When Jeff Pearlman began doing research on a book he wanted to write about the Lakers’ “Showtime” era of the 1980s – it involved a two-year-process and about 300 interviews – someone asked him about whether the state of the current Lakers would make any difference in how the project was received.
Meaning, would it be better if these Lakers were pointed toward another NBA title or if they were on a lull and about to miss the playoffs.
“This was right after the Lakers got Dwight Howard (in August, 2012),” said Pearlman, the former Sports Illustrated writer and author of several New York Times’ best-selling books. “My thought was that if the Lakers were playing great, everyone would be celebrating how great this team was, and might overlook the book.
“But, still, I didn’t want them to be this bad. This is kind of ridiculous. It doesn’t seem right that the Lakers are this terrible. It’s hard to watch.
“It’s so funny how a team can go stale so quickly. There’s Lakers jerseys hanging in the store now that look so stale. Even the Kobe jersey looks like something for a retired player, right next to the Steve Nash jersey.”
Pearlman was admitting as much as he sat in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in L.A. Live on Friday night, as fans dressed in their purple and gold – some of them in Bryant jerseys — were heading over to Staples Center to actually witness a game between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
Even with the Lakers’ 126-122 triumph, they still trailed the Kings at the bottom of the Western Conference.
So, anyone want to call a time out and relive some “Showtime” now?
For the record, Pearlman does, and did, with an excavation process that would have made the scientists at the La Brea Tar Pits even relive some goose-bump moments.
In “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” (Gotham Books, 482 pages, $30, released Tuesday),” Pearlman polishes off some gems we don’t believe we’ve read before, or couldn’t have known at all had he not traveled around the country to meet up again with those who lived it first hand.
Pearlman explains not just the process, but how the final product produces a whole never level of understanding about that Lakers’ run that produced five NBA titles between the time Jerry Buss took over the team from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 until Magic Johnson’s first retirement in 1991:
Q: How did someone like you, a kid growing up in New York in the 1980s, view the Lakers and “Showtime” from all those miles away? Was it as big as a Springsteen concert would have been during that period in his heyday?
A: I think of Michael Jackson, doing the moonwalk for the first time, and we’re all watching it on some awards show and we’re like, “Oh, my God.” To me, that’s what it more like. Dazzling. The Lakers to me, it’s kinda weird – I grew up in a very white, sheltered town and everyone there like St. John’s over Georgetown, because it was the “white team.” But I was in a very liberal, hippy-dippy house where we could root for the athletes with the big Afros, the colorful names, players like Garry Templeton, Ken Griffey Sr. And the Lakers, to me, were better to root for than the “white” Celtics because they were cool, Magic was the coolest guy ever, a 6-foot-9 point guard, looking right, looking left, passing . . . Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes . . . they were fancy, snazzy to me, exciting, explosive and dynamic. Besides, I was a fan of the New Jersey Nets, and they were terrible. I remember when they drafted Pearl Washington, and that was a big deal. With Otis Birdsong and Darwin Cook and Mike Gminski.
The Lakers’ “Showtime” things I still recall as a kid – Magic and Isiah Thomas and “the kiss’ before the Lakers-Pistons finals, Kevin McHale and the clothesline on Kurt Rambis in a Lakers-Celtics final. Every Lakers-Celtics final games I can remember very vividly. Nobody else in my family cared about sports, so I’d be alone watching these games.
Doing this book is like diving back into your childhood. Like you get to go into your TV and remember things you once saw.
Q: And to revisit “Showtime” now, in today’s context, what made that process worthwhile?
A: I really enjoy more going and finding the smaller characters and smaller figures from that time. I love finding a player like Earl Jones, Wes Matthews, Mark Landsberger, Billy Thompson, Mike Smrek. They have the stories that haven’t been told about everyone. I also wanted to do a book that was fun, and lively, colorful, exciting, so I thought this was ideal.
Q: As you talk about Jack McKinney, you point out that he is “the greatest NBA coach 999 of 1,000 basketball fans have never heard of.” Do you think retelling this story finally gives proper context and credit to him as the first real coach of “Showtime” until that freak bike accident in Palos Verdes disabiled him, led to Paul Westhead taking over and getting a title in Magic’s rookie season of 1980, and then led to Pat Riley coming in and ramping it up?
A: I hope so. Jack McKinney is one of the great tragedies in the history on the NBA. He would have had Pat Riley’s success. The players were excited to play for him. He had a great track record.
Q: Even if, as you described, Jack McKinney had “the personality as glitzy as a truck stop”?
A: You don’t have to have a dynamic persona to coach dynamically. He was well known on the East Coast as a great college coach. He would have been great.
Q: Going back another step in that coaching chain, the fact that Jerry Tarkanian was ready and willing to take the Lakers job before his friend was killed, supposedly by mobsters, was that something you didn’t really know much about?
