My interview with Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, which was recently excerpted on Deadspin. We spoke about Pearlman's complicated portrait of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the "historically dumb" Mark Landsberger, why Kurt Rambis was the greatest inbounder in NBA history, and much more.
You talked to so many people for this book. Jerry West, Michael Cooper—and Cooper's ex-wife, Wanda—were particularly insightful. You also got great material from secondary players. Do you find that fringe players have better memories or are more candid than the stars?
It's two things: 1. Fringe players haven't been asked 1,000,001 times about the time period. I might be off on this theory, but I sort of think guys like Magic, Kareem and Riley have told the Showtime-era stories sooooo many times—in interviews, in motivational speeches, in conversations, in books—that what they're now remembering are not the memories, but the telling of the telling of the telling of the telling of the telling of the memories.
When in doubt print the legend.
Men like, oh, Wes Matthews and Mike Smrek and Billy Thompson and David Rivers, on the other hand, haven't repeated the lines so many times. The questions are unique; the memories are often sharper. Early on, I actually had someone tell me, "You can't write this book without Magic's participation." I nodded—but, inside, laughed. Magic has written/been part of three books related to the time period. There are hundreds of articles about him and his play. I'd rather speak to him than not—but given the choice between two hours of Magic or two hours of, say, Wes Matthews, I take Wes. Every time.
How tough was it to get Magic or Riley for this project?
First, lemme say it's always ideal to have everyone talk. It's preferred. I was told early on Magic and Pat were thinking of writing a book together, and would not help. I was not thrilled, but I wasn't overly concerned, either. Both guys have written books, have been quoted repeatedly. I like to think I'm a good interviewer—but the idea that two guys, both very protective of their legacies, would open up to me in ways they didn't to guys like Jim Murray and Scott Ostler would be pretty arrogant of me.
What about Jabbar?
Kareem is another story. Kareem has a publicist, whose name I won't use here. I was warned, repeatedly, that she's impossible. I reached out several times, and she kept rebuffing me. They wanted things, guarantees, etc. No, no, no. Last year I went to the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and I spotted Kareem from afar. It was crowded, and not the right time to approach, but I texted his publicist, who replied with something like "GREAT NEWS! WE NEED TO MEET!" I thought I was in—Kareem had decided to talk. Well, I meet her, and the great news is that it's been 50 years since Kareem's first Sports Illustrated cover, and wouldn't it be great if SI put him back on the cover, with all his memorabilia, and SI could do a traveling show with all the stuff and ... and ... at this point, I think "Release Me" by Wilson Phillips began playing in my head. I hadn't worked for SI for a decade. The museum—insane. I backed away ... and ultimately had a kind person (unnamed) interview Kareem on my behalf (he was doing a story on the man).
Your portrait of Kareem is complicated. He could be so callous yet at times he was approachable, too. How did you wrap your head around understanding him?
When I was growing up, my favorite grandparent was my grandma, Marta Herz. We were very close, and she always used to ask whether someone was good or bad. That's how she saw people—simply, and without layers. And one day, I'm not sure when, I realized the flaw in her system. People aren't good or bad. They might lean one way, but no one—even Barry Bonds, even John Rocker—owns good or evil. No one. Kareem is weird, and guarded, and off-putting. He treated many people as if they were shit beneath his sneaker. I mean, he was awful. Just awful. But you have to look where people come from. Bonds had an awful father. Rocker was from Macon, a pretty closed-minded town. And Kareem was a museum piece from the time he was a boy. He was always insanely tall and insanely thin. He was poked and prodded, and dealt with some pretty horrible racism. He clearly developed a shield around himself, one that stunted his social development to this day. That doesn't excuse his behavior. But it probably helps explain it a little.
Another thing I thought was fascinating is how the Showtime Lakers always kind of fantasized about life after Kareem and yet they kept winning with him.
Well, they wanted to run and run and run and he was an anchor. But ... they were being naive. He possessed an unblockable shot—the hook. He was the ultimate weapon and, in my opinion, the best basketball player who ever lived. Especially if you combine his high school, college, and NBA body of work. He was gifted 1,000 times over. The Lakers with, oh, Jack Sikma at center aren't winning all those titles.
It's hard to think of Kareen as underrated but somehow he's become the Stan Musial of the NBA, the most underappreciated great player. But really, he's more like Hank Aaron in that he was so good late in his career.
