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.

Heat hang on with Wade’s heroics, force Game 7 vs. Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 29:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat directs teammates against the Charlotte Hornets during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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“It’s a make-or-miss league” has been a worn-out cliche in the NBA for years, but it was never more apt than Friday night. Dwyane Wade, a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter who hadn’t hit a shot from beyond the arc in the calendar year of 2016, knocked down two threes late to help the Miami Heat hold on and beat the Charlotte Hornets, 97-90, to force a Game 7 on Sunday.

Wade finished with 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists to lead Miami, and had a key block in the closing minute to stave off a Charlotte comeback. The Heat held off Kemba Walker‘s 37-point explosion, which kept Charlotte in the game for much of the second half even as they never led in the third or fourth quarters.

Neither team got much out of their benches, and Miami overcame a rough night from Goran Dragic (6-for-17 from the field) and Hassan Whiteside fouling out in just 28 minutes of action. A three by Walker cut Miami’s lead to 90-88, the closest the Hornets got in the second half.

The two teams will now play a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday, with the winner facing the winner of that same day’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers.

Lakers announce hire of Luke Walton as head coach

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 20:  Interim head coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors chats with referee Derrick Stafford #9 during a game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Less than a week after firing head coach Byron Scott, the Lakers have their man to replace him: Luke Walton, who is currently associate head coach with the Warriors and coached the team to a 39-4 start to the season while Steve Kerr was out recovering from offseason back surgery.

The Lakers announced the hiring of Walton in a press release on Friday evening:

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Lakers and Luke Walton reached an agreement on a multi-year contract for Walton to become the next Head Coach of the team, it was announced by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Walton will begin his new duties at the conclusion of the Golden State Warriors season.
“We’re excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he’s going to start an outstanding coaching career,” said Kupchak. “He’s one of the brightest young coaching minds in the game and we feel fortunate that he’ll be leading the on-court future of our team.”

The Warriors released statements from Kerr and GM Bob Myers after the Lakers’ announcement:

“We are thrilled for Luke,” said Warriors GM Bob Myers.  “This is a tremendous opportunity for him to return home and serve as head coach for one of the most storied franchises in sports.   Luke has done an incredible job during his two-year stint with our team and has played a significant role in our success, including last year’s championship and again this season under some very unique circumstances.  We are certainly going to miss Luke after we conclude our playoff run this season, but we wish him the very best with the Lakers.”

“I’m incredibly happy for Luke,” said Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr.  “As we witnessed earlier this season, he has all of the intangibles necessary to be an outstanding head coach in this league, including a terrific understanding of the game the ability to communicate with a wide range of people.   He’s certainly ready for this opportunity and I’m confident he’ll do a great job with the Lakers once our season is complete.”

Walton had long been rumored to be the Lakers’ top target, given his successful run with the Warriors and his ties to the organization, where he played for nine seasons. It’s a solid hire, not a big name but someone with a good reputation around the league.

Drake performs free concert outside Air Canada Centre before Raptors playoff game

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Singer Drake celebrates after Terrance Ross #31 of the Toronto Raptors sinks a 3-pointer in the second half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Game 6 of the Raptors-Pacers series is in Indianapolis, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from gathering outside the Air Canada Centre to watch it. And those people got rewarded for their trouble with a free impromptu performance by Drake. Here’s a video:

https://twitter.com/DilTamber/status/726213270986579968/video/1

Drake just released his latest album, Views, last night, and it includes several NBA references in the lyrics.

Optimism high as Celtics enter a likely active offseason

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BOSTON — The emergence of an All-Star and lots of victories made the Celtics one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season.

It also left Boston with lots of questions following its second straight first-round exit from the playoffs – this one, a six-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks – with a young roster that probably still needs a few more pieces to make the next step.

It has lots of draft picks and salary cap space to play with, which promises to make the summer an active one for the Celtics.

“This is probably the closest them I’ve been on. I love being around the guys. But everybody sees it. We do need a little more,” said point guard Isaiah Thomas, who averaged a career-best 22.2 points and was named to his first All-Star appearance in February. “(Celtics President Danny Ainge) will do his part. I know he will and this organization will come back even better.”

The rebuilding project that began three years ago under coach Brad Stevens is clearly ahead of schedule. The franchise that hit the reset button after the departure of Doc Rivers and its Big Three has gotten production from a young core anchored by Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.

Under Stevens’ defensive-minded approach Boston blossomed into one of the NBA’s stingiest teams.

“You go from…under .500 and barely making the playoffs and kind of eking in at the end by winning six straight, to being in the mix for being a top-four seed in the East. And so yes, there’s progress,” he said.

As much as Stevens recognizes the improvements, he said he also knows the bar only goes up from here.

“People have told me all along there’s two really tough tasks, right? One is getting to be a very good, competitive team at a top 10-15 level on offense and defense and give yourself a chance to be in the discussion we’re in now. And that’s been a path in the last three years to get there,” Stevens said.

Here are some other things to note as the Celtics head into the offseason:

HEALING UP: Before the Celtics can think about potential roster changes, they first have to make sure the players they have are healthy. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk was only able to suit up in four of Boston’s playoff games after aggravating a right shoulder injury in Game 1 against the Hawks. Guard Avery Bradley was lost for the playoffs in that game with a strained right hamstring.

Olynyk said he planned to get multiple opinions from doctors on what his next step will be. They haven’t discussed a need for surgery, though he said nothing has been ruled out.

DRAFT PICKS GALORE: Ainge is known for his deal-making abilities and will have eight total draft picks in June, including three in the first round. The biggest, is the Nets’ unprotected first-round pick Boston acquired in 2013 when it traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. The Nets finished with the league’s third-worst record and have about a 16 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in May’s lottery.

Ainge has made it clear to Thomas that he wants him to be involved in the wooing of potential free agents this summer, and is in a symbolic move will send Thomas to represent the team at the lottery.

“I can get a few guys here,” Thomas said. “I’m gonna do my job…I’m gonna do the best I can to put my recruiting hat on.”

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Boston only has a handful of decisions to make with the roster it currently has. Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger are both restricted free agents who could be expendable. Meanwhile the contacts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko aren’t fully guaranteed for next season if they are waived by July 3. The most interesting question is what to do with unrestricted free agent Evan Turner. His second year in Boston was his best season since 2013-14, but his production will certainly garner interest around the league. He said he wants to return, but that could depend on just how high his price tag winds up being.

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower