Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman (Book Review #28 of 2016)

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman.

I enjoyed this book during the 2016 NBA Finals. In some ways, Golden State's small ball run-n-gun is like a throwback to the early 80's Lakers. There is much time and paradigm difference between them, though. The three pointer was a novelty in the 1980s and it's hard to imagine coaches and pundits so blindly unaware of the inefficiency on offense back then. When you have a guy like Byron Scott shooting over 43% from 3-point range but he only takes a few a game, you're leaving points off the board. No analytics back then, alas. Tempo-free statistics would have been helpful to add to this book, it's a lot easier to get a triple-double when there are 120 possessions a game versus only 90. It is also hard to imagine that in the early 1980s the NBA Finals were not televised live on the West Coast so as not to preempt hit shows like the Dukes of Hazzard. Before Magic and Bird, and NBA highlight films by a more savvy media office, NBA stars were not so "super." I read Larry Bird's autobiography Drive which also looked at this era, but Bird's NBA was much less lecherous. This book is a good, sometimes humorous, chronicle of the Lakers' dynasty.

The story begins with the long-forgotten inventor of Showtime: Coach Jack McKinney, who is senile when the author interviews him. He was almost killed in a bike accident during the season and his brain never fully recovered-- he was replaced by Paul Westhead who won the 1980 running McKinney's fast-break style. Jerry Buss had wanted UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian to be his first hire (or co-hire with Jack Kent Cooke who was passing his ownership to Buss). Tarkanian's agent sealed the lucrative deal but then was mysteriously murdered and discovered to have many ties with organized crime; Tark backed out of the deal and allegedly never recovered emotionally.

It is hard to imagine the era. Supposedly 80% of NBA players (and half the Lakers) were using cocaine. Magic Johnson was the first Buss draft pick and fit into the playboy Jack Buss' lifestyle. Buss lived like Hugh Hefner with multiple women and a party lifestyle; Magic famously enjoyed that lifestyle as well and paid heavily for it later with HIV. It was Buss who invented the Laker Girls and renovated the Forum Club to be an after-game place where players could engage with women and celebrities away from their wives. Magic (and Kareem) didn't drink or use drugs, but Magic was known to host Playboy-style orgies where profligacy was mandated. The cocaine-fueled downfall of Spencer Haywood and other Lakers is difficult and almost impossible to imagine today. Perlman doesn't chronicle it, but the epidemic seems to fade by the late 1980s. At one point, Mark Lansberger, who had an open relationship with his wife and other women, told his wife about his teammates' exploits on the road. His wife gossipped with the others and internal scandal insued. He was ostracized and later traded.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was always reading, never fooled, and unfriendly with outsiders. He was accused of "hating white people," ignored or belittled autograph seekers, and was the opposite of Magic, who he repeatedly scolded to "calm down" his rookie season. He only mellowed one time in the decade, when his house burned down and he lost his carpets and thousands of jazz records. Fans would send him their antique jazz records and he would show appreciation, but later became angry and distant again.

After Westhead won the 1980 title, he imposed his own odd system that was the opposite of McKinney's to the dismay of Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson. (Westhead would require his players to run the same way down the court every time, to run the same set plays where they stood around; the opposite of Showtime.) It took a whole season for the whole team to hate him, eventually Magic was the bad guy for getting him fired. It is interesting to hear of the rivarly between coach-and-players as well as teammates vying for playing time and positions. Norm Nixon and Magic competed both with the same women and at point guard. The 1981 Laker team basically imploded, which led Laker assistant and afterthought hire Pat Riley to be thrust into the limelight as coach, who was announced by Buss as a "co-coach" with Jerry West, which West vehemently denied. The Lakers wanted to force Norm Nixon out and hired private investigators to follow him, at which point he agreed to be traded. Magic was vilified in the media and roundly booed by Laker fans after signing a 10-year, $25 million contract. That lasted for all of 10 minutes as he reminded them what value he was on the court.

It wouldn't be a Showtime story without Magic versus Bird. The Lakers players interviewed for the book even use terms like "underrated" to describe Bird-- he was unstoppable for many of them. The Lakers' most satisfying championship was probably the 1987 one. Much of this part lined up with my memory of the battles from Bird's memory in Drive.

Perlman chronicles a lot of unsung heroes on the Laker teams like Jamal Wilkes. He gives the reader an idea of how weird Kurt Rambis was. AC Green later became an All-Star and stood out like a sore thumb in his virginity and desire to share the Gospel with his teammates. I was glad to hear that he was legit in his lifestyle. Michael Thompson filled in as a solid replacement for Kareem in his old age, and Michael Cooper apparently was accutely paranoid-- always convinced the Lakers were going to trade him and working to prove himself. Byron Scott was both tough-minded and an able teammate, a better shooter and athlete than often given credit for.

While Pat Riley introduced a grueling pre-season camp and physical practices, which the players appreciated, eventually he took it too far as a personality cult developed. He would forbid wives from coming on the road and demand that they have one mission during the season-- keep their husbands happy. Eventually, his ego got the best of him as he became ever more demanding and took every loss increasingly poorly. After he stole a Lakers' player's phrase "threepeat" and trademarked it, he became obsessed with obtaining it. He cost the Lakers' the 1989 crown by hosting a mini-camp before the series where he wore the aging players out, and then a grueling practice with unnecessary drills in Detroit caused an industry to Byron Scott that left the team undermanned. The team mutineed and Riley was replaced by Mike Dunleavy who did a good job getting the aged and worn-out Lakers to the 1991 finals against the Bulls-- the last gasp of Showtime.

The end of Magic's career is chronicled, along with the scare it put into players (his teammates quickly swapped lists of mutual partners), and Magic's young marriage. I enjoyed the insights into the aftermath of the careers of those who took part in Showtime.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of five. As mentioned above, it lacks adding any analytical component. It is a nostalgic look back on the 1980s NBA and a team and rivalry (Lakers-Celtics) that launched the NBA into the modern era. It is profanity-laced and pretty insightful into the personal lives of highly-paid athletes in Los Angeles.

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