Hmm ... forget Ty Cobb's insanity and racism and stupidity, and I'd compare Kareem to Cobb, from a historical perspective. When people refer to the all-time greats of baseball, they also evoke Ruth, Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Junior Griffey, Bonds ... but Cobb often slips out of the conversation. It just happens to some players, even if there's no real good reason. Time omits things, or maybe it just fucks with memories/legacies. Kareem is so painfully overlooked, it's almost a joke. People do their Top 5's, and they always include the likes of Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird, Wilt, Kobe, LeBron, etc. Kareem HAS to be an automatic. To me, the only one we can debate with him is Jordan.
James Worthy was my favorite player on those Laker teams. He seemed like the perfect third star. Do you think he was happy in that role with the Lakers or do you ever get the sense that he wanted to be the main star of his own team?
Worthy was great. Total mystery as a player. Never complained openly, said he longed for the peace and quiet of North Carolina ... but somewhat jealous of the elusive spotlight going elsewhere. Wonderful to speak with. Funny, open.
I also thought the portrait of Norm Nixon was layered.
I absolutely love the man. Charming, smart, wise.
Is he bitter about how it ended for him in L.A.?
He admits he didn't handle everything perfectly back in the day, but also thinks he was misunderstood—and perhaps he was. We sat and spoke inside Debbie Allen's dance studio, which he helps run. The one thing about Norm that's interesting, as far as book reporting goes: Just because someone feels a certain way doesn't always make it so. For example, Norm insists he was never jealous of Magic. There's no way that's true. Like, no possible way. His words back then showed it. His actions showed it. That doesn't mean he's full of shit now—not at all. Time passes, emotions and perspectives change. But it does mean one must pick and choose what he believes, and what constitutes a reliable re-telling of events and feelings.
One of the more interesting transformations in the book is what happens to Riley. He starts off as a shot-and-a-beer, an approachable hardass and turns into something darker, self-aggrandizing.
Riley was warped by success. He was a blue-collar kid from upstate New York who made the mistake of truly believing the job of basketball coach holds worldly importance. By his final years, he was a mean, arrogant, dismissive bully. I've always believed you judge someone by how he treats the waiter. By that measure, he was a colossal failure.
There's an interesting split in the hedonism off the court—the whole Forum Club scene—and how hard the Lakers' stars played. You mention those Nets teams. So many other teams would have just imploded with that kind of nightlife, don't you think?
I agree. I compare two books I've written—Boys Will Be Boys and this one. Many guys on the '90s Cowboys saw partying as the ends, and playing football as the means. They played, because it allowed them to have sex with gorgeous women and snort coke and get high and party like Mötley Crüe. That wasn't the case with the Lakers. They wanted to win—desperately. That's what it was about for Magic, for Norm, for Coop, for Worthy. And the fun—the parties, the women—was a payoff for the hard work. It wasn't WHY they worked hard, it was merely a reward. But winning was the greater reward. Honestly, it all stemmed from Magic. His drive to win surpassed his drive to have sex. It really did.
I love the phrase "historically dumb" to describe Mark Landsberger. Do you think his teammates really thought he was dumb because he told his wife about what his teammates were doing at the Forum Club?
No, they thought Mark Landsberger was dumb because he's dumb. I mean, he really seemed to be quite extraordinarily stupid. I love how a kid asked for Landsberger to sign his name and number—and he wrote his name and phone number. I love how, after their first meeting, he asked Riley if there were any "rebounding plays." I love how he spilled a chocolate shake all over his uniform. He was lovely to speak with, and maybe he was overwhelmed by the '80s. But he wasn't getting into MIT.
The impression I took away from the Magic-Isiah relationship in the book—and elsewhere too—is that they were good friends, really close, until Isiah took a swipe publicly at Bird. Was it really just that or do you detect that there was something deeper?
Honestly, Isiah Thomas is just sort of an asshole, and Magic is not. One guy is goodness, one guy is fake goodness. One guy truly cares about people. One guy, I think, just offers lip service. The Bird thing was an eye-opener for Magic, but I think he was already pretty aware that his buddy was a douchebag.
It makes sense that you end the narrative with Johnson's retirement. But you didn't get into how he handled it, or the aftermath of being HIV positive or what kind of reflection that was of his lifestyle. Why did you make that choice?
