Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 11, 2014

Reliving Showtime

Author Jeff Pearlman looked back at the most memorable team of the '80s—the Kareem, Magic, and Pat Riley-led Lakers—and found the lesser-known players had a lot more to share.

Alex Eidman

If you grew up with NBA TV and a penchant for faking a cold to stay home from school, you may have caught the Showtime-era Lakers on NBA Hardwood Classics. The dramatic music would fade up and the host would wax poetic about Magic's passing, Kareem's Sky Hook, and a glitz-fed city under the spell of an electrifying team. It was important basketball edification for those not old enough to have seen the spectacle live. Now, you can find a limitless array of YouTube videos, with killer '80s music beats to boot.

Jeff Pearlman.
"The one thing about Pat Riley that I don't think he ever got was that he was never in on the joke."

Jeff Pearlman.

The Lakers dynasty is one of the most famous in NBA history. Which makes Jeff Pearlman's new book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, all the more impressive in its revelatory power. Pearlman goes beyond the almost-overpowering star power, interviewing dozens of players and front-office personnel, to examine how it all stuck together to result in five championships over a decade. Pearlman analyzes on-court dynamics while also sharing wonderfully salacious anecdotes highlighting Dionysian excesses by players and executives.

Pearlman—a Varsity Letters veteran who's previously spoken about Roger Clemens, the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s, and the Chicago Bears of the '80s, spoke over the phone about the joys of tracking down forgotten players, the magical Magic Johnson-Jerry Buss relationship, and Pat Riley's inability to get in on the joke. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like bookstores would already be stocked with volumes on this topic. Why did you decide to add to the list?

Jeff Pearlman: I'm a kid of the '80s: I loved Celtics-Lakers, and I can vividly remember watching Magic and Kareem, Bird and McHale, so I thought it would make for a pretty good topic. It's interesting—this may be the last book I do about a team. Team books are harder than people think, because you're writing about so many different guys, so the research goes in all different ways. In addition, the Walter Payton biography that came out after his life, felt a little illegitimate, so I felt good that I was telling the real story of the man. In 1986, Steve Springer and Scott Osser wrote a book called Winnin' Times about the Showtime Lakers and it's freaking great. When I came upon that, there was a little of me that was like, "Oh man, this is a really good book." Because you want to write the book, and I felt that was pretty good.

Leigh Montville wrote a Babe Ruth book, and I asked him, "There are so many Babe Ruth books out there; why did you want to write another one?" He said, "Because no one's written my Babe Ruth Book." He wasn't being arrogant—everyone brings their own perspective to a story and tackles it differently. For me, it's not all about Magic and Kareem; it was also about finding the small guys and getting their stories that are fresh and unique.

Gelf Magazine: There are so many great anecdotes from role players. How many of those guys did you get to sit down and talk with?

Jeff Pearlman: Those stories are 95 percent fresh. That's what happens when you go around—I was in Florida and I knew Billy Thompson was there, so I planned to meet him. We go to the Cheesecake Factory and he tells me stories he's never told anyone. I'm not that far from Bridgeport, Connecticut—Wes Matthews lives there, so I went up to see him. I went up to Canada and hung out on Mike Smrek's farm. One time I was in LA and, completely randomly, ran into former Lakers backup guard Ronnie Lester. I was like, "Oh my god, Ronnie Lester, I'm so happy to see you!" I'm sure he was like, "'Uh, security?'"
Those guys are the best because they haven't told their stories. I always think people writing biographies make a big mistake not getting to the lesser-known guys. I learned that at Sports Illustrated watching the master, Tom Verducci. All the beat writers would be talking to Derek Jeter, and he'd be talking to the backup catcher. That was really profound, and that's where you get your best material.

Gelf Magazine: The book is certainly not a puff piece—it's brutally honest discussing Magic's love of women, Kareem's almost comical aloofness and Riley's unquenchable thirst for power and control. Was everyone willing to talk to you?

Jeff Pearlman: Magic and Riley wouldn't talk—apparently because they're doing a book together. To me, obviously you want to sit down with Magic, but he's already written three books about that time period. What new info is he gonna give me? Give me two hours with Wes Matthews at a diner over two hours with Magic any day of the week.
The lesser-known guys were great across the board. One of my favorite guys to talk to, partly because he was so hard to find, was the Lakers No. 1 pick in 1984, Earl Jones. No one remembers him—he played two games for them. I found him; I think he's a used car salesman in West Virginia. I was so excited.

Gelf Magazine: Jones comes off in the book as a guy who looked great on tape but did not have the basketball smarts or will to make it in the NBA. (Magic Johnson went so far as to thrown passes at his head in practice.) Does he realize his mistakes now, 30 years later?

Jeff Pearlman: Earl Jones still thinks he was fantastic. I don't remember his exact words, but he went on and on about he wiped the floor with Kareem in practice. You interview anyone else about Earl Jones and you find out it didn't exactly happen that way. James Worthy described Earl Jones on the court as "skippin' through the daisies," and I would tend to agree with that assessment.

Gelf Magazine: The relationship between Kareem and Magic is fascinating and complex. How did they manage to make that relationship work for a decade?

Jeff Pearlman: I think both of those guys contributed to it. Magic arrived as the No. 1 pick and the savior of the Lakers—but he was immediately deferential to Kareem. He always called him Cap (short for captain), and made sure to indicate that the Lakers were his team. He never waved him out of the post and the one time he did, late in Kareem's career, Pat Riley chewed him out for it. Kareem was not very good with the fans or the media, but he saw the value of Magic Johnson. Here was a guy who was completely unselfish and continuously got him the ball—so there wasn't much for him to complain about. He had trouble with Magic and Jerry Buss's relationship—how close they were—and with Magic's 25-year, $25-million contract. But ultimately Kareem saw Magic as an ally and someone who was going to help him win.

