Jeff Pearlman is a bestselling author and former Sports Illustrated writer. He has written fascinating books on Barry Bonds, Walter Payton, the 1986 Mets, Roger Clemens and the 1990s Dallas Cowboys and also has a fun blog, Jeffpearlman.com, where he shares his unique thoughts on current events and the latest in sports. When I saw that Jeff had just published his first NBA book, “Showtime: Magic Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”, I was excited to read it and reached out to see if he would answer a few questions about his experiences. Jeff graciously agree and you’ll that he clearly really deep and hit everything a fan would want to know about the 1980s Lakers. Please go here to buy a copy of Showtime. Here are my discussions Jeff:
Hoops Analyst: I know you have specialized in writing interesting and fun books about some legendary teams of yore (the 1990s Cowboys and the 1986 Mets). What about the Showtime Lakers got your attention versus a few other dynastic teams you could have written about?
Jeff Pearlman: Well, I grew up watching them; grew up loving Magic Johnson and thinking of Los Angeles as this faraway dream land where everything amazing took place. The beauty of writing books is it affords me the opportunity to jump back into my youth and explore the unknown aspects of stuff I absorbed through a boy’s eyes. The Lakers were amazing, and I wanted to know what made them tick.
HA: I think it is impossible not to have preconceived notions about the old Lakers. To what extent were the main guys: Kareem, Magic, Jerry Buss, Jerry West, and Pat Riley as you expected and what extent were they different?
JP: Well, I knew Kareem was sort of a moody grump—and he was. I know Magic was larger-than-life, devoted to winner and a lover of sex—and he was. I knew a bit about Buss, but not a ton, and West wrote one of the all-time great sports autobiographies, which I absorbed before writing Showtime. I’d say Riley was actually the greatest mystery to me. I knew his deserved reputation as a coaching genius, but little of the ego behind it. Fascinating guy who lost sight of what was important, and failed to hold on to his humility.
HA: I think there are a few interesting under the radar stories about the old Lakers that tend to be forgotten: Jack McKinney’s bicycle accident and his subsequent severance is one that always got me as a kid. The mantra is/was: “you don’t lose your job to injury.” But that wasn’t the case for McKinney. I even found an article from SI a little later indicating that McKinney was quite bitter about being let go (I believe he ended up with the Pacers after leaving L.A. and fizzled out). Do you think McKinney was treated fairly by the Lakers and what more did you learn about the situation?
JP: No, it was terribly unfair, and an uncharacteristic personnel blunder from Jerry Buss, who strove to treat people rightly (and almost always did). It’s not that the Lakers were wrong to make a coaching change—McKinney hadn’t recovered from the fall, and never fully did. But Buss fired him through the media. Literally, the man learned of his dismissal from his son, who learned of it from a reporter calling the house. That’s wrong on 800 different levels. It was a mistake by Buss, but a truly awful one.
HA: It seems that players can be pretty big stars at one time and then quickly forgotten. One player who I think fits that mold is Norm Nixon. He had a big personality and some said he was shipped to the Clippers because he was encroaching on Magic’s ability to take the mantle of team leader? What did you learn about Nixon and did your investigation suggest that he was a big a player and personality as I thought he was?
JP: Yes. Small guy (physically), huge talent, huge ego. People say, “Man, Nixon sounds like a jerk,” and that’s not the true case at all. Imagine you’re him in 1979—you’re a terrific point guard, and suddenly your team drafts another point guard and slides you over. The rookie makes more money, buddies up with the owner, starts landing all the ladies and stealing your endorsement deals. How would you—still at a young age—feel? Nixon was traded for Byron Scott, and he drifted away. But he was a far superior player, and a guy who, looking back, should have kept his mouth shut. The Lakers would have won just as many titles with him alongside Magic.
HA: Weird but forgotten fact…The Magic Lakers had a great rivalry with the Celts but they actually met the Sixers just as many times in the NBA Finals (3) and, in fact, met the Sixers three times before they even played the Celtics once. Why do you think the Celtic Finals are much better remembered today (I know Bird-Magic was a rivalry but old 1980s gamers remember that the first Apple II plus video games was actually Dr. J vs. Bird)?
JP: Bird-Magic, Bird-Magic, Bird-Magic. Plus, of the three Sixers-Lakers Finals, only the 1980 series (with Magic player center in the Game 6 clincher) was truly epic. The other two matchups were pretty lopsided and somewhat dull.
HA: If you had a time machine and you could somehow have the 1986-87 Lakers, 1985-86 Celtics, 1988-89 Pistons, 1995-96 Bulls, 1982-83 Sixers, 2000-01 Lakers, 2006-07 Spurs, and the 2012-13 Heat play a round robin tournament, how would they rank from 1 to 8?
HA: Getting back to Kareem…he also had a complicated relationship with Magic. You mentioned that Nixon felt he lost a little juice when Magic came to town but Kareem was the true star. His attitude seemed to be a combination of a little annoyed by but also amused by Magic at the same time. What percentage of Kareem was happy about Magic back then and has that percentage changed at all in the last 25 years?
JP: Kareem was good with Magic, because Magic was always deferential and respectful. Did he love slowing the offense to help an aging center? Not especially. But Kareem was a superstar with an unblockable shot. Magic made less money than Kareem, never waved Kareem out of the post, always called him “Cap” or “Captain,” never embarrassed or demeaned him. Magic handled it beautifully, and Kareem did, too.
HA: Magic is remembered as the affable guy with the big grin but he did not hesitate to get tough on and off the court. His fingerprints were all over the firing of Paul Westhead and even Pat Riley. Was he as involved in these decisions as it seemed? If so, do you think he was ruthless behind the scenes or was he objectively correct that both coaches were past their expiration dates?
JP: I don’t think he was ruthless—I think he was right. Westhead had lost his way as a coach, and the players had tired of him. Lots of those guys took shots at Westhead in the press, but anonymously and off the record. Magic did not. He went directly to Jerry Buss and said, “This isn’t working.” Then he put his name to his emotions in the media. No one else was willing to. As for Riley, Magic never demanded he be fired, never requested it. Their relationship became strained, but there was no undercutting. Just some anger and complaining to teammates and peers.
HA: Who was the most surprisingly interesting random member of the 1980s Lakers?
JP: Earl Jones. Former No. 1 draft pick who played two career games for the Lakers. Because the world’s tallest used car salesman. Impossible to find. But, once I did, wonderful.
HA: The end of the Lakers’ dynasty is obviously more sad than most. Magic was still a great player but society wasn’t really ready for an openly HIV positive player. In revisiting that time, what did you learn about Magic and NBA players behind the scenes that you didn’t know then?
JP: Well, I was fascinated by the reactions of so many former Lakers. When they saw the press conference on TV, their first reaction was, “Holy shit. Earvin …” Their second reaction was, “I need an HIV test–now.” A lot of the women back then slept around with myriad players. It wasn’t beyond comprehension that Magic and Coop and Norm and Ron Carter and … whoever shared partners. Guys were terrified.
HA: Finally, in honor of The Quaz, rank these in order from favorite to most reviled: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Greg Kite, Chuck Nevitt, Mark Landsberger, Tony Campbell, and Celine Dion.
JP: Campbell, Nevitt, Magic, Landsberger, Bird, Kite, Thomas, Celine.