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.

Winners, losers of (eventual) trade of Trevor Ariza to Washington

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It was on. Then it was off over confusion of Brookses.

Eventually, it was back on again in a different form: Trevor Ariza was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Washington Wizards for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers. No picks, nothing fancy, just a straight player swap.

Who came out on top in this deal? Let’s look at the winners and losers.

WINNER: Trevor Ariza. You can’t blame Trevor Ariza for bolting Houston last summer. The Rockets were trying to manage costs then along comes Phoenix offering the largest payday of Ariza’s career and a little more than double what he made the year before. Of course he took the cash, we’d all have. But Ariza was an awkward fit in Phoenix on a team of young players still trying to find their game, and a team without a point guard to speak of. Ariza is a role-playing wing who can knock down threes and play good defense, fitting into a system with smart veteran players… except that’s not the Suns. Ariza looked like a round peg on a team with square holes, and he was taking more two-point shots and struggling with them (40.2 percent overall on twos and just 49 percent in the restricted area). Now, Ariza gets his big paychecks and gets sent out of town. But…

LOSER: Trevor Ariza. He ended up with the Wizards, the most dysfunctional locker room in the NBA. A team where there have been apathetic efforts on the court and finger-pointing off it — not something adding a role player solves, especially when the effort issues can start with the team’s “best” player. Worse for Ariza, he had been rumored to a number of teams looking to go deep in the playoffs, including his former team the Rockets, the improved Thunder, and his hometown Lakers (he played his college ball at UCLA) but he ended up with the Wizards. Ariza’s skill set fits better with what the Wizards’ need than it did in Phoenix (he’s an upgrade over Oubre), and he unquestionably will be solid for them. However, no matter how good Ariza is as the adult in the locker room (and he is a respected veteran leader) he is not going to solve the long-running personality problems in our nation’s capital.

WINNER: Memphis Grizzlies. They stayed out of this mess. While GM Chris Wallace should get a little blame for how the Brooks screw up went down, it appears it was more the Wizards’ GM Ernie Grunfeld and the Suns leaking things that were the bigger issues. The Grizzlies were smart never to want to give up Dillon Brooks — a 22-year-old 3-&-D wing who started for them much of last season, has been good off the bench this season, and is making just $1.6 million next season — and only offer MarShon Brooks, who is 29-year-old and needs the ball in his hands to provide much value and plays a limited role. Not sure why the Suns thought it was Dillon who was in on this trade, that’s not the guy you throw in a deal, but the Grizzlies dodged this whole mess and are better off for it.

LOSER: Washington Wizards. I will stipulate one thing up front: Ariza is an upgrade over Oubre. Usually, the team that gets the best player in a trade wins it. Not this time. Ariza is a rental, a player on a one-year contract who will go where the money takes him next summer, and teams that bring in rentals should be ones trying to push themselves into elite status. Ariza does not put Washington anywhere near the Toronto/Boston/Milwaukee/Philadelphia level, and I still have them behind Indiana and probably Detroit as well. At best, this trade means maybe the Wizards have a slightly better chance of making the playoffs (and the Wizards save a little money on salary and tax, but not a significant amount). In doing so, the Wizards gave up a young trade asset who was a restricted free agent that they could control. Yes, Oubre was probably going to command more money next summer than the Wizards were willing to match, but he is young and has value, and for him the Wizards got a modest upgrade at best. It’s not a good omen for Wizards fans, considering there are more and bigger trades coming in the next year that will have a much more significant impact on the franchise.

LOSER: Kelly Oubre. On Friday night he was headed to the Memphis Grizzlies, a 16-13 team currently in the playoff mix in the West, and a team in need of good wing play. He would have gotten a lot of run, quality touches, and been on a team playing meaningful games and maybe playoff bound. On Saturday, he was headed to Phoenix, the only team in the West out of the playoff chase, and a team loaded with young talent on the wing already. That’s a punch to the gut.

