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.

Emotional DeMarcus Cousins near tears saying goodbye to Sacramento after trade

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Kings’ general manager Vlade Divac took a parting shot at DeMarcus Cousins‘ character when he spoke to the media about the deal.

Cousins could be challenging in the locker room, but he was committed to Sacramento in ways most teams wish their star would be. He was active in the community, did charity work, and was not one of the players that alerted the media and dragged along a video crew when he did. Cousins loves Sacramento.

You can see it as he tears up when saying goodbye to those close to him in this video.

On the court, the trade to New Orleans and the chance to play next to Anthony Davis could be a huge boost for Cousins’ career. We’ll never know what could have been if the Kings knew how to draft or stuck with a system/coach.

But off the court, Sacramento will miss him. And he will miss them.

All-Star game television ratings are best since 2013

Western Conference forward Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans (23 ) slam dunks during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, Pool)
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NEW YORK (AP) — The NBA All-Star game drew an average audience of 7.8 million viewers, making it the most-viewed All-Star broadcast since 2013.

Turner Sports announced the numbers on Monday. The number of viewers peaked at 8.5 million and the total audience was up 3 percent from last year’s game.

The hype surrounding the game centered on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing on the Western Conference team together. Durant left Oklahoma City last summer to join Golden State, leaving his longtime teammate Westbrook behind with the Thunder. Westbrook did not hide his dissatisfaction with Durant, which ratcheted up the intrigue heading into the game on Sunday.

The two shared the court for just 81 seconds and Oklahoma City posted the highest local market rating with a 10.9.

Report: Timberwolves, Knicks discuss Derrick Rose trade

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 02:  Derrick Rose #25 of the New York Knicks takes a shot as Kris Dunn #3 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends at Madison Square Garden on December 2, 2016 in New York City.The New York Knicks defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 118-114. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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The Timberwolves — 3.5 games and five teams out of playoff position — have made reaching the postseason this year a priority.

So, within that nonsensical goal apparently comes a nonsensical idea: Trading for Derrick Rose.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The Minnesota Timberwolves have reached out to the Knicks recently to discuss potential trades for New York point guard Derrick Rose, sources told ESPN.

The Timberwolves, sources say, are among several teams to reach out to the Knicks asking about potential trades for Rose.

Rose, of course, played for Timberwolves president/coach Tom Thibodeau with the Bulls. That makes this report both plausible and something the Knicks would leak to drum up interest.

I can’t imagine a market especially eager to acquire Rose, who will become a free agent next summer. His $21,323,252 salary is difficult to match in trades without sending out too valuable of players. Rose has become a good downhill driver, but the rest of his game is lacking after years of injuries.

The Timberwolves have nearly $13 million of cap space, which could be useful in facilitating a deal. But they also have three intriguing point guards: Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones.

If Minnesota really wants Rose, it could just sign him this summer. His Bird Rights shouldn’t matter much. Who would give the 28-year-old a five-year contract?

Rubio for Rose straight up works financially, for what it’s worth. The Timberwolves shouldn’t do that, but we don’t know enough about Tom Thibodeau running a front office to assume they won’t.

Report: Pelicans trying to trade Terrence Jones

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After their trade today, the Pelicans have the NBA’s most dynamic big-man tandem: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Davis and Cousins are tall, athletic and skilled in a combination we might have never seen from any power forward-center duo since Charles Barkley-Hakeem Olajuwon. New Orleans’ two could thrive together, and while they develop chemistry, they’ll each likely get minutes without the other.

That doesn’t leave much playing time for someone like Terrence Jones.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Jones settled for a one-year minimum contract after an injury-plagued and inconsistent tenure with the Rockets. His inconsistency remains, but considering his salary, his highs more than justify dealing with the lows. At just 25, Jones could still figure out how to reliably contribute.

Jones’ contract dictates he be rental, which will lower his trade value. But he could help teams trying to win down the stretch — including New Orleans.

Dante Cunningham seems more favored at power forward, and Donatas Motiejunas can fill in. But the Pelicans could still use Jones.

Shopping him might be a favor to the player, but we’ll see whether an actual trade is part of the gesture.