Jeff Pearlman Interview by Malcolm Hilgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman is a New York Timesbestselling author and sportswriter. He is the author of several books, including the highly acclaimed bestsellers Sweetness, The Bad Guys Won, and Boys Will Be Boys. He is a contributing writer to the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and CNN.com. Pearlman is also a former columnist for SportsIllustrated.com and ESPN.com, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and a staff writer for Newsday. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of Jeff Pearlman’s latest historyShowtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, simultaneously with the hardcover book on March 4, 2014.Welcome Jeff. Congratulations on the release of Showtime. Let’s talk about Showtime. What inspired you to write about the great Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980s?
JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m a kid of the ’80s. I’m forty-one, so my prime sports fandom came in the ’80s. I grew up a pretty diehard New Jersey Nets fan, and with the exception of Buck Williams and Pearl Washington every now and then, the Nets were terrible. So, the attention was always Boston, LA, and a little Philly back in the ’80s. To me, LA was just glitz, and glamour, and larger than life. I grew up in this small, tiny town in Upstate New York, so Magic Johnson and Kareem, and then Pat Riley and James Worthy, to me, it was dazzle, and excitement, and neon. I’m really into the nostalgia element of books. I love diving back into a subject that I loved as a kid and being able to see what happened behind it. When you’re watching it on TV, you see one thing, but then to really learn the makeup and the inner workings, it’s really exciting, and for me, very thrilling.
MH: Tell us how the term “Showtime” came to be associated with the Lakers and that era.
JP: Well, it’s funny. Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979 from Jack Kent Cook, and he was this guy from Wyoming. He was an engineer, but he was really cool for lack of a better word. He was just a cool guy. He liked to go out, he was a party guy, and he used to go to this club in LA, just a small, nondescript club, and when the acts would come on to start the night, the announcer would always shout, “It’s…..showtime!” And it really stuck with Jerry Buss. He really liked that. One thing he wanted to do was turn a Lakers game from a basketball game into an event. He always said, “If someone was coming into town and wanted to see a celebrity,” he wanted them to know, “the place to go was a Lakers game at The Forum.” So, he made sure all the big names in town were going and that’s how you get Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon, Lou Adler, and a million other celebrities. There were no dancers at games before Jerry Buss started the Laker Girls. He got rid of an organ player and brought in the USC Marching Band to play at the games, and they’d start blaring the music. The NBA you see today, with the lights and the pizzazz—it’s sometimes over the top in my opinion—but today’s NBA is a by-product of Jerry Buss and Showtime.
MH: Those Lakers were far more than just the glitz of Hollywood. I mean, Magic Johnson, Kareem, Michael Cooper, James Worthy—iconic players of the era. What was it like to try to get under the skin of those people? How did you go about getting into this book and researching those characters? Were you able to talk to Magic and the others?
JP: It’s a very intensive thing, researching a book. I take about two years to do it. You really hunker down. I probably go through fifteen thousand articles in the course of researching. I did for this book, about two hundred interviews. The goal is to interview absolutely everyone. For me, to be honest with you, the real joy is finding the obscure players. As an example, they had a backup point guard named Wes Matthews who was a real feisty, tough guy from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Not a great area, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and I tracked him down and we spent about two to three hours at a diner in Bridgeport. This guy was just so happy to talk about his memories because no one had asked him about this stuff in years. I traveled up to Canada to Niagara to meet Mike Smrek, a backup center, on his farm. I went to a Cheesecake Factory in Miami and sat with Billy Thompson. To me, I love getting the stories and I love talking to the guys who haven’t told their stories. You interview the stars, and that’s great and it’s important, but to me, where you end up getting your money material in a book, in a biography, is by speaking to the people beneath the surface—the guys who were there, who were part of it, who enjoyed it, and maybe haven’t told their stories a gazillion times.
MH: Full disclosure here to everyone that I was able to narrate this book for Blackstone and it was an absolute gas to read and to narrate. I absolutely love the fact that you did go out and get those stories of some of the other players and some of the people behind the scenes. I mean, Mitch Kupchak and Kurt Rambis. Some of the best information, it seems to me, you got was from the wives. Talk about that—how you got access to them.
