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.

Watch Isiah Thomas work out Lakers No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball (VIDEO)

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Lonzo Ball Is finally a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic Johnson & Co. took him with the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday.

Despite a few issues with his draft workouts with the Lakers, Ball was still the top choice for Los Angeles when they came to select after Markelle Fultz was off the board. The Lakers have already given Ball more control of the team after trading D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets last week.

Before the draft, Ball took some time out to work in his back yard and on his home court with NBA legend Isiah Thomas.

Check out the interaction between the two and see where Ball grew up learning to shoot his oddly-formed but highly-accurate jumper.

Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki to Harrison Barnes: “You need major skill to get to 20 years”

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Harrison Barnes is set to be a foundational piece for the Dallas Mavericks for years to come. He is trying to learn all he can from one of the greatest Mavericks of all time in Dirk Nowitzki.

So what has Barnes learned under Nowitzki’s tutelage?

Well, for one thing, he’s going to need to learn an elite-level skill if he wants to lead when Nowitzki is gone.

Speaking with the Dallas News, Barnes said that Nowitzki sarcastic but tough when it comes to gym habits and player development.

Via Dallas News:

“Honestly, I’ve just been trying to work as hard as I can and spend as much time as I can with him in the gym. I remember one day at practice we’re standing on the sidelines on the gym and said, ‘Oh man, Dirk, you’re about to get to 20 years. That’s impressive. Do you think I can get to 20 years?’ He’s like, ‘No way man. You need major skill to get to 20 years.’ So that’s kind of the nature of our relationship. I just want to try to become the best basketball player that I can and follow the mold that he’s set here in Dallas for years and years of just constantly getting better every single year.”

Knowing Dirk’s personality, there is a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek happening here but he’s not entirely wrong.Barnes was a jack of all trades for the Golden State Warriors before he signed his contract with the Mavericks. Nowitzki is one of the greatest scores in NBA history, and he obviously has more than one major skill under his belt.

Even still, it’s good advice for Barnes moving forward.

It’s time for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz to turn 76ers into winners

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Markelle Fultz already has his first turnover as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It came in an Instagram post sponsored by a watch company. “Excited to head to (City) and join the (team name). (at)Tissot.us is helping me get started with my (team name) watch,” Fultz posted, not bothering to actually fill in the blanks.

Ah, it’s a process. Or rather, The Process. And the Sixers have plenty of blanks to fill in on their roster before becoming a playoff contender.

The No. 1 overall pick in this NBA draft has become an instant fan favorite before signing his rookie contract. The 6-foot-4 guard out of Washington has gone on late-night TV and boasted of his love of Philly cheesesteaks, made a social media connection with franchise player Joel Embiid and dazzled on draft night with a pair of orange sneakers made of the same leather used to make NBA game balls.

If that wasn’t enough, Philly fans found an open love letter from Fultz to the city on The Players’ Tribune.

“What’s up, Philly? You good? I’m pretty good,” Fultz wrote . “Today is a good day. Today we take The Process to another level.”

Long the league laughingstock, it’s the Sixers’ turn to clap back, with Embiid and Ben Simmons poking fun on Twitter at Lonzo Ball and his father, LaVar.

Moments after LaVar Ball went on TV and declared of his son, “From the words of Zeus, Jesus, everybody said he gonna be a Laker,” Simmons simply tweeted, “Crazy pills .” Embiid quickly chimed in with, “Please dunk on him so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him.”

But the Sixers aren’t counting on the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid core to simply entertain in 140-character bursts. They expect the trio to help lead the franchise to their first playoff appearance since 2012 and first championship since 1983.

“It’s been a while,” team president Bryan Colangelo said, pointing toward championship banners hanging in the team’s New Jersey complex.

Here’s a look at how they might get to 35-50 wins over the next two seasons:

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STEP ON THE GAS

First, Simmons and Embiid need to be healthy.

Embiid, who missed his first two seasons with foot injuries, was placed on minutes restrictions in 2016-17 and was banned from playing both games of back-to-back contests. Despite the precautionary steps, Embiid played in only 31 games and needed surgery on his left knee in March.

Simmons missed his rookie season with a broken right foot.

“I think both Ben and Joel are on course for recovery,” Colangelo said Friday. “We anticipate a full, healthy roster.”

Colangelo said Embiid would have no minutes’ restrictions this season, provided he stays healthy.

“He plays with reckless abandon and some of that has got to be controlled,” Colangelo said.

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IT TAKES TWO

Coach Brett Brown had said all year that Simmons would open next season as the point guard. Simmons seemed excited at his shot to run the show until a confluence of events and a trade with Boston for the No. 1 pick that netted Fultz.

No worries, for now. Brown said Simmons and Fultz, who will play in the summer league, could work well together in the backcourt, no matter which player is the ballhandler.

“It’s a really exciting challenge to have where you try to grow those two players and let them coexist and learn more about each other,” Brown said. “The start of the season and training camp and the month of September are really going to be important for us to allow those guys to feel each other and the coaching staff to be able to truly see it on the court.”

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TOUCH OF GREY

So who shall lead the talented trio of Embiid-Fultz-Simmons, a trifecta of first- and second-year players. The Sixers have long needed a veteran both in the locker room and to help lead on the court.

“Those young guys need nurturing and they need veteran leadership. To think that you’re going to go into a season with a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and Joel Embiid, as much as we love him and see how special he is, the reality is those three players have played a cumulative 31 NBA games,” Brown said. “And holding a locker room, growing those guys, helping them navigate NBA life and NBA games is a very powerful message when it comes from a player. And trying to identify veterans that have the ability to nurture and help those three, especially, is one of the main priorities.”

WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART

Sixers fans have been very patient, and they may have stay that way.

They waited two years for Dario Saric to come from his overseas commitments. They waited two years for Embiid to recover from injuries.

They may have to wait two more years for Latvian center, and first-round pick, Anzejs Pasecniks. Pasecniks, who most recently played with Gran Canaria, a Spanish basketball club, has two more years left on his deal and may not immediately join the Sixers. Second-round picks Jonah Bolden and power forward Mathias Lessort out of France also won’t join the team next season.

But when they do, they could be the final pieces for a contender.

“Everything is designed with a championship in mind,” Colangelo said.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: Mavericks will decline $25 million option for Dirk Nowitzki, sign him to new deal

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Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki had a huge $25 million team option on his contract for the upcoming 2017-18 NBA season. It now appears that the team will not exercise that option, and will instead try to re-sign their star player for an additional few years.

Given the context of the Mavericks roster, it makes sense that the team would want to allocate its resources as the NBA salary cap goes even further up the scale. Nowitzki’s salary would have remained a huge chunk of change as the Mavericks yet again try to go after free agents this summer.

While a restructuring of his contract to, say, half the amount it would have been originally would not give Dallas room for a max-level free agent, it could at least give them the capacity to go after mid-level exception type of players.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what kind of contract the Mavericks will try to sign Nowitzki to. Reports at this point say that a two-year deal for Nowitzki Is one of the options are being considered.

The question now will be what kind of deal will Mark Cuban offer his favorite player, And how low Nowitzki Is willing to go.

Via ESPN:

Nowitzki’s advanced statistics were down from prior seasons, particularly affecting his offensive efficiency thanks to dips in both field goal percentage and free-throw rate. He also only played and 54 games last year, a real concern as the Dallas roster looks to be carried by a player going into his age 39 season.