When a long-term marriage starts to go sour, the more committed partner often tries to rekindle the spark by recalling the good times and bringing out the happy-days scrapbook. Similarly, as L.A. Lakers losses have piled up this season, the team's cable channel has been filled with highlights from the Lakers' 16 championship teams to remind disgusted fans of the glory days that once were and, presumably, will be again.
Based on its cover montage – featuring a triumphant Jerry Buss clutching a championship trophy, a dapper Pat Riley patrolling the sidelines, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, A.C. Green and two scantily clad Laker girls – Jeff Pearlman's Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s looks like the literary counterpart of all that cable propaganda: a nostalgic, feel-good, sentimental journey bathed in soft-focus hues of purple and gold.
Thankfully, it's not. It's actually much darker, much deeper and much better: an exhaustively researched crazy quilt of the all-too-human stories behind the overarching heroes-and-championships narrative. Human stories like Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the beloved icon who was also a manipulative coach killer. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the regal master of the skyhook who was also an arrogant jerk. And like Pat Riley, the easygoing regular guy who morphed into an egomaniacal tyrant.
Oh, sure, it's also a roll call of the memorable moments and fantastic finishes, which older Lakers fans can recite from memory.
But what sets Showtime apart from your standard sports bio is Pearlman's insistence on unflinching honesty. “You don't write a biography of an era and only write the glorious parts,” he says. “You have to tell it all.”
That he does. Consider the title of the first chapter, “Jack Kent Kook,” in which Pearlman lays down the backstory of the team's eccentric, abusive owner, Jack Kent Cooke, who sold the Lakers to Jerry Buss before the 1979-80 season.
“Jack Kent Cooke was a real sicko,” Claire Rothman tells Pearlman. (She's the former vice president of booking at the Lakers' then-home, the Fabulous Forum.) “He once had a heart attack, and there was supposedly some loss of oxygen to the brain. I think that worked him a little bit. Because he was psychologically sick.”
There's also Pearlman's description of Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's leading scorer: “In the modern history of the NBA, there has never been a more socially retarded superstar.” A former senior reporter for Sports Illustrated, Pearlman backs that questionable word up with anecdote after anecdote of Jabbar's arrogance and social ineptitude.
Over the last decade, Abdul-Jabbar has complained repeatedly that he has not been given a chance to coach in the NBA, hinting that his snub must be race-related. But Pearlman tells the Weekly that race has nothing to do with it. Abdul-Jabbar is simply reaping the bitter fruit he sowed while he was on top of the NBA heap: “He was so dismissive and so mean to so many people, he was like the Barry Bonds of basketball.”
Pearlman conducted nearly 300 interviews, and the result includes plenty of jaw-dropping revelations, such as general manager Jerry West hiring a private investigator to spy on star guard Norm Nixon, whom he suspected of using cocaine. The PI, a Lakers fan, tipped off Nixon, who confronted West, denying the allegation. West soon traded Nixon to San Diego.
But had Nixon been using, he wouldn't be alone: The book has an entire chapter on owner Jerry Buss' wild lifestyle and the den of excess called the Forum Club, high above the court, where post-game cocaine flowed freely and players' wives were not welcome.
Despite all the dysfunction off the court, almost everything went right on it starting with Johnson's arrival in 1979 and the acquisitions of Worthy, Byron Scott, Bob McAdoo, Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green over the next decade.
What are the chances of today's beleaguered Lakers having a similar run of good fortune? Not very good, says Pearlman, as long as Jimmy Buss is running the basketball operation and Jeannie Buss is forced to stick to the business side of things.
“Jerry Buss would be mortified if he saw how his team was being run today,” Pearlman says. “Jeannie Buss should be running the team – she's smart, personable and won't interfere with the basketball people.”
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