A: I had no idea. It’s amazing to remember that the path to Pat Riley, he turns out to be the luckiest guy in the world. It was going to be Tarkanian, then McKinney, then Westhead, and there’s Riley as the accidental coach at a time when even Jerry Buss wanted Jerry West to take over. But Jerry West didn’t want to do it.
Q: You have the observation in the book that “like Westhead, Riley began to start viewing himself as a genius, which was funny to those who realized 70 percent of his basketball strategy came from the pages of Jack McKinney.” What did you find out from others about Riley that many might not know or remember?
A: His whole thing was about “peripheral opponents” – wives, girlfriends, media, endorsements, anything from the outside. It works when players are young and buy into the system, and they did. But as players get older and want more freedom, like “My wife should be able to go on the road and travel on our own dime and watch us play.” Even during the NBA Finals? Players didn’t buy into that after awhile. Very few coaches survive as long as he did because your motivational techniques get stale. And the age gap widens between you and the player.
Q: Considering the Buss family still owns the Lakers, do you see the Lakers able to recapture “Showtime” anytime soon?
A: They don’t have a dynamic star. Kobe Bryant isn’t there. That team of the ‘80s had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This team has Chris Kaman. The Lakers’ supporting cast in “Showtime” was crazy, crazy, deep talented – I mean, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo, Kurt Rambis, Mychal Thompson, Mike McGee . . . This team is very, very thin. And Pat Riley was one of the all-time brilliant coaches. Mike D’Antoni is a good system coach. And then there’s Jerry Buss and Jim Buss. All they have in common is they’re related.
To recapture “Showtime,” I don’t think that happens anyway. It’s interesting how Jerry Buss had this vision. He wanted an NBA game to be an event and he made it that – Laker Girls, Dancing Barry, the marching band. He took something that was a stale product, something that people perceived as a bunch of coked-up millionaires, and it became an event. And it was great. But the problem is, what we have now isn’t the same. Staples Center isn’t the same as the Forum, it’s just bigger. I hate the non-stop noise that’s playing now, there’s never a break. Music when the other team is dribbling the ball. But that’s all a byproduct of “Showtime.” Nothing like this could come back because, in some ways, it’s already here. There may not be another team like the Lakers, but the NBA itself is a direct byproduct of Jerry Buss’ vision. Everyone’s making tons of money, celebs coming to games in every city . . .
Q: In your book, that’s just what you wrote about the legacy of “Showtime,” how the Lakers of the 1980s still exist “in video, books, word of mouth, YouTube clips, yellowed newspaper articles, in LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Chris Paul and modern players who aspire to recapture similar brilliance.” But it’s not the same, is it?
A: It can’t be, because the Lakers are the blueprint. I really do think that Magic Johnson, because of the HIV and the amazing success he’s had afterwards, has started to go terribly overlooked, not only as a basketball player but in what he did for the NBA. He really, to me, is the boiler plate for LeBron James and Kevin Durant, hybrid players you see coming out of college. There’s never going to be another “Showtime” because there’s never going to be the original Magic Johnson. Not even Oscar Robertson had the versatility of Magic Johnson.
Q: Is Magic trying to recapture some of the Lakers’ “Showtime” with the Dodgers as an owner?
A: It’s not the same. Baseball doesn’t it lend itself to that. When you interview people about “Showtime,” from players to fans to celebrities to players’ wives, they get this excitement in their voice. It was a magical time period. People who were here for Kobe and Shaq may have thought they got the same thing, but clearly they didn’t. It was only a copy of it. People who were here in the 1980s has a unique, one-of-a-kind experience.
Q: Lakers fans who know the Kobe-Shaq experience may still never figure out why they couldn’t get along. Can they see from this book how Magic and Kareem worked it out?
A: When Magic came into the league, he was deferential, this is Kareem’s team. It doesn’t mean he played deferentially. He always referred to Kareem as “Cap,” and Kareem, to his credit, every now and then he would be critical of Magic, like when Paul Westhead was fired as coach, when Magic got the deal of 25 years for $25 million, when he was hanging out with Jerry Buss. Kareem could appreciate who Magic was, and Magic would have liked a more Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kind of thing, but they played so great together they didn’t have to be buddy-buddy. They played brilliantly together and respected each other’s abilities. No jealousy. Magic has called Kareem a “mentor,” but I don’t know, it just seemed like he was more of an elder statesman. Maybe it helped, too, that Kareem didn’t have Shaq’s kind of ego. He was also very stand-offish, really guarded, not good with the press. So maybe with Magic that helped, he wasn’t looking for the attention.
Q: From what we gather, you weren’t able to talk to Magic Johnson for the book. And Jerry Buss passed away before you could talk to him. And Chick Hearn has been good a long time now. The book is already about 500 pages. Had you been able to get more info from them, would this book be twice as big?
