Pat Riley and Magic Johnson Game Portrait

The Extra Pass: Talking “Showtime” Lakers with author Jeff Pearlman

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Honestly, most sports books blow. I can’t read them. Jeff Pearlman’s books — “Sweetness,” “The Bad Guys Won!” and “Boys Will Be Boys” — are the exception. The former Sports Illustrated columnist (remember he wrote the legendary John Rocker story for the magazine) combines tireless research and great storytelling. It’s just great writing.

His latest book dropped Tuesday: Showtime, Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.

This is in my wheelhouse — I grew up idolizing these teams, Magic remains my favorite player of all time. That’s where my fandom and love of the game is rooted. I’ve been fortunate to have an advance copy and if you are a Lakers fan, a fan of the NBA and just a fan of good sports stories, you will want to read this. It’s an insightful look at one of the NBA’s most influential teams. It is filled with just great story after great story.

Pearlman spoke with me about the book and Showtime (check out the PBT Podcast to come Saturday for the full conversation).

Q: I love that the book opened with Jack McKinney, who was really the architect of Showtime and is so often forgotten. Many fans may not remember but do the people you interviewed from that team realize how important he was?

Jeff Pearlman: “I think the players who were there did. Like Norm Nixon gives Jack McKinney the credit for kicking off Showtime. But even in Los Angeles where this thing happened I bet if you asked 100 Lakers fans and asked them “who’s Jack McKinney?” or showed them a picture of Jack McKinney 99 of them wouldn’t know who he was.

“I just don’t think people know that there was this coach and he was rolling and had this team going in 1979 and he had Magic and Norm Nixon and Kareem buying in, and then he has a bike accident — a bicycle accident, not a motorcycle accident, a bicycle accident — falls on his head, suffers brain damage and it just never happens. It really is an amazing story.”

Q: Not only does McKinney radically change the system the Lakers ran but also he gets Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been the focal point of the offense previously, to buy in.

Pearlman: “I could have written a book just on the 1979-80 Lakers. First they hire Jerry Tarkanian to be their coach then his agent is murdered so he doesn’t take the job. Then they hire Jack McKinney who is this guy nobody knows about. Then they have this 6’9” rookie point guard who they didn’t even want to draft initially, they wanted Sidney Moncrief, then they decide to take him and Jack McKinney says ‘We’re gonna run. And this guy Magic Johnson, some people want him to be a forward in the NBA, he’s not he’s going to be our point guard. Even though we already have arguably the best point guard in the NBA in Norm Nixon, this guy is going to be our point guard. And we’re just going to run teams to death, and even though we have this 7-foot center who is arguably the best player in the NBA, he’s going to run with us.’

“People don’t really get now how crazy it all was and how crazy of an idea it was. We’re going to take this thing that worked pretty well and blow it up and make it something revolutionary. To me that’s the tragedy of Jack McKinney, he could have gone down, I think, as one of the great coaches in the history of the NBA and he’s really just forgotten.”

After McKinney suffered his injury Paul Westhead takes over as Lakers’ coach, continuing to push the pace. But Magic Johnson was the guy who got Westhead fired. Pearlman talked about that and about Magic’s influence on the team.

Pearlman: “There’s a really fascinating part of (Magic’s) time with the Lakers when he was actually disliked in L.A. and it’s when Paul Westhead was fired as the coach and Magic Johnson was pretty responsible for that. He went to Jerry Buss, he said this wasn’t going to work, he demanded to be traded — he knew he wasn’t going to be traded, it was kind of laughable. When Paul Westhead was fired, a very nice guy, the fans turned against Magic briefly, the newspapers certainly turned against Magic briefly, he got tons of hate mail.

“And you know what? The guy was right. He was the only guy on that team who stood up and took a stand. When all those guys were complaining about Westhead, when all those guys thought he was doing a bad job, but none of them had the guts to say anything about it. And I remember when that happened and I remember saying “what a jerk he was for doing that” but you realize later on he wasn’t being a jerk he was being kind of courageous. He was using his voice and his podium to get something done….”

“The other thing about Magic. I live in New York and Carmelo Anthony is the star here. And you just know that after every game Carmelo Anthony is looking at the stat sheet. How many points does he have? You know that guy loves being a top scorer in the NBA. Magic Johnson never cared. He never cared about points, he didn’t care about assists — he just wanted to win. He was a flat out winner. He was the hardest worker on the team, he was the flat out leader on the team.”

Q: Are there some similarities to what Mike D’Antoni tried to do in Phoenix and what some teams in the NBA are trying to do, pushing the pace a little more (though not at Showtime speeds) and getting shots up before the defense can set?