Leading into the book, I had no ideas for structure, content ... nothing. I needed to interview people first, then decide. It's how I always wind up working. But, from Day 1, I knew I'd end with Magic saying, "I will have to retire from the Lakers today ..." Because that was it. Showtime was over. The era—basketball, wild living, everything—ended with those words. It's not just symbolism. It's real. The end. So I liked that. I've never wrapped a book with something that jarring and stark, and I kinda dug it. Some people didn't think it worked ... that I needed more. Some people loved it. Guess it's a matter of opinion. Just felt right to me.
Did you ever consider doing a book on the Celtics? Just curious why the Lakers over the Celtics?
A few reasons. 1. Jack McCallum—my friend, colleague and an amazing writer—wrote a terrific book on those Celtics, and I didn't think I could add so much; 2. I hated the Celtics as a kid. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't write the book, but ... well, a lot of the appeal of this whole thing is nostalgia, and I don't have much Celtics nostalgia; 3. Going to L.A., for me, is much cooler than going to Boston. And this book took me to L.A.—a lot. Oddly, I was a Nets fan as a kid. Buck Williams, Pearl Washington, Dennis Hopson. Awful teams. But the Lakers, for 12-year-old Jeffie, growing up in small Mahopac, N.Y., were like a mirage. Swirls of color, beautiful dancers, larger-than-life personas. I wanted to dive back in.
Seems one of the hardest things about a book like this is to recap games and series without becoming dull.
Ugh—so hard. Without naming names or titles, I've read a good number of sports books that read along the lines of, "Against the Kings, the Lakers won 128-112. Then, two nights later, with Byron Scott nursing a sore right knee, they outlasted the Hawks, 101-98. After that ..." And I hate, hate, hate it. I'm a sports fan—but I'm really a personality fan. I like writing about people, with the highs and lows of a season providing the flow.
How did you pick and choose which games to focus on?
I basically print out every single game article from every season, read them, look for interesting nuggets, moments, interactions, etc. If there's something worthwhile, or something that helps explain what's going on with the bigger picture, I might dig in. But it's very hard (for me at least) to bring games to life, especially if I'm going off of clips, not video.
Do you prefer the reporting and research or the writing?
I love/hate both, depending on the day. But there's something about finding people that really does it for me, especially after enough people say, "I haven't heard from that guy in years." In this book, Earl Jones was that man. Nobody with the Lakers had any idea of his whereabouts. Same with ex-college teammates at University of District of Columbia. Found him on a tip, unemployed in West Virginia, bemoaning what he truly believes could have been a Shaq-like career. Early on during the reporting I said to The Wife, "This can be just about 1979-80, and it'd be amazing." In no real order: Jerry Buss buys team. He and Jack Kent Cooke agree to hire Jerry Tarkanian as coach. Tarkanian's agent, who negotiates the deal, goes missing and is later found dead in the trunk of his maroon Rolls. Tark decides to remain at UNLV. Jack McKinney hired as coach, Paul Westhead as assistant. Magic drafted, even though some prefer Sidney Moncrief. Fourteen games into season, first off day, McKinney and Westhead agree to play tennis. En route, McKinney flips over front of bicycle, lands on head, found on side of road unconscious, brought to hospital as John Doe, in coma. Never coaches Lakers again. Westhead takes over, hires unknown mediocre broadcaster named Patrick Riley as assistant. Team wins NBA title running McKinney's offense, but not before coked-out forward Spencer Haywood plots Westhead's murder. Oh, and Magic scores 42 as starting center in a Game 6 clincher vs. Sixers.
McKinney is Showtime's secret sauce. And of course, as great as Magic's Game 6 was, Jabbar was a monster in the first five games of the series.
Did you learn anything about the game, at least how it was played in the '80s that you didn't know before you started this project?
Sure. One thing that truly fascinated me—and something I never, ever considered—was the role of the inbounder. Kurt Rambis, it turns out, might be the greatest inbounder in NBA history. Certainly the most valued. He would gather the ball from the net and, in one fluid motion, step out of bounds while whipping in a pass to Magic or Norm or whoever. Fluid as a wave. Just—whoosh. All those years of people asking why Rambis was starting over Bob McAdoo or A.C. Green, and the answer was this brilliant singular skill.
Cool. I wouldn't have thought of that.
