Did a Mob Hit Really Prevent Jerry Tarkanian From Coaching the Lakers?

A recent episode of "Winning Time" revisits the murder of Vic Weiss

UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian during a game in 1984.
UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian during a game in 1984.
Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima

“The Best Is Yet to Come” — the third episode of HBO’s Winning Time, which aired on Sunday night — ends on a shocking note. After meeting with Jerry Buss and negotiating a deal that would bring University of Nevada, Las Vegas head coach Jerry Tarkanian onboard to coach the Lakers, Tarkanian’s close friend and business manager Vic Weiss is found dead in the trunk of his car, Buss’s business card stuck to his cheek.

The implication on the show is that the mobsters who had been staring Weiss down from afar at the restaurant during his meeting with Buss whacked him because they didn’t want Tarkanian signing a lucrative deal with the Lakers. (The show doesn’t exactly delve into why the mafia would be so opposed to Tarkanian coaching the team, but it makes several vague references to Weiss’s gambling debt. Presumably he’d get a cut of Tarkanian’s earnings as his business manager, so one would think that the new, high-paying gig would actually be mutually beneficial.) But Winning Time has been known to take some creative liberties, so it’s worth asking: is this really how it all went down?

Jim Hecht, co-creator of Winning Time, insists it is, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “This murder has never been solved by the police. I didn’t know, as a huge Lakers fan, that Jerry Tarkanian had been hired! They did the contracts. It was a done deal. I didn’t know about what happened to Victor Weiss, being stuffed into his trunk. It’s all absolutely true.”

In actuality, it’s…mostly true. Tarkanian had, in fact, been hired by the Lakers shortly before Weiss’s murder. (His grief and shock over the death of his friend combined with his desire to stay in Las Vegas ultimately led him to turn down the gig.)

“A mere three days earlier, on the evening of June 14, Weiss had seemed to be the happiest man on the planet,” Jeff Pearlman writes in Showtime, the book on which Winning Time is based. “A fifty-one-year-old sports promoter who served as Jerry Tarkanian’s representative, he had bounded out the front entrance of the Beverly-Comstock Hotel, euphoric in the knowledge that his client was about to be named the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Those were the words Cooke and Buss had just used during their meeting — ‘We’re excited to have Jerry as the new coach of the Lakers.’”

Weiss was, in fact, found dead in the trunk of his car on June 17, 1979, and the June 14 meeting with Buss was the last time he had been seen alive. He had been shot execution-style in the head twice, and while his wallet and briefcase were gone, his diamond ring and watch had not been taken, leading police to rule out robbery as a motive. Contrary to the Winning Time depiction, however, Buss’s business card was not found on his body.

The murder was never solved, but it seems more likely that Weiss was killed over the $60,000 in gambling debts he owed than over his involvement in a potential Lakers deal. Pearlman also notes that around the time of his death, he had been traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to “deliver bundles of laundered cash,” from which he was believed to have been skimming money. “He had been warned repeatedly to stop, and, police suspected, was killed when he didn’t,” Pearlman writes.

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