JP: I feel like some of those women have become almost like friends. They’re perfect because they’re participants and observers, but their material’s very fresh because wives are seldom interviewed. One of my favorite people in the world has become Wanda Cooper, Michael Cooper’s ex-wife. The funny thing is, Michael Cooper was the one, even though they’re divorced, he’s the one who encouraged me to go talk to his ex-wife. He’s like, “If you want to hear really great information, this is who you talk to.” The other one, Linda Rambis, Kurt’s wife, who’s worked for the Lakers for years—just tremendous. What I like about this experience is it’s like interviewing people about their really fun college days. It’s not scandalous, it’s not dirty—it’s fun. They’re looking back at when they were twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five and thinking, man, life was really carefree, and really fun. We had an opportunity to do this thing that very few people in the world get to do, and I would love to talk to you about it. That is really, for me, what is gratifying about it all.
MH: We have to come back eventually to the marquee personalities of the team. I mean Magic, Kareem. I’ve always understood, and certainly from the book we learn, what a difficult, to put it mildly, character Kareem was. How did you get information about him? Were you able to get him to open up to you? Because he seemed really difficult in terms of reaching out with people—awkward.
JP: The thing about Kareem, that I always say, is if you just read about him as a Laker, you would think, “God, what a jerk.” He was horrible with autographs, he was terrible with kids, he was not a nice guy to be around, he wasn’t easy—he was difficult. But when you really get into it, when you really dig into his life, you realize that he grew up in a very racist world. He was this kid in New York. You went into stores and people followed you around. He was enormous from the time he was a baby really, and a lot of his boyhood and his developmental years, he was more of a museum piece than he was a kid. People saw him as a freak and they treated him as a freak. I think he had a really scarring moment in high school. He went to Power Memorial High School, and he went there because he really liked the coach. One day after a game they lost, the coach comes into the locker room and starts yelling at everyone. He said to Kareem—his name was Lew Alcindor at the time—he said, “You’re playing like a blank,” using the N-word. It was like everything stopped. I think he just grew up in a world where he didn’t trust people, where people probably took advantage of him. He had an agent who really did him wrong and took a lot of his money. So I think when you see the standoffishness, and you see the guardedness, it’s a by-product of an upbringing.
MH: Some of the things I really like about the way you write, one, your fearlessness and getting under the skin of some of these people. What happens is, we get this really three-dimensional person. We don’t get a glossy showpiece, and they stay human for us. I love that with Kareem, because we see his rough edges, but we never lose sight of the humanity underneath. Conversely, moving over to Magic, another iconic figure, really emblematic of not just that time but of basketball in general for a lot of reasons, the popular perception of him is of this almost genial teddy bear, and I loved how you got in under that and showed the really tough side of Magic in terms of how he ran his team, how he ran his life, and also some of the more irresponsible sides of him too. Talk about that a little bit, how did you get that information?
JP: He’s really interesting. My wife said the other day, “He’s the hero of your book.” and I actually feel that way. He is the hero of the book. When your best player and your most talented player, is also your hardest worker and your leader, it’s remarkable. And we saw that with Walter Payton—it’s remarkable. He was that guy. It’s really interesting that he caught a lot of grief early on in his career. He was sort of the force behind the coach Paul Westhead getting fired. He basically said to Jerry Buss, “This isn’t going to work,” and Jerry Buss fired Paul Westhead. Magic was destroyed in the papers and the media for a while. He was booed by fans because he was thought of as a coach killer. Well, ninety percent of the Laker roster didn’t like Paul Westhead as a coach, and they all thought he should be fired. Magic was the one who had the hutzpah to stand up and do something about it. There were a lot of guys who were whispering about it, who would talk off the record to the media. Magic put his mouth where his thoughts were. I think it was really unjustified for him to catch a lot of grief. He was in an interestingly awkward spot because you had him and you had Kareem, and Kareem was this iconic figure but not personable at all, and Magic was this newer guy and he was extremely personable. He and Jerry Buss, the owner, became fast friends and running buddies. They would hang out at the Playboy mansion with Hugh Hefner, they would go out to different bars and clubs, and they became almost like an item. For Kareem, it was very uncomfortable, and he did not like that. He didn’t think a player should be best friends with the owner. But I always thought that Magic handled it very well because he was always deferential to Kareem. It was never, “This is my team.” And he would never ever look off Kareem in the post. If Kareem was calling for the ball, he got the ball. He was that kind of guy. He knew how to balance things very well.
MH: Your descriptions of the games, in particular the way Magic played and the way the Lakers played in those games, and I saw a lot of those games either on TV, or I was living in Seattle at the time and I saw them play the Sonics in ’80, and I was so aware at the time about Magic being such a great play maker/floor general, I had forgotten how he could dominate the game with his scoring when needed to. Upon reading your book, I wound up going back and YouTubing clips of him. You do a great job of bringing that to life to us, because I saw those clips and it was jaw-dropping to see what a fantastic player he was. How would you contrast the Lakers teams of the ’80s and their style of play with what we see in the NBA today?
