Full Court Press

COURT’s in-depth interview with the author of a classic hoops book.

The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s were kinetic poetry. Magic Johnson’s dizzying, high-speed passes; James Worthy’s graceful swoops to the basket; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s towering skyhook.

Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles, a starry-eyed city in itself, played the picture perfect basketball team. But this Hollywood production had a sobering backstory; one filled with ego, partying, and destructive behaviour.

Author Jeff Pearlman chronicled the Lakers’ astounding 1979 to 1991 run in his impeccably researched and addictively readable Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.

For this first installment of Full Court Press, Pete Croatto speaks with Pearlman to talk about how the Lakers set the stage for today’s NBA, the big difference between Kareem and Magic, and why the Lakers were must-see TV for basketball-obsessed children of the 1980s.

Pete Croatto Reading Showtime again, I was struck by how it’s a coming-of-age story, both for the people in the book and for the NBA. What role did the Showtime Lakers play in the NBA that we see today?

Jeff Pearlman The NBA was kind of a mess, you know? That first year [1979-80] you had on that same roster the guy who you could say symbolised the mess of the NBA, and the guy who symbolised the renaissance; that’s Spencer Haywood and Magic Johnson. You had this one guy who, kind of interestingly, entered professional basketball as a 19-year-old wunderkind just like Magic, and he ruined himself through drugs and different excesses and kind of killed the NBA back in the 70s. And then you have this guy [Magic] coming along who basically wiped the slate clean arriving together [with Larry Bird].

I think a lot of it was Magic and a lot it was Bird. It was almost like a reset button for the NBA, where we’re not marketing old players anymore. It’s a new generation; we have these two new superstars coming in together. They’re both good guys. They seem to hate each other. This guy in LA is this insanely charismatic, joyful, puppy dog of a guy, and the guy in Boston is this hardcore killer, but they’re both reputable guys who aren’t going to embarrass the league. Those guys’ arrival simultaneously was a super reset button for the NBA.

PC Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner, I think, also plays a role. He was the kind of guy who saw the games as entertainment, what with the Laker Girls and getting the USC marching band in there.

JP Thanks to him everything I love and hate about the NBA today kind of exists. Whenever you go to a game and you can’t hear yourself think because they’re playing “Wango Tango” at an insanely loud decibel, that’s Jerry Buss. The dancers all the time, non-stop. People shooting cannons. Kids shooting half-court shots. Basketball as entertainment, not as basketball, was Jerry Buss’ idea—and it was genius. It really was genius. It made it an event. It wasn’t just, “Oh, you want to watch a basketball game?” It’s like, “Let’s go see the Lakers.” “See the Lakers” didn’t just mean go to a basketball game, anymore – it meant the celebrities at courtside, it meant the music, it meant the Lakers Girls. It meant parties afterward. Today’s NBA, with all the excesses and not a second of silence, that’s Jerry Buss. But the money that it makes, that’s also Jerry Buss.

COURT How big a role did LA play in all this?

PC Before Magic, if you think about really charismatic players, you had Walt Frazier in New York [who] had a certain style that was really good for New York. Besides him, Oscar Robertson in Milwaukee, right? It can’t happen in Milwaukee. He goes to Milwaukee and he’s great and people love watching him play, but it’s Milwaukee, you know? It’s not going to happen even in Chicago or San Antonio.

It was the perfect pairing of this kid and basketball and palm trees and women in bikinis. Some of it was more image than reality. There was almost this mental poster put in people’s minds of Magic Johnson spinning a basketball on his finger while sitting in Venice Beach with a bunch of models. It was a great place to build this image of basketball, good times, women, sex, run-and-gun, everyone’s good-looking. It was the perfect marketing package putting Magic Johnson in LA as a Laker in a wild, fun, pre-HIV late 70s, early 80s.

PC What comes across in the book—and what makes it so readable—is the ‘what if’ factor. What if the Lakers lose the coin toss and don’t draft Magic Johnson? What if Jack McKinney doesn’t get in the bike accident and is replaced by Paul Westhead? What if Jerry Tarkanian’s agent isn’t found in the trunk of a Rolls-Royce? How much of this is luck?

JP It is. It always is. Sam Bowie goes to Portland, and there’s Michael Jordan for you. It could have easily been Wayman Tisdale going to New York instead of Patrick Ewing. It’s all luck and it’s all chance. The Lakers were torn between Magic and Sidney Moncrief. Sidney Moncrief was an excellent NBA player – an excellent, excellent NBA player. If Sidney Moncrief went to LA, you would have had Norm Nixon as the point guard and Sidney Moncrief as the off-guard. That’s a freakin’ great NBA backcourt. With Kareem at center, you know, it’s still an NBA championship-calibre team. Jamaal Wilkes at small forward. That’s a really good NBA team. It is possible they win some titles with Moncrief and Norm Nixon in the backcourt, but would they have been this juggernaut, this really memorable, charismatic, owning-LA, owning-the-NBA kind of team? No. They would have gone down as a really, really great NBA team, and all of a sudden Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still the centerpiece of the franchise, and they’re not nearly as friendly or as successful as they were with Magic.