LOSER: Phoenix Suns. This isn’t as severe a loss as the people above, but I can’t call this a win for Phoenix. At best, the trade is “meh” for them, a “C” if you’re grading it. Austin Rivers is a below average NBA point guard, but he’s better than the black hole Phoenix has at that position, so technically it’s an upgrade. However, Trevor Ariza was the best trade asset the Suns had by a mile and a highly coveted player, a lot of teams were talking and making offers. However, owner Robert Sarver didn’t want to deal with the Lakers and the rebuilding Suns were not willing to roll the dice on bringing in Markelle Fultz. So, with this valuable trade piece in Ariza, the Suns get a below average point guard and a nice young wing player for a team already loaded with young wing players scrapping for minutes. The Suns could have done better, but that feels like the story of this franchise the past decade. At least this distracted people from Sarver and company spinning how they didn’t threaten to move the team out if the city didn’t use taxpayer dollars to enrich the team owner.

LeBron James, Lonzo Ball both drop triple-doubles on Hornets (VIDEO)

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The game itself wasn’t that interesting, it was an old-fashioned drubbing. The Charlotte Hornets go as Kemba Walker goes, and he was 2-of-13 shooting on the night. The Lakers have LeBron James… and Lonzo Ball.

LeBron has a triple-double Saturday with 24 points 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Lonzo Ball joined him in the triple-double realm with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Check out the highlights.

It’s been a while since teammates had a triple-double together: The last ones were Vince Carter and Jason Kidd as New Jersey Nets back on April 7, 2007.

The last Laker teammates to do it? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson back in 1982.

Pistons end Boston’s 8-game run, beat Celtics 113-104

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DETROIT (AP) — Jayson Tatum leaped toward the basket and Andre Drummond met him there, blocking the Boston forward’s attempt at a one-handed dunk.

It was a fitting conclusion to an impressive second half of defense by the Detroit Pistons.

“I was thinking to myself as I was running. I’m like, if he gets this dunk, it’s going to ignite their entire team,” Drummond said. “I have to do something.”

There would be no late surge by the Celtics in the final minutes. Blake Griffin scored 27 points and Drummond added 19 points and 20 rebounds to help the Pistons win 113-104 on Saturday night, snapping the Celtics’ eight-game winning streak. Detroit also ended its own six-game skid with a solid 48-minute effort.

The Pistons took control with a 13-0 run in the third quarter and played well at the start of the fourth as well.

“They looked great. They were screening us, they were active, they were alert, they played great,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We couldn’t match them shot for shot because the way we were guarding, that’s what we had to do, and we just couldn’t do it. So hats off to them. It’s not our best game. That’s it.”

Kyrie Irving led Boston with 26 points.

Both teams shot over 60 percent from the field in the first quarter, and the game was still tight at halftime, with Detroit up 57-56. Drummond punctuated his team’s 13-point run in the third with a dunk that put the Pistons ahead 76-66.

Boston closed the quarter strong and trailed by just seven after three, but a 10-1 run to start the fourth put Detroit up 95-79.

The Celtics missed their first seven shots from the floor in the final quarter and went over seven minutes before making a field goal.

The Pistons had 20 turnovers, including eight in the fourth quarter.

“The simple plays, just making the simple pass is the key,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “The game gives you simple plays and for whatever reason we kind of get discombobulated.”

 

 

Pacers’ Myles Turner fined $15,000 for flipping bird at Sixers fans

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Myles Turner had to know this was coming.

Frustrated after fouling Joel Embiid under the basket and being taken out of the game, the Pacers’ big man flipped off some Sixers fans as he walked to the bench.

Saturday the league announced Turner was fined $15,000 for “making an inappropriate gesture toward the spectator stands.” The league, understandably, is not a fan of its players flipping off fans.

That fine is pretty much the going rate for these kinds of incidences.

Embiid went on to score 40 Friday night in a dominant performance, but the Pacers won the game 113-101.