JP: I think in a way, oftentimes today, and I’m not just saying this because I wrote the book, I’ve actually been thinking about that a fair amount. I feel like today’s a watered-down imitation. The Miami Heat are probably the best, most comparable team to the Lakers. The Lakers had all these pieces that the other teams didn’t have. With Miami today, it seems like they took the three stars and then they fill in around them and it works okay. The Lakers—people had purposes—specific purposes. They were there with great intent and forethought. For example, Kurt Rambis, people saw him and they said, “Ah, this guy, some goon forward with funny glasses. What can he do?” Well, he was the best in-bounder anyone had ever seen, and when the other team would score, he would grab the ball and in one motion—I’m actually doing it with my hands—he would whip it in to Magic or Norm Nixon, or whomever was cutting up the court, and he did it better than anyone. James Worthy was just this guy, he had these long arms and he was a slasher, and he filled the lanes so well. When they traded Norm Nixon and got Byron Scott, all of a sudden they had this beautiful spot-up shooter. So if anyone’s penetrating, Magic’s penetrating, James Worthy’s penetrating, or Michael Cooper’s penetrating, you kick it back out—Byron Scott’s wide open. Then you have Michael Cooper, this lock-down defender, if you need to guard a Larry Bird or a Tiny Archibald, or anyone in between. Probably the best perimeter defender in the NBA. They had all these different pieces, and they add a Mitch Kupchak for physicality. They would always bring in different guards and they would all fit in these perfect ways. I feel like Jerry West was the master general manager, the master builder of a team, and he knew how to fit pieces perfectly into places. When they got Bob McAdoo, for example, everyone thought well, of course, Bob McAdoo is going to start over Kurt Rambis. The guy was a superstar. But Jerry West and Pat Riley said, “No. This guy’s coming off the bench, he’s a perfect scorer off the bench, and it’s going to work well.” And it did. They just did that very well. They piece things together better than any organization I’ve ever seen.
MH: This marvelous collection of strong individuals somehow melded into a team, and that seems to be the biggest difference between then and now. Especially the way you describe Magic—the way he’s fixated on creating a team.
JP: There were egos, but they didn’t play out. Like years later with the Lakers, Shaq and Kobe could never get along—never had that with Magic and Kareem. Even though there were times like Magic got a twenty-five year, $25-million dollar contract from Jerry Buss, and Kareem was upset, and he spoke out briefly. Magic didn’t really care. The only real ego battle they had of any note was Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson. They got rid of Norm Nixon. They said, “Okay, Goodbye.” And they got Byron Scott. It actually worked out brilliantly.
MH: Describe the impact of Magic’s announcement that he had HIV, how that changed the game, and also, how that would have played out in today’s environment.
JP: I would say there are only two events from my lifetime that I kind of compare—put in the same grouping. Some people have said, “9/11, the shock of 9/11.” I think that’s too extreme to be honest with you. I think, actually three: the O. J. chase, when Lenny Bias died, and when the Challenger exploded. Those are three moments, similar with Magic. From my younger days, we were just like, “Oh my, oh my God. What? Oh my God.” And what it really did for sports, and certainly for the NBA, is it was a huge eye-opener. Because there was so much sex going on, I’m sure there still is, but there was unprotected sex going on. All of a sudden guys were like, “Oh my, oh my God. If this can happen to Magic Johnson, I better get my AIDS test.” And tons of NBA players were running out to get tests. It was really the kickoff, I feel, to safe sex in professional sports, and this idea that you just can’t sleep around with groupies and have the time of your life without thinking about it. I think the impact was absolutely enormous.
MH: Yes, when he made that announcement it really was like the air went out of our collective basketball room. It was just deflating in a horrific sense at the time.
JP: I really think it’s true. He is as close as we’ve come to a Muhammad Ali-type figure in sports. Like a universally beloved iconic figure with that smile. Just like Ali had that trademark wit about him, Magic Johnson has the best smile anyone has ever seen, and he just enters a room and there’s a certain joy to him. It’s not a cliché. It’s really true. He walks into a room and there’s something about him that lights it up. Yeah, he had his flaws as we all do, but he was really this larger-than-life presence, and to see it happen to him, of all people, him. The only other person in sports who would have been as shocking is if it had been Muhammad Ali, and with him, with Parkinson’s, we’ve seen it at a slower, but also equally shocking, sort of way.