Pearlman: “I think there are some comparisons. I think really the big difference is skill level. What he did in Phoenix was neat and they had a lot of slashers and a lot of push the ball up the court Steve Nash, Shawn Marion type guys. The Lakers just had such unique personnel. Here’s an example. I think a lot of people think of Kurt Rambis as a goon. He was just this goon. A guy who averaged seven points a game and threw his elbows around and he had the glasses. The truth of the matter is Rambis had this singular skill that made him perfect for Showtime — he was the quickest inbounder anyone had ever seen. And they realized this early on when they got Kurt Rambis in one motion he could take the ball out of the hoop, step out-of-bounds and whip a pass to Magic or Norm Nixon.

“So they had these high, high, high skill level guys — Byron Scott, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson, just one after another after another after another. And another thing, and this is the thing Mike D’Antoni’s teams haven’t done, they played ferocious defense. And in Michael Cooper they had one of the great defensive stoppers of the modern era.”

• Pearlman on Jerry Buss:

“To me he deserves it. He deserves the hype, the accolades. He wasn’t just responsible for the Lakers, to me he took the NBA in a new direction. When he bought the Lakers they were just a basketball team — a good basketball team, but just a basketball team. He said ‘I don’t want this, I want basketball to be a show. I want people visiting L.A. who want to see a celebrity to know the place to do that is at the Forum. So he lined the courtside seats with the Jack Nicholsons and Diane Cannons, he brought in the Laker Girls — there were no dancers before, it was a crazy idea — he got rid of the organ player and replaced it with the USC marching band. He started blaring rock music. And the truth of the matter is today, when you look at the NBA, everybody copied Jerry Buss.”

• A great story from the Lakers/Celtics rivalry:

“The Lakers used to have a PR guy named Josh Rosenfeld. I think it was after the game where Kurt Rambis got clotheslined by Kevin McHale (Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals) and after that game everything was really heated. They are at the Boston Garden and I guess Kurt Rambis handed him a towel after the game and the fans are yelling stuff and they are calling Kareem ‘Lew’ for Lew Alcindor and all this stuff.

“So Rosenfeld has this towel and he just chucks it toward the Boston fans and he ends up hitting Robert Parish’s wife in the face. And all of the Celtics are really pissed and some of the Celtics are knocking on the Lakers locker room door, guys like M.L. Carr are really mad and took this as a real thing. So Pat Riley was very upset with Josh Rosenfeld. This was a peripheral opponent (a favorite term of Riley’s), this was something that wasn’t necessary, and he demanded that Josh Rosenfeld apologize.

“The next day it’s an off day, and he goes to the Celtics’ practice. When he sees Robert Parish he says ‘Hey can I talk to you for a minute’ and they sit in the stands and he’s almost getting teary, Josh is, saying ‘I’ve got nothing but respect for you, I certainly didn’t mean to disrespect you. I’m so sorry, really I’m so sorry.’

“And Parish, the Chief, kind of a quiet guy, pauses for a minute and he says, in not so many words, ‘I’ve been waiting for somebody to get that lady to shut up forever. So I have no problem with you.’”

Be sure to check out Saturday’s PBT Podcast for the full conversation with Pearlman, who has many more great stories.

Reports: Bucks to extend Jason Kidd’s contract, hire Jazz’s Justin Zanik as assistant GM

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 20:  Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks stands on the court during introductions to the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 20, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Bucks have a promising young core — led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, John Henson, and Kris Middleton — but one that took a step back this past season. Setbacks can mean changes in the power structure of an organization, and there are changes coming to Milwaukee.

However, not in the coaching ranks — Jason Kidd isn’t going anywhere, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Bucks are moving toward a contract extension with Kidd as coach, league sources said.

There will be changes further up the ladder.

John Hammond, the GM who was the architect of the current roster, has just one year left on his current contract, and the Bucks are bringing in Utah’s Justin Zanik as a GM in waiting, according to Wojnarowski.

Zanik, an assistant general manager with Utah, will join the Bucks with a similar job title – and an agreement that he will eventually become the successor to Milwaukee GM John Hammond, sources said.

Zanik has constructed a strong reputation within the league as a front-office executive and previously a player agent. Milwaukee was aggressive in pursuing him to eventually lead the franchise’s basketball operations.

The key is can Zanik and Kidd work together — Kidd has consistently pushed for more power in personnel decisions.

Bucks owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry have been aggressive since buying the team, and you can expect Zanik will be under orders to get this team back to the playoffs and back on an upward trajectory. That may just take time as all their young talent comes together. Well, that and they have to figure out how to make Greg Monroe fit with everyone else.