Another thing that fascinates me—the game itself was much less about cool and image than it is now. Yeah, it was there. But the perfect example is the skyhook. Kareem perfected that shot, and throughout the '80s you'd see many other players at least incorporate it. Now: No one. Not Dwight Howard, not Brook Lopez. No one. I had this chat with Mychal Thompson, and it sort of infuriated him. "The hook shot would be a great weapon in 2014," he said, "but guys won't do it, because it doesn't look cool." If that's true—and I believe it is—it's an indictment of today's player.
We're the same age and I remember watching the NBA growing up but I was only a casual fan. It seems as it was a rougher league on some level but there was more scoring. There's the one Finals game where the Lakers scored 140 points, and that was against the great Celtics. You don't see teams scoring that much now against the worst team in the league. Why is that? Was the scoring so much better then or the defense different?
Hmm ... I think coaches were much, much, much more offensively experimental back then. From Jack McKinney and Paul Westhead to Doug Moe and Larry Brown and Frank Layden, there was a funky flex approach to scoring—namely, do whatever the fuck it takes; push, push, push, push. Get the ball in the hole, ASAP. I don't think the NBA has ever been a land of defensive significance or dedication. That hasn't changed.
You've written biographies and books like this and the one about the Cowboys that are more expansive. Do you prefer one to the other?
I'll be 100 percent honest—my favorite books to write are biographies of people. Even though it ended sort of badly (Chicago fans threatening to kill me), the Sweetness experience was truly career-changing for me, as a writer. There's something about traveling along someone's life path, from birth to death, that's extremely rewarding, haunting, sad, happy, breathtaking, soul-crushing, exasperating, amazing. I loved doing Showtime. Loved it. But a sports dynasty's span ain't a life.
I was talking to a writer friend recently about how all of the sports icons have been covered—Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Jim Brown, Jordan. Are there guys from not even the '80s but the '90s that you think merit a full-scale biography based on their impact on sports culture?
Such an interesting question—and a toughie. I once had a great conversation with Leigh Montville when he was doing his terrific Babe Ruth bio. I asked, "Haven't there been many Ruth biographies already?" And he said—not arrogantly at all (he's a terrific man)—"Sure, but there hasn't been my Babe Ruth biography." I get that. I do. Everyone has their own take. Different writers bring different vantages. So maybe Roland Lazenby, whose new Jordan biography comes out soon, has something new and bold. Maybe the great Mays book hasn't been done. Plus, I don't think those are the only guys. I thought Walter Payton was an icon—but he'd never been done. Hell, maybe icon is in the eye of the beholder. Is Griffey an icon? How about Joe Montana? Dan Marino? I don't know who decides.
OK, in honor of your Quaz interviews, let's have some quick fun. Was there anything juicy that you left on the cutting room floor?
Yes. It stays on the floor until Showtime II: Electric Boogaloo.
What book you've got lined up next?
I just agreed to a new deal—but can't say the subject (Jewish paranoia runs deep).
Are there any dream projects?
Dream: Shannon Hoon.
OK, rank in order of preference: Gary Smith, Charlie Pierce, Peter Richmond, Pat Jordan, Frank Deford.
Can't do it. I'm in no position to be ranking the greats of the medium. They're all fantastic.
There were a bunch of really good sports movies in the last '70s—The Bad News Bears, Slap Shot, and Breaking Away (I suppose you could throw in Rocky, too). You have a favorite there?
Absolutely, man. The Kid With the Broken Halo. Ask Chris Stone at SI about our shared love of all things Rudy Desautel.
More annoying: Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter more addictive, Facebook more annoying.
Rank these Grandmaster emcees: Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, KRS-ONE, Kool G Rap, Ice Cube, Chuck D, and LL Cool J.
Chuck D, Big Daddy, Rakim, Cube, LL, Slick Rick, G Rap, KRS.
No love to KRS! Well, then. I asked ...
Much respect. But I'm really a Tupac/Tribe guy at heart. Sorry.
Interesting. I never would have put Tupac and Tribe together.
Tribe and Tupac aren't similar, stylistically, but they were both devoted to a certain genre of hip-hop, and it seems like that level of authenticity has been lost in much of today's rap. They believed in what they were saying, and it wasn't just—or ever—about making money and scoring women. In my personal heaven, they're sharing the stage with Hall and Oates.
Top photo by Brian Lanker/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images.