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.

Report: Draymond Green won’t receive flagrant foul for tripping Enes Kanter

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors looks to rebound against Kevin Durant #35 and Enes Kanter #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Another day, another Draymond Green controversy.

But at least this time – when it comes to Green tripping Enes Kanter in Game 4 – we won’t have to wait so long for the result.

One flagrant point away from suspension, Green avoids that major penalty.

 

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green won’t be given a flagrant one foul for getting tied up with Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.

I’m fine with this. I’m far from convinced Green did it intentionally, and I’d have a hard time punishing someone on a weak hunch.

That said, I would’ve also been fine with the league ruling it a flagrant 1. Green has jumped all around the line so often this series, he’s running out of plausible deniability.

Kawhi Leonard only player on every All-Defensive team ballot, gets all first-team votes

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MARCH 12: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs focus on defense against the Oklahoma City Thunder at AT&T Center on March 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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There wasn’t much consensus among All-Defensive voters, except for this.

Kawhi Leonard is really good.

The back-to-back reigning Defensive Player of the Year  was the only player to appear on every ballot, and he made the first team on all 130. He leads a pretty well-selected group:

First team

Second team

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Rudy Gobert, Utah, 64 (17); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 49 (16); Jae Crowder, Boston, 47 (3); LeBron James, Cleveland, 43 (5); Kyle Lowry, Toronto, 43 (9); Danny Green, San Antonio, 39 (9); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 35 (12); Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 33 (5); Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 30 (6); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 27 (3); Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 24 (3); Andre Drummond, Detroit, 14 (5); Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City, 14 (1); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 13 (3); Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 13 (3); Patrick Beverley, Houston, 11 (1); Al Horford, Atlanta, 7 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 7 (2); John Wall, Washington, 6; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 3; Kent Bazemore, Atlanta, 3; Andrew Bogut, Golden State, 3 (1); DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento, 3 (1); Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Victor Oladipo, Orlando, 2 (1); LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Harrison Barnes, Golden State, 1; Bismack Biyombo, Toronto, 1; Mike Conley, Memphis, 1; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City, 1; Derrick Favors, Utah, 1; George Hill, Indiana, 1; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, Los Angeles Clippers; Kristaps Porzingis, New York, 1; Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 1; Mike Scott, Atlanta, 1; Dwyane Wade, Miami, 1

Thoughts:

  • No major gripes about the first or seconds teams. The voters did pretty well.
  • I rated Tony Allen as having the best defensive season by a guard by pretty wide margin. Paul and Bradley had better PR, though. Paul, who has made the first team five straight years, is a mainstay. Bradley benefited from Damian Lillard calling him the NBA’s best perimeter defender, which might overstate Bradley’s admittedly impressive ability to cover his man but definitely ignores other facets of defense (particularly rebounding).
  • I’m quibbling, tough. Paul and Bradley are very good defenders. This is more about Allen than them. And I’ll miss Allen shouting “First team All-Defense!”
  • Russell Westbrook is by far the most overrated player in this voting. There’s a wide gulf between his defensive ability and defensive output.
  • Strangest vote-getter? Mike Scott.

Report: Joakim Noah tells teammates he’s leaving Bulls

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 15:  Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls runs off of the court after dislocating his left shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks at the United Center on January 15, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Mavericks defeated the Bulls 83-77. 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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Joakim Noah said in January he wanted to re-sign with the Bulls. Chicago reportedly wants to keep him.

A perfect match?

Not quite.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

According to a Bulls player, Noah has been telling teammates the last few weeks that he was done with the organization once free agency begins, and “has no trust in the front office getting this in the right direction.’’

The player was asked if Noah’s feelings had anything to do with first-year coach Fred Hoiberg and the he said, he said that went on early in the season when Noah lost his starting job, and insisted that Noah didn’t offer up that as an explanation.

What was offered up, however, was the fact that there seems to be a complete mistrust that multiple players have toward general manager Gar Forman, with Noah leading the way.

Noah and Hoiberg publicly disagreed about whose choice it was for Noah to come off the bench. Hoiberg said it was Noah’s. Noah said it was Hoiberg’s.

That looked like a petty problem, one both sides could – and maybe did – get over. But it seems Noah has deeper concerns.

This has been a rough year for the Bulls, who missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. That unexpected downturn takes a toll on chemistry and brings buried problems to the surface. That’s especially true considering Chicago fired Tom Thibodeau – a coach who looks better in hindsight. If players miss Thibodeau, that opens the door for them to turn on Forman, who forced out Thibodeau.

That said, the Bulls are probably better off letting Noah walk. He’s 31 and has been banged up the last couple years. I wouldn’t commit big money to him with Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis under contract and the need for faster players to run Hoiberg’s system. Chicago can’t quickly solve its Jimmy ButlerDerrick Rose issue, because Butler is worth keeping and Rose is under contract another year on a difficult-to-trade deal. But shedding Noah and using the resulting cap flexibility elsewhere gets the team headed in the right direction.

For his part, Noah can seek a fresh start – how about with Thibodeau in Minnesota? – and find a team that suits him, either a win-now squad or a younger group seeking veteran leadership.

Report: Indiana junior Troy Williams staying in NBA draft

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Troy Williams #5 of the Indiana Hoosiers reacts in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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An Indiana player – Thomas Bryant – who likely would’ve been a first-round pick didn’t even declare for the draft without an agent.

Another Indiana player – Troy Williams – who might not even get picked will stay in the draft.

Gregg Doyel of The Indianapolis Star:

Williams, a 6-foot-7 small forward, is an excellent athlete. He’s not strong enough and hasn’t shown enough awareness to project him defending well in the NBA yet. But his length, quickness and leaping ability give him potential on that end. That and transition offense will have to carry him for now, because his outside shot is unimpressive.

There are players like Williams in every draft. It’s on him to convince a team that he has the work ethic and intelligence to refine his game.