A: To be totally honest, I don’t think it would be much different. I’ve done a Barry Bonds biography without talking to him. A Walter Payton biography after he was deceased. A book about the 1986 Mets when Dwight Gooden was in jail and Darryl Strawberry had disappeared. Magic Johnson has already done three or four books and has been interviewed a zillion times. When you talk to players like that, they’re memories are usually memories of things they’ve already said about the events because they’ve talked about them over and over. You give me Wes Matthews for two hours in a diner in Bridgeport, Conn., or give me Billy Thompson as the Cheesecake Factory in Miami, give me Mike Smrek at his farm in Canada, Paul Westhead in Oregon, Jack McKinney in Florida – they haven’t told their stories about all this in 15, 20 years. They were key ingredients of it. Give me a choice of Wes Matthews for two hours or Magic Johnson for two hours, I’d take Wes Matthews. I’m not sure Magic Johnson would remember a million stories about Mike Smrek, but Mike Smrek is going to remember every interaction he had with Magic Johnson. So for me, it’s never about finding new information from interviews with the big guys, it’s interviewing everyone else who was involved. And in regard to Jerry Buss, who was very sick, it allowed me to talk more to Jeanie Buss, and Linda Rambis, both who were great, with really profound memories.
Q: Then there are people like Michael Cooper’s ex-wife, Wanda, who tell you stories about how things happened like no one else.
A: She was a passionate participant. Wanda was the absolute best. Michael even said so and gave me her number. She’s a caterer in El Paso, and has these vivid memories, the perspective of a wife who was very involved at the time, very real. Very honest. I’ve never dealt with people in an organization like this. They’re high caliber, decent, intelligent, forthright people. Wanda Cooper, Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis were my three favorite people to interview for this book.
Q: Nothing from Jack Nicholson?
A: No, but Dyan Cannon was awesome.
Q: This may be the only book written that has 15 indexed references to Mark Landsberger. Why does he become such a focal point for someone who was only with the team 3 ½ seasons in the early ‘80s?
A: I kept hearing from a bunch of people that Landsberger would be the one who’d tell his wife things that his teammates were doing off the court. Honestly, I feel I’m too mean in this book to him a bit. He was an easy target. You ask anyone about Landsberger, and they’d start out, “Man that guy was really dumb . . .” The players would find out that Landsberger talked about them because the wives would talk to the other wives. One day, Ron Carter, who played for the team at one point, is walking through a lounge where all the wives are sitting, and they’re all looking at him really angrily. They all got word from Landsberger’s wife. One of the rules in a locker room is what happens on the road, stays on the road. He talked to his wife, heaven forbid, and then he got isolated by his teammates. The guy could rebound like a freak, though.
Q: One review of the book said something to the effect that you showed how “flawed human beings can nonetheless create a near-flawless beauty on the court.” Does that make sense to you?
A: I don’t think these players were particularly flawed as people. This is how I look at Magic – if I really wanted to do a TMZ job on this, I could have written a 400-page Magic Johnson escapade book. But I didn’t want to write that book. He was a single guy in L.A. I’m not sure given that opportunity I wouldn’t have done the same thing. Kareem was brought up in New York in a divisive time in history, he’s so tall he’s like a museum piece so he becomes prickly. He had that right to be. Norm Nixon is the star of the Lakers and he gets bent out of shape when this rookie comes in to take his job. I don’t think that makes you glaringly flawed. I think they were pretty great. The spotlight can be a corruptive and dwarfing thing for some but I think these guys handled it very well.
Q: Imagine what “Showtime” could have been if Jerry Buss had not nixed the two things proposed to him that you point out – one was a male baton twirler who performed at halftime along with the Laker Girls, and the other was an idea for a mascot named “Slam Duck.”
A: He was right. Buss really had his pulse on what was cool. Especially as an older guy. The duck, that was Linda and Jeanie’s idea, and he said, “No, we’re not doing the duck.” They got an artist to sketch it out. “No.” I remember when the San Francisco Giants tried to introduce a mascot that was a giant crab and people started throwing ice chunks at him. That would have happened here. Same thing with “we’re not having a guy baton twirler.” Smart move.
Q: There aren’t any stories in there about “Dancing Barry”?
A: I did interview him.
Q: Where did you find him?
A: He’s in North Carolina. I think he’s a magician.
Q: So what’s his story?
A: His dancing days are done. He was happy to be found. He thought he deserved more credit for “Showtime” than he got. He wanted to get paid more. I think he saw himself as a bigger piece of the “Showtime” puzzle than people want to give him credit for. I feel like the line between him and male baton twirler is not that big.
== Hey, aren’t you Jeff Pearlman handing out cards near of Staples Center to promote your new book?