Gelf Magazine: Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson were sympatico from the start—going out to the Playboy Mansion together, living in adjacent mansions. Could you ever see a modern owner-player relationship developing similar to this one?

Jeff Pearlman: You could have imagined a guy like Mark Cuban chilling with Michael Finley or Steve Nash back in the day. It sounds weird: If you look at Jerry Buss only on the surface—a 40-year-old dating 22-year-olds hanging out with his 20-year-old point guard—there's something about it that seems weird. And yet, he wasn't weird. He had a real dignity about him and an exuberance for life. He never wanted to sit around playing cards with his buddies. He wanted to drink and smoke and live a ballplayer's life. If you're Magic Johnson, and the owner of the team says, "I'm gonna take you to the Playboy Mansion," you're not gonna say no. It was two guys who loved LA, knew they were sitting on top of the world, and sort of bonded over it.

Gelf Magazine: Lots of people think of "Showtime" the basketball philosophy as a Pat Riley creation. But the foundation was built by Jack McKinney, who only lost his job as coach after a freak bike accident. Did you speak to McKinney to see how he felt about getting fired?

Jeff Pearlman: I spent a good amount of time with him on his patio in Florida. He's one of the nicest guys in the world. It was a really frustrating interview, because he still has memory issues, and he really didn't remember much from the era. He's also not one to talk trash about other people. He was very hurt about the way he was let go—he was never told by Jerry Buss that he was getting fired. I think they would have had the same success with McKinney as coach, but you wouldn't have had the GQ element that you had with Riley on the sidelines. It's a real NBA tragedy that McKinney's career, through no fault of his own, was cut short.

Gelf Magazine: Riley seemed to turn from a master motivator, pushing all the right buttons, to a person consumed by self-importance with a despotic temperament. Has he acknowledged any of this?

Jeff Pearlman: He did acknowledge this to a degree—he admits that at the end of his tenure with the Lakers he felt that guys just weren't listening to him anymore. It kinda happens. It's one thing to coach a bunch of 24-year-olds, but then you get married, you have kids, you get your Q rating up, and you sort of start tuning it out a little bit. He was the same kind of controlling coach with the Knicks—completely different schemes but a similar coach. His big thing was his phrase "peripheral opponents." That included wives, girlfriends, the media, endorsements, fame; they all had to be tuned out in pursuit of a championship. He knew in the end he lost that. I imagine now he's probably mellowed a little bit.
Fame corrupts and absolute fame corrupts absolutely. Fame is really the devil. The one thing about Riley that I don't think he ever got was that he was never in on the joke. Some coaches and player you interview—they get how ludicrous it all is. It has zero world significance. No one is living or dying—it's all entertainment. And the coaches you meet along the way who were my favorite, there was always a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge to it all—like, "Can you believe they're paying me $5 million to coach a stupid basketball team?"
Riley was never like that. The Lakers were everything to him. He was a big winner, but at the end of the day he lost a little perspective. It was never like all of a sudden he was going to invite the players out for a beer. He didn't know another way. The [1989] Finals series, when they were swept by Detroit, he beat his guys down so bad that by the time the series rolled around, they were injured and didn't have a chance.

Gelf Magazine: Cocaine plays a prominent role in the book. Spencer Haywood estimated that 80 percent of NBA players in the late '70s and early '80s were using it. After speaking to so many players of that era, do you think he was exaggerating?

Jeff Pearlman: I think Spencer was probably right. He was an extreme case where he went off the edge and tried to kill his coach. But I think a lot of guys used it as a relaxer after the game. There were a lot of drug parties where guys would get together, five or ten at a time. When Len Bias happened, that was a seminal moment for drug awareness in the NBA, the same way Magic's HIV announcement was the turning point for AIDS awareness.

Gelf Magazine: Are you hoping current players read this to get a better history of the league?

Jeff Pearlman: That would be ideal. It's funny—it's never entered my mind. I will tell you that I'm friends with Atlanta Dream GM Angela Taylor, and she told me that she just ordered my book for her team. She said she did it because she wanted her players to learn about how a dynasty gets created and sustained. The head coach of the Dream is Michael Cooper, so I guess he'll read it, too. I thought that was pretty cool—that's the first time I've ever heard of someone using one of my books as a manual for how to do things the right way.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think a book like this could be written about a recent NBA franchise or are players too guarded?

Jeff Pearlman: I think it could—it would be harder. Hindsight is kind of a numbing agent, where guys are more willing to talk. It's not so much that you pressure guys to talk—it's more that time passes and guys mature. Right now if you were to hang with the Milwaukee Bucks—it's a bunch of 25-year-old guys who think they're the shit. They think their lives and their million Twitter followers carry great importance. Guys 20 years removed who now work selling cars or coaching or installing hot tubs, they look back fondly and they get it that it was just this golden, wacky, funny time in their lives. That ego removal comes with age, experience, and perspective.

Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Books
- posted on Jun 16, 14

People are so star struck that they believe any thing that comes out of a so called celebrity's mouth. It amazing to me how people so willing to discount the words of the small guys to listen to the words of big guys. You had to be there. Earl Jones could play with anyone and hold his own. What is reality is that sports is political, if you are the chosen one no matter what you do it will be swiped away or twisted in your favor. The lesser known guys are the ones who have nothing to lose because most of the time there opportunity was taken from them. The part about Magic throwing passes at his head if you believe that I've got some swampland for sale. Stay tuned for the real story.

Article by Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.