PC I think people forget how good Kareem was. It gets lost in the ravages of time.

JP I agree 100 percent. You could make a very good argument – it’s never made – that he’s the greatest basketball of all-time. If you take into account what he did in high school, Power Memorial, and in UCLA – three titles, three years – and the championships and MVPs in the NBA. The duration of his career. He had an unstoppable, unblockable shot – the hook shot. He just was kind of a dickhead.

When I was working on this book, I actually felt with Magic and Kareem there’s a really good lesson there. They pretty much had comparable NBA careers, so here’s the big difference: Magic Johnson treated everyone well, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar treated everyone like ass. And now, 30 years removed, Magic Johnson is this ambassador to the world. I think he’s not that far from Muhammad Ali as far as the impact he has on people. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cannot get an assistant coaching job in the NBA.

PC Could this kind of team exist with this kind of lifestyle exist today?

JP It’s like last year, after the Super Bowl, some woman posted a picture of herself in bed with Julian Edelman. Well, I’m guessing Julian Edelman doesn’t have one fraction of the amount of sex Magic Johnson had. So imagine Magic Johnson getting laid in 2015 like he did in 1981, except with everyone having an iPhone. It would have been ridiculous. There’s no way you could do it.

PC You chronicle Magic Johnson’s off-the-court activities in the book. It’s amazing he was able to play like he did. He was basically a vampire.

JP The amazing thing about him is, if you asked in ‘91 where he’s going to be in 20-something years, you’d say, “100 percent dead, and probably dead for a long time.” His survival and thriving is kind of miraculous.

PC When he made the announcement that he had HIV the consensus was, “Oh God, he’s going to die.”

JP At that point when you had HIV, you were going to get the lesions, you were going to lose a ton of weight, and then you were going to wither away and die somewhere privately and we would hear about it. There was no reason, no reason, to think that wasn’t going to happen to Magic Johnson. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t 9/11, but it was the Challenger exploding, it was O.J. in the Bronco. It was so shocking because he was this guy who symbolized something. And to all of a sudden have this happen, and we’re going to watch this guy die, it was just really, really depressing.

PC Kareem and Magic don’t come across particularly well in the book. Neither does Pat Riley, who becomes this odd dictator-type in the end, refusing to let the Laker Girls perform during the fourth quarter. Riley’s predecessor, Paul Westhead, went through something similar after he was repeatedly called a genius. What led to this? Was it winning or was it more than that?

JP I always like the coaches who are in on the joke, and the players who are in on the joke. I just had this talk with [Washington Post sportswriter] Chuck Culpepper yesterday. We were talking about Mike Lupica [the reportedly laid-off New York Daily News sports columnist]. I was never fan of him as a person. And I always thought he was never in on the joke. It’s all a joke. I get to write about sports for a living. That’s, like, a joke. Someone’s going to pay me to write a book? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s stupid, right? And if you take this stuff too seriously, you’re missing the joke. It’s all fun and games. It’s ridiculousness. There are people starving across the world, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing.

Pat Riley, if he was ever in on the joke, he stopped being in on it. He didn’t realize, it’s just fucking basketball. It’s not that important. No matter how often you’re on TV, we’re all going to die one day; we all go to the bathroom. It’s just basketball. He lost his perspective. Again, people told him how great he was and how important he was and the Lakers this and the Lakers that and he was so good-looking and will you be on the cover of GQ and we want you to be in this movie. He totally just lost perspective.

PC You grew up watching the NBA during the Showtime Lakers’ heyday. For readers who weren’t around at the time, explain what it was like watching them play.

JP I hate sounding like my dad, but it was just such a different time. Now, it’s like, “The Lakers and the Celtics playing on whatever” and “then on so-and-so channel you can watch so-and-so” or “if you get the package.” It was the show. The Lakers were on and that was the game you were watching. The Lakers really did symbolise something to a kid. I’m talking about me, being a kid from Mahopac, NY. It sounds like some writer bullshit, but it was actually true. It was this thing that was out there that you were probably never going to touch, which is funny because I live in California now. They’d show you the wide shot of the Forum, and even though the Forum was in crappy Inglewood, you’d see some palm trees and you’d see the celebrities sliding into their seats, like Jack Nicholson and Penny Marshall. The Lakers would jog out to the court, they had their gold uniforms on, and it symbolised sunshine and palm trees and glitter. It was a life these special people had that you would never have. The basketball was great, no doubt about it. There was great basketball elsewhere, but the Lakers symbolised like, you’re the shit. You’re living this life and it was friggin’ awesome and you at home better enjoy watching it, because you’re never going to live it. That’s the best I can explain it.

Words: Pete Croatto
Illustration: Alice Tye