Watch Klay Thompson’s record 11 playoff three pointers

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Klay Thompson was ridiculous. His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see.”

That was how Warrior coach Steve Kerr described Thompson’s night — a playoff record 11 three pointers on his way to 41 points, sparking Golden State’s Game 6 win on the road. It wasn’t just the threes, it was the degree of difficulty on some of those shots — he was just in the zone. Not the Blake Griffin commercial zone, the real one.

 

Klay Thompson shoots Warriors to comeback win in Oklahoma City, forces Game 7

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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What. A. Game.

In the most intense game of these playoffs, Golden State came from eight down to start the fourth quarter behind the red-hot shooting of Klay Thompson — he set an NBA record with 11 threes in a playoff game and had 19 points in the fourth quarter — as the Warriors outscored the Thunder 16-4 in the final 4:40 of the game. Thompson had help with the defense of Andre Iguodala making plays on both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, getting key steals and making plays down the stretch.

The result was a 108-101 Golden State win in Oklahoma City to even the series at 3-3 and force a Game 7 Monday night at Oracle Arena.

Which is just good for fans of basketball because this series has been thrilling.

It didn’t feel thrilling to OKC, this was a punch to the gut for the Thunder, who had a 13 point lead in the first half at seemed in complete control early of a game that could have sent them to the NBA Finals. However, as the game got tight late the Thunder reverted to bad habits — everyone standing around watching Durant and Westbrook go one-on-one. The result was the two Thunder stars combined for 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting with six turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, four turnovers in the final two minutes. For the game, the Thunder shot 13 percent from three.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ Thompson wasn’t just making threes, he was making high degree of difficulty threes on his way to 41 points on the night.

“Klay Thompson was ridiculous,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see. I think he set a record for threes (he did), but our defense was fantastic. We kept getting stops, but we couldn’t get the board, but we stayed with it.”

Stephen Curry, who had struggled again in the first half and still doesn’t look 100 percent except in flashes, had one of those flashes in the fourth quarter — six points which included a dagger driving layup and the steal that sealed the win. He finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on the night.

Curry and Thompson combined for 61 of the Warriors last 81 points in the game.

That finish was the opposite of how everything started for Golden State.

The Warriors opened the game 8-of-28 from the field and shot just 36 percent overall, plus had 10 turnovers in the first half. It was the Thunder defense that seemed to be back to form and under that pressure the Warriors reverted to some sloppy play — for example, Curry trying to make a playground pass to a shooter in the corner when a floater or layup was available (Kevin Durant stole that pass). Curry once again seemed hesitant early on in this game. Also, Steve Kerr oddly sat Thompson, Curry and Draymond Green all at the same time in the first half and that fueled a quick OKC run — and their building was rocking.

But they couldn’t sustain it.

“That hasn’t been us the last month and a half,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of his team’s performance in the fourth. “I thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch, and then I thought us defensively, we were a little bit late.”

For much of the game the Thunder played well — Steven Adams was a beast again, Serge Ibaka made plays — but they couldn’t put the Warriors away in the first half. Part of that was Durant, who started just 2-of-10 from the field and was shooting to quickly too often. He was 10-of-31 shooting for the game.

It was Westbrook who had the Thunder up by as many as 13 in the first half. Then Warriors got a few stops, and the three ball (Curry and Thompson were 6-of-12 from deep in the first half) kept it close, it was just a five-point game at the break, 53-48.

Thompson drained a couple of threes to open the second half and with that the game was close through the third, however, Curry started to find his groove and scored 11 straight for the Warriors at one point. The Thunder made a push at the end of the quarter — with Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter on the court — and led by eight heading into the fourth.

It wasn’t enough. There was the long Curry three over Adams to make it a one-point game with four minutes left. Westbrook hit a couple of free throws but on the next Thunder possession Durant called for a clear out that the Warriors doubled, got the steal, then got the Curry three in transition to tie it with 2:47 left.

In the end, it was too much of the shooting magic that got the Warriors 73 wins. And they got the Game 7 they needed.

“I don’t think there can be any more pressure on us in Game 7 than there was tonight,” Kerr said.

 

Steven Adams gets his revenge, dunks all over Draymond Green (VIDEO)

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That’s a piece of revenge.

Draymond Green twice kicked Steven Adams in the nether regions this series, but with the chance to close out the Warriors in Game 6 Adams got some revenge — he put Green in a poster and dunked all over him.

This came as part of a second quarter run when the Thunder stretched the lead out to double digits.