MH: Do you think it’s possible that there may be another team that could emerge out of today’s environment with the same sort of dominance on the sport?
JP: You have more player movement now than you had then, so that makes it very difficult. I guess Miami Heat could go on right now and win the next six NBA titles and we’d say, “Ah, another Showtime-type dynasty.” But I really think if you take into account the figures on that [Lakers] team; then you throw in Pat Riley, this iconic coach; then throw in the GM; the Playboy owner; and then Los Angeles in the ’80s—this sort of wild city, this wild time to be in that city—I don’t think you’ll ever have a true duplicate. There will be copies, but I don’t think you can ever really duplicate what happened with that Showtime era.
MH: If you were to synopsize in twenty-five words or less, what you wanted people to take away from listening or hearing Showtime what would it be?
JP: More than anything, I think it’s about the joy. It’s about when sports were a little less complicated and a little less intermingled with business. Everything is about selling, selling, selling—forty dollars for the t-shirt, twenty dollars for the pin. It was just about great basketball and larger-than-life personalities, and a really fun city at a really fun time.
MH: Did you play sports as a kid?
JP: I did. I’m not trying to brag, but I would say at the University of Delaware I may have been one of the worst one hundred, Division 1, cross country runners in America.
MH: I think a lot of us have those kind of hallmark traits in our past. I was a profoundly mediocre basketball player.
JP: (laughs) We should team up.
MH: But that was enough to get you into sports writing. Describe the arc of your career. How did you come to writing sports and then writing these terrific books?
JP: I was in high school, Mahopac High School in Mahopac, New York, and I wanted to write for the high school paper. I was writing all these boring stories for the high school paper, and one day I wrote a story about why cheerleading isn’t really a sport. It comes out, and I’m just like this geeky runner, zits and skinny, and not that social, and I write this story about cheerleading not being a sport. This paper comes out, and all of a sudden I’m surrounded by angry cheerleaders, and I’m like this sixteen-year-old kid just staring at them like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” And they’re all screaming at me, and I’m like, “This writing thing is pretty good. All of a sudden, these cheerleaders are talking to me and they might hate me, but they know who I am finally.” That’s not why I write now. I write now because I really love writing, I love digging, and I love the process, but my eye-opener was being a kid, and seeing when you write and you have something to say, people take note. I went on to write for my college newspaper at the University of Delaware, went on eventually to Sports Illustrated, and really fell in love with just writing—watching something, paying attention to the details, getting the stories, and being able to hear. I love how you’re able to ask any question you want. If you’re a stockbroker and you go up to someone at work and you say, “So, what was it like battling cancer?” the person might think that’s absolutely none of your business. I feel like as a journalist, you have a little invisible badge that says, “This guy’s allowed to ask you questions.” I really love that, I just love listening to people talk.
MH: You’ve done John Rocker, you’ve done Roger Clemens, you’ve done Walter Payton—Sweetness, which I also had the pleasure of narrating, and now you’ve done the Showtime Lakers. What’s coming up?
JP: I don’t actually know. I have a dream book that no one will let me write. My dream book is to write a biography of the United States Football League, which existed from 1983 to 1985, and it is my all-time—all-time—favorite sports league. But nobody wants a book on it, and it’s kind of starting to break my heart.
MH: I think this is an opportunity for a kick starter campaign.
JP: Thank you.
MH: Thanks again Jeff.
JP: Alright, take care.
MH:Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Jeff Pearlman. You can find Showtime and Sweetness on audiobook as well as all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in March 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The New York Times bestselling author of Sweetness delivers the first all-encompassing account of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, one of professional sports’ most-revered—and dominant—dynasties.
The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s personified the flamboyance and excess of the decade over which they reigned. Beginning with the arrival of Earvin “Magic” Johnson as the number one overall pick of the 1979 draft, the Lakers played basketball with gusto and pizzazz, unleashing their famed “Showtime” run-and-gun style on a league unprepared for their speed and ferocity—and became the most captivating show in sports and, arguably, all-around American entertainment. The Lakers’ roster overflowed with exciting all-star-caliber players, including center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they were led by the incomparable Pat Riley, known for his slicked-back hair, his Armani suits, and his arrogant strut. Hollywood’s biggest celebrities lined the court, and gorgeous women flocked to the arena. Best of all, the team was a winner. Between 1980 and 1991, the Lakers played in an unmatched nine NBA championship series, capturing five of them