by: Michael Shields
A new book whisks us behind the curtain of a fascinating era in basketball, a period simply known as Showtime…..
I remember it like yesterday. I was late. Well as I saw it, Mom was late, I had been ready for hours. This was Game Day after all. I had my jacket on, hat, scarf even, and was waiting patiently by the front door as my mother fished around for her keys, sniffed out her purse and otherwise just carried on without a care in the world. The only way to express my objections over our tardiness, and my mother’s lack of concern, was by flaunting a steady wave of fidgetiness. I squirmed and slithered, and certainly complained, on the way to the car, in the passenger seat, and en route to our destination. We were on our way to a family’s home whose three sons I was very close with. An Indonesian family where all three boys had those race car style beds, a source of devastating jealousy for me for years and years to come. I was set up for a sleepover, but all I had on my mind was The Game!
Yeah, I was supposed to be a Knicks fan, following in the footsteps of my father’s New York sports roots ((I eventually came around.)), or worse yet, a Celtics fan as was so appropriately en vogue in New England at the time. But the allure of something remarkable occurring out West was just too much. It was captivating. It was, as I saw it, the greatest show on Earth. In 1988 to so many kids my age on the East Coast, three-thousand miles away from The Great Western Forum, the Forum Club, and a brand of basketball known as Showtime, all that mattered was the Los Angeles Lakers. And this year they were competing for the World Championship against a team referred to as The Bad Boys. Nothing else in the world mattered to me more.
Simply put, Showtime, and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 80’s, is what made me fall so deeply in love with the game of basketball, a love that endures to this day and shows no signs of relenting. But what I didn’t realize then, as I finally shed my indifferent creator and nestled up to my good friend’s television with a bowl of popcorn and a Coke, was that I was tuning in at the tail end of this era ((Literally the tail end, as the 1987-88 title was the fifth and final won by these Lakers.)). I had no idea, and was too young to understand, that there was so much more to the grandeur of this team. That the intricacies of this wondrous mass of talent was intriguing on a plethora of levels. Luckily, I would one day know the in’s and out’s of Showtime. Luckily, I would come upon a book so capable in its comprehensiveness that I would be ushered behind the curtain to the most mesmerizing soap opera in all of sports. Luckily, I would one day read “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s.”
Jeff Pearlman, author of “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” has impressively amassed an all-embracing tell-all about one of the most magical (pun surely intended) periods in modern sports history. Conducting over 300 interviews ((The book is rife with quotes, you literally hear the story straight from the horses mouth.)), during a span of two years (1 ½ haf years of research, 6 months of writing), Pearlman has drafted a book which meticulously explains the characters and circumstances of a larger than life set of individuals, The 1980’s Los Angeles Lakers. A team that produced five titles between the time Jerry Buss took over the team from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 ((One of the pieces of real estate Buss and Cooke traded during Buss’s Laker acquisition was …..the Chrysler Building.)) until Magic Johnson first retired in 1991. “I probably read 1,000 game stories alone researching this book.” Pearlman admits, a fact blatantly clear when delving into the fruit of his labor.
“Showtime” reveals to us the juicy details behind so many front page stories. It introduces us to Jack Kent Cooke, a hockey guy, described by many as a “sicko” who constructed “the finest arena built since the original Roman Colosseum.” And to Jerry Buss, who once turned down an offer to play the Marlboro Man, and unbeknownst to me, was a playboy of the magnitude of Hugh Hefner (whose mansion he frequented, usually with Magic in tow). To Kareem, a bookworm and a “Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians,” (( – Jackie Lapin)) and his justifiable dislike of white people and the American way of life. And, of course, it introduces us to Magic ((Magic was, LITERALLY, a coin flip away from being on the Chicago Bulls, or, more likely, heading back to Ann Arbor for another season of college ball. And – get this – Jerry West, the logo and one of the most gifted talent scouts in the history of the game, wanted Arkansas’s Sidney Moncrief over Magic. Cooke, to his credit, chose wisely.)), the savior of the NBA ((”Until that moment, the NBA was – for many Americans – black guys in shorts snorting cocaine, Magic (Childhood nickname = June Bug!) was a savior.” – Pat O’Brien)), whose smile not only lit up a city, but an entire nation.
Pearlman’s book reveals to us how close Jerry Tarkanian was to coaching the Lakers, and the extraordinary turn of events that prevented this from occurring. It lets us in on the origins of “The Laker Girls” and explains in alarming detail Spencer Haywood’s heartbreaking addiction and unraveling ((The story about a hit he put out on Paul Westhead is one I still can’t get my head around. Unreal!)). It shares with us the specifics of Norm Nixon’s incomparable streak (which has little to nothing to do with hoops!), and divulges the pivotal role Michael Cooper played in acting as the glue of a volatile core of players. “Showtime” opens our eyes to ongoings within the apartment building on Green Valley Circle, the eccentricities of Kurt Rambis, the immeasurable heart of Jamaal Wilkes, the idiocracy of Mark Landsberger ((“Do you guys have any rebounding plays?”)), and the post-game debauchery within The Forum Club, “the sexiest place in the league.” (( – John Salley)) And it allowed us the opportunity to share in that transcendent moment, where a young Magic Johnson boarded an airplane on the way to a Finals matchup in Philadelphia reassuring his embattled team (Kareem went down with a leg injury the game prior, a game in which he put up 41 points and pulled down 15 rebounds), “Have no fear! – Motherfucking Magic Johnson is here!” All this, merely the tip of the iceberg, as “Showtime” can now be hailed as the bible of the 1980’s Lakers, the authoritative record on the subject, and one hell of a read.
Interestingly enough, what “Showtime” seems to truly be about, the foundation that this triumphant tell-all is built on, is the story of an unlikely head coach. The man who was responsible for the captivating style of basketball that quickly became branded as simply “Showtime” (It’s not who you think – trust me!). A man who was as “glitzy as a truck stop” ((Pearlman also describes him “as Hollywood as a tube sock!”)) whom for not a tragic turn of events would not only be a household name, but one of the most revered basketball coaches of all time. A man who studied under the wise tutelage of Dr Jack Ramsay, rising to prominence through determination and pure grit – but for now remains “the greatest NBA coach 999 of 1,000 basketball fans have never heard of.” And his story, as tragic a tale you will come upon in sports, and his role in one of the greatest eras in modern sports, is told within the pages of Jeff Pearlman’s latest, available in bookstores now.