coin

Kurt —  May 25, 2007

This story yesterday from True Hoop — how Portland winning a coin flip gave them the top pick this year, had it gone the other way it would have gone to Minnesota and dramatically changed Kevin Garnett’s future — reminded me how the flip of a coin dramatically changed the course of the Lakers franchise.

The story starts in 1976, when tall ships were gathering in New York and a young Romanian girl named Nadia Comaneci was the talk of the sports world. With the Lakers, Gail Goodrich, a key part of the 71-72 championship team, was pissed about what team owner Jack Kent Cooke was offering him for future salary. Goodrich, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Staples now, was sulking his way through the rest of the season.

At the end of it, Cooke finagled a deal with the New Orleans Jazz (back when that team name made sense) — Goodrich could sign with the Jazz in exchange for two future first round picks and a second rounder. Cooke and the Lakers got absolutely killed by fans and the media for that deal — I can’t imagine the heat intensified by talk radio and the Internet today. It could have cost someone his or her job.

(By the way, the Jazz had a great idea, pairing “Pistol” Pete Maravich with Goodrich, it worked for a while. If injuries had not undone Gail that could have been an all-time backcourt for a few years. For those of you younger fans not familiar with Maravich, find some old clips, he may have been the most entertaining player in the history of the NBA. )

Fast-forward two years, to the 1978-79 season. The Lakers were a solid playoff team, picking up 47 wins with a roster that included Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and personal favorite Adrian Dantley. The Jazz were terrible, earning just 29 wins and finishing with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Back then the worst team in the Western Conference was the 31-win Chicago Bulls (ah, remember that pre-Jordan the Bulls were not a great franchise).

But in 1979 teams didn’t just pick in order of worst record, nor was there a lottery. Instead, the teams with the worst records in their conference had a coin flip to determine which one got the first pick.

With the Jazz pick from the Goodrich trade, it came down the Lakers and the Bulls — and the coin toss came up in LA’s favor.

“Chick let up a yell that could have been heard in downtown Los Angeles.”

The Bulls then offered the 2nd pick plus Reggie Theus for the opportunity to draft Johnson. The Lakers declined. It was a good thing because if the Bulls had won the toss or the Lakers had traded the pick…

“If that coin had come up heads I probably would have headed back to Michigan State for another year.”
-Magic Johnson

The Lakers were also a team in transition. Jack Kent Cooke was in the midst of selling the team to then real estate tycoon, Dr. Jerry Buss.

The transaction to sell the team was about to be consummated and the recommendation came down that Buss draft Moncrief.

“No way,” said Buss. “Magic’s the guy, or the deal’s off.”

With the first pick in the draft, the Lakers took Earvin “Magic” Johnson out of Michigan State. Five championships and a decade of the most exciting and well-played basketball the world has seen followed.

With the second pick, the Bulls took David Greenwood out of UCLA. By the way, there was a sentiment among some fans and media that the Lakers should pass on Magic to take Sidney Moncrief out of Arkansas. What are you supposed to do with a 6’9” point guard with flash but no jump shot when you have Norm Nixon? Draft Moncrief, a 6’4” off guard who could play both ends of the floor.

Moncrief would eventually be drafted by the Bucks and fourth year head coach Don Nelson and go on to have a distinguished NBA career. Greenwood would not be so lucky, having a career that could best be described as solid.

But how different would the Lakers have been if the coin had landed the other way and the Lakers ended up with the second pick in 1979?

We may one day look back and wonder how different things would have been had Minnesota won this coin toss. The story has already begun to take on a similar arc, but sister luck can be a fickle gal.

Some quotes and facts from The Show and Magic Johnson, My Life
Also, Gatinho contributed considerably to this post.