Firing of Knicks' Jackson may be followed by more

December 11, 1990|By Alan Goldstein

Stu Jackson of the New York Knicks was the first coaching casualty of the 1990-91 NBA season, but others could follow, with the Indiana Pacers' Dick Versace, the Atlanta Hawks' Bob Weiss and the Denver Nuggets' Paul Westhead believed to be on shaky ground.

Jackson's demise seemed inevitable. After replacing University of Kentucky-bound Rick Pitino in 1989, he was viewed as only a stopgap until Knicks general manager Al Bianchi could persuade former Phoenix Suns sidekick John MacLeod to accept the job.

MacLeod, who was fired by the Dallas Mavericks in December 1989, turned down Bianchi's first offer a year ago, claiming he did not want to uproot his family.

Jackson bought time when the Knicks upset the Boston Celtics in last season's playoffs, but when they stumbled out of the gate this fall and he failed to install an effective half-court game, Bianchi was ready to act.

He said Jackson, 34, did not place enough faith in his assistant coaches or seek the counsel of Bianchi's 30 years of NBA experience. "I told Stu, the bottom line is do it your way, but if it doesn't work, it's your job."

In Jackson's defense, supporters say he lacked the personnel to play a half-court game, and that Bianchi also vetoed suggested deals for point guard Kenny Smith and small forward Rodney McCray.

The players, particularly guard Gerald Wilkins, who had lost his starting job, seemed relieved by the change. Said Wilkins: "We could tell right away that MacLeod is a veteran coach. Just the way he speaks, you know when to move and when to stop." The

Knicks then lost three straight under MacLeod.


In Atlanta, Weiss inherited a veteran Hawks team in decline, a sign that Mike Fratello clearly saw before he "retired" after last season in favor of a television analyst's job. He suggested the players he was kissing goodbye had a "low basketball IQ."

Aging center Moses Malone, slow to adopt to new systems, has cost more than one coach his job. And free-wheeling Dominique Wilkins is trying to play the unfamiliar role of team player.

Before the Hawks won consecutive road games in San Antonio and Houston last week, disenchanted Atlanta fans had taken to wearing bags over their heads.

"I don't blame the fans," said Hawks general manager Pete Babcock. "We just weren't playing well. This past summer, we made a conscious decision to keep the team nucleus because we liked the talent base.

"We understand that we need to be patient making the transition to a new coach because it's diametrically opposed to what was done here before, and it's foreign to our players."

Babcock inferred that if the team does not make a dramatic turnaround by January, he is more apt to make player changes rather than dismissing Weiss, who posted a 59-105 record in two seasons as coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

"If things still aren't working by the end of December," said Babcock, "we'll have to make some decisions on changing direction."

It is believed that Wilkins, 30, while he still has substantial trade value, will be used as the prime bait.

In Denver, Westhead also has been under heavy fire. His Nuggets play a crowd-pleasing brand of racehorse basketball. Unfortunately, it has produced only negative results, with the Nuggets' opponents threatening to break every offensive mark in the NBA record book.

This is the same Shakespeare-spouting Westhead who lost his job with the Los Angeles Lakers when team leader Magic Johnson charged him with being too conservative.

Phoenix assistant coach Paul Westphal said he is not impressed by Westhead's strategy of trying to win a marathon shootout.

"Right now, they look like an expansion team," Westphal said. "They got rid of two All-Stars -- Alex English and Fat Lever."

L Westhead apparently is not swayed by the mounting criticism.

"I'm not about traditional basketball," said Westhead, who previously had made Loyola Marymount the nation's highest-scoring college team.

"My guys are still learning this system. The very thing we're trying to do is what can give this team an incredible sense of dignity."

Meanwhile, in Indiana, Versace is not getting any votes of confidence from team president Danny Walsh as the disappointing Pacers continue to hover below .500 and the players bicker among themselves.

Rumors persist that Walsh is prepared to hire ousted Nuggets coach Doug Moe, a longtime buddy from Denver and the old American Basketball Association.

After losing to the Bullets two weeks ago, playmaker Vern Fleming accused his teammates of playing selfish, one-on-one basketball. High-scoring Reggie Miller was fingered as the chief culprit.

Versace shrugs off the rumors of his demise. "I always win out in the end," he said. "I'm like a cat you drop off the roof upside down and he lands on his feet. I always have and always will."

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