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.

Russell Westbrook’s no-look, two-hand, behind-his-head pass ignites Thunder break

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Russell Westbrook was just himself — hustling, attacking, and getting his fifth triple-double in a row Sunday night against the Pelicans.

But the play of the night didn’t get him any points or an assist. It was Westbrook hustling, getting to the floor to get a loose ball, then making the showtime pass to start a Globetrotters-like fast break that ended with an Andre Roberson dunk.

Westbrook had an impressive dunk of his own.

NBA VP Kiki VanDeWeghe on “unnaturual acts:” “Our rules are for every player”

draymond green
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The NBA has tried to crack down on “unnatural acts” — players flailing body parts trying to draw a foul call.

At the heart of that is Golden State’s Draymond Green, who picked up a flagrant foul for the unnatural act of getting his leg high enough to kick James Harden in the face Thursday night. Green fired back at the league, saying in part, “It’s funny how you can tell me how I get hit and how my body is supposed to react. I didn’t know the league office was that smart when it came to body movements.” Green’s argument is that he was fouled in the air and the high leg was the natural act of him trying to keep his balance. (Doesn’t matter, it’s a reckless act and if you kick someone in the face you should get a flagrant foul. Also, try explaining the kick on Marquese Chriss on Saturday that way.)

Former All-Star NBA player as well as coach Kiki VanDeWeghe is now an NBA vice president and the guy who is the decision maker on these reviews and fouls. He spoke with Sam Amick of the USA Today about how those unnatural act rules are applied.

“Our rules are for every player,” VanDeWeghe told USA TODAY Sports. “We want each play judged according to the rules, as best possible, and the rules applied fairly across our whole league. That’s very important to us. We don’t make exceptions for players. They are applied to everybody.

“In Draymond’s particular case (against the Houston Rockets on Thursday), he had an arm flail which struck the player (James Harden) in the neck-head area. And then in addition to that, he had a kick up above the head of the defender. As he brought his leg down, his heel hit him in the face. It wouldn’t matter what player we’re talking about (it’s a foul)….

“Most of these are done to draw the attention of the referees. We noticed an uptick in these last year, and they needed to be addressed by the competition committee.”

While Green feels singled out — “marked” is what he tweeted — VanDeWeghe noted that competition committee included owners, coaches, GMs, people from the players union, and a lot of people with playing experience, who all sat down as a group and studied what is and is not an “unnatural act.” As Amick noted, it isn’t just Green who gets hit with these penalties, although he gets the headlines: Boston’s Marcus Smart was given a Flagrant One for his kick to the groin of the Miami’s Hassan Whiteside; Thursday LeBron James was given a technical foul for his blow to the head of the Clippers’ Alan Anderson.

So long as Green continues to make these acts — and the kick to Chriss Saturday suggests they are not slowing down — the crackdown will continue.

Watch Raptors PG Kyle Lowry throw a full-court alley oop to Pascal Siakam

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Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry is having an excellent year for the Eastern Conference Finals hopefuls, and part of that is due to his vision. On Saturday, Lowry threw a full-court lob to Pascal Siakam that was mighty impressive.

After a missed shot in the middle of the third quarter by the Atlanta Hawks, Lowry gathered the rebound on the left block and quickly turned his eyes downcourt.

Siakam, the No. 27 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, was streaking toward the Raptors basket and behind the Hawks defense.

Lowry took advantage with a long-distance heave after one dribble at the free-throw line, and Pascal was able to gather and softly lay the ball up at the rim.

Warriors F Draymond Green kicks Marquese Chriss in the hand (VIDEO)

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Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green was not punished with an additional fine for kicking Houston Rockets G James Harden in the face on Dec. 1. Perhaps that emboldened him to kick another opponent just two days later in Phoenix Suns rookie Marquese Chriss.

While attempting a rip through move on Chriss in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game, Green could be seen kicking Chriss in the hand.

Chriss, in some obvious pain, immediately ran over to the bench and was replaced by Jared Dudley.

Meanwhile, Green didn’t even draw a foul. On the other end of the floor, P.J. Tucker was trying to fight through a screen and was called for both a personal foul and a technical foul after arguing.

It seems that there’s not much stopping Green from trying to damage opponents. He infamously missed Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals due to his extracurricular activity, his absence perhaps acting as the catalyst to swing a series in which the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There was no fine for kicking the league’s best MVP candidate in Harden, and no reaction from officials for kicking Chriss.

This came just a day after Green complained about how the league was treating him and how he should control his body.

In the last six months, Green has hit or kicked Harden, Chriss, Kyrie Irving, Allen Crabbe, and Steven Adams (twice).