Today’s Lakers might not be the hottest team around, but in the 1980s they were the team to watch. They won five NBA championships in the 1980s and brought to Los Angeles the phenomenon that came to be known as “Showtime.”
Jeff Pearlman’s new book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s where he dips into the glitz and the glamour. He joined Bill to discuss Magic Johnson, The “Fabulous” Forum, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and more.
Highlights from Bill’s conversation with Jeff Pearlman
BL: You characterize Lakers center and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as rude, boorish, cruel, selfish. At one point you write that he “possessed the emotional IQ of a toddler.” Now, I’ve interviewed Kareem more than once for Only A Game and he’s always been reasonably pleasant. Did you have a grudge to settle with him?
JP: No, I grew up a huge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fan. I’m still a huge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fan. When you write these books — I interviewed 290 people for the book — it’s about the interpretations of other people and how they felt.
And there’s a story I thought was very telling because it happens all the time. Kareem was in Utah and it’s one of his last seasons — it may be his last season in the NBA. He’s crossing the street and this car stops and this man jumps out. And he’s probably one of seven African-Americans in Salt Lake City, and he jumps out of the car, and he says, “Oh my God, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you are my favorite player of all time! I’m coming home from the hospital with my son. This is the greatest day ever! My son has been born, and I’m meeting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Would you do me the favor, please, of signing an autograph for me? This would mean the most!”
And Kareem goes, “No. I’m not going to do that.”
The guy slams the door, rolls down his window and screams out some vulgarity. And Kareem goes to the guy he’s walking with, “I’m quite happy I didn’t sign for that particular gentleman.”
He’ll probably tell you now: he didn’t sign autographs, he blew off kids, he was terrible to fans, he was OK to teammates. He just was a very standoffish guy. Now the one thing I’ll say, Bill, that’s important is everybody has a reason for who they are and what they become. He was a museum piece from the time he was a kid. He was always the tall kid, the athletic freak. Over time he became very weary and guarded. So I’m not saying he doesn’t have reason for it, but he did not treat people particularly well.
BL: Jerry Buss owned the Lakers during the Showtime era and he presided over The “Fabulous” Forum. And I’m not talking about the place where they played basketball. It was the place where they played other things after the game too, right?
JP: Well the Forum Club was the place in the Forum. It was basically a bar-restaurant. It was a place anyone and everyone wanted to get to. Jerry Buss would preside over this long dinner table, and he’d have maybe a blonde to his right and a brunette to his left, and they’re both in their early twenties, and you’d see whoever: John Travolta, Harry Belafonte, a million different celebrities.
And after the game all the players would rush to the Forum Club, and it was the hot spot. A lot of people said it was a huge home court advantage for the Lakers because if you’re playing for the Detroit Pistons, all you wanted to do after the game was go to the Forum Club. So you were [in the] fourth quarter, maybe you’re down by nine, and you’re thinking who you’re going to meet at the Forum Club and whether you need to war cologne. So it was this huge home court advantage cause it was the only place like it. They certainly didn’t have it at the Boston Garden or Madison Square Garden. It was very unique. To be honest with you, I’m very sad that I did not have the chance to hang out at the Forum Club, but there would have been no sports writers allowed anyways.
BL: Has every successful NBA team since the Showtime era–the Heat, these days, for example–become Showtime, or was what the Lakers had during the ’80s unique?
JP: I think it was really unique, and I’m not just staying that because I’m writing a book. First of all, they were really like a family. I literally was talking a few minutes ago to Wanda Cooper, Michael Cooper’s ex-wife. And she was saying she looks back at that time so gloriously because it was just a big family and everyone felt like they were in it together. And all the players hung out together. If one was going to a movie, 10 guys were going to a movie. And nowadays, I don’t think anyone would argue that sports has become much more corporate, much more image conscious. You can’t go as many places because some boob with a phone can just take a picture and put it on TMZ. So I don’t think it’s possible to have what they had back then. Maybe on the court, but definitely not off the court.Bill’s Thoughts on Showtime
Showtime is full of good stories. That’s partly because the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Pat Riley were exciting, successful, and rife with melodrama. It’s also because Jeff Pearlman is an energetic storyteller who doesn’t seem to care whom he irritates. And some of the former Lakers will certainly be irritated if they read Showtime.
At the top of the list of players likely to feel they’ve been unfairly treated is Kareem. For the most part Pearlman presents him as selfish and rude. He sulked. He regarded fans and writers as a nuisance. More importantly, he played for so long that he became a liability.
None of which is to suggest that the Lakers didn’t have bigger problems. Pearlman points out that although drug use did not damage L.A. as seriously as it did other teams during the 80s, the Lakers were not immune to cocaine. Various other excesses were also apparent. Exhibit A was the team’s owner, Jerry Buss, who enjoyed partying with the players and had a reputation for outlasting most of them at the bar.
In short, Showtime presents an insider’s view of a fascinating team at play. There’s plenty of basketball in the book, too.