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.

Mike D’Antoni on Chris Paul suspension: ‘What is he supposed to do?’ (VIDEO)

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The NBA suspended Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul along with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram on Sunday.

It was the opinion of the league office that all three players should be suspended for their role in a fight that took place on Saturday night between the Rockets and the Lakers at Staples Center.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni took exception to Paul’s suspension, saying that he thought it was “not equitable” that Paul had to face suspension.

The NBA determined that Rondo indeed did spit in Paul’s face, or at least in the direction of him, directly preceding Paul’s eye poke on Rondo. That kicked things off into full force, and it devolved from there.

Via Twitter:

All the suspensions were fairly weak. Ingram got just four games for his initial instigation and giant, loping punch toward Paul. Rondo received three games for spitting on Paul and landing punches. Paul received two games for punching Rondo.

It’s unlikely that anybody was going to be happy with the result of the discipline just because of the bad blood involved. However, the league made comment about the suspension afterward, with the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe taking to television later on Sunday.

VanDeWeghe’s explanations don’t satisfy me, and they certainly wouldn’t if I were a Rockets fan. Guys going chest-to-chest and having tensions rise as one thing. Spitting at somebody is another. It’s a level of actionable disrespect that directly influenced and raised tensions during the incident.

Ingram looked childish for shoving James Harden, but his punch came after Rondo got Paul wound up by spitting on him. It’s hard for me to understand how Rondo didn’t get a matching sentence with Ingram at the very least.

For reference, Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games in 2006 after he clocked a player on the New York Knicks during a fight as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Given that precedence, something approaching double digits for both Ingram and Rondo seems like it would have been more appropriate.

Juancho Hernangómez bats game-clinching block to beat Warriors (VIDEO)

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We all knew the Denver Nuggets were going to be exciting this season, but nobody expected them to come through with this kind of statement result this early.

On Sunday as the Nuggets took on the Golden State Warriors, a tight game in Colorado lead to a drive by Stephen Curry in the closing seconds that could have won the defending champions the game.

Instead, Juancho Hernangómez became a Denver legend.

Via Twitter:

It was a serious block by Hernangómez on Damian Jones.

Denver beat the Warriors, 100-98, moving the Nuggets to 3-0 on the year and giving Golden State its first loss of the season.

Kyle Lowry on DeMar DeRozan handshake routine: ‘He’s my best friend’ (VIDEO)

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Kyle Lowry was not happy with the Toronto Raptors when the team traded DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs this offseason for Kawhi Leonard.

Lowry and DeRozan are best friends, and their budding romance has been a sentimental point for fans in Toronto and abroad.

But life goes on, and the Raptors again are one of the teams expected to challenge for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. That hasn’t kept Lowry from doing the same handshake routine he used to do with DeRozan before games this season.

The only difference? DeRozan isn’t there to help dap up Lowry.

Via Twitter:

For his part, Lowry told NBA TV after Toronto’s game on Saturday that he will continue to do the handshake routine because the DeRozan will always be his best friend.

Even thousands of miles apart you can’t keep these guys from showing love for each other.

NBA confirms Rajon Rondo spit at Chris Paul, hands out suspensions after fight

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With the NBA dissecting video from Saturday night’s game between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers like the Zapruder film, it was only a matter of time before we saw suspensions handed down for Chris Paul, Brandon Ingram, and Rajon Rondo.

On Sunday, the league announced its decision.

After reviewing tape, the NBA determined that Rondo did indeed spit on Paul. Ingram was seen as the initial instigator, and thus was served with a heavier sentence.

The finally tally was:

  • Four games for Ingram
  • Three games for Rondo
  • Two games for Paul

Here’s the relevant details per the NBA’s release.

Via NBA:

Ingram has been suspended for aggressively returning to and escalating the altercation and throwing a punch in the direction of Paul, confronting a game official in a hostile manner, and instigating the overall incident by shoving Rockets guard James Harden. Rondo has been suspended for instigating a physical altercation with, and spitting and throwing multiple punches at, Paul. Paul has been suspended for poking at and making contact with the face of Rondo, and throwing multiple punches at him.

We have been waiting on these suspensions largely to see how the NBA would discipline one of the first actual fights in some time. A maximum of four games seems a little light to me. Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games in 2006 when he clocked Mardy Collins during a fight between the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets.

Rondo only getting three games despite having spit on an opponent is also pretty wild. That’s crazy disrespectful and I would not believe you if you tried to tell me that this bad blood will end here.

Both the Lakers and Rockets will miss some of their most important players as they start duking it out in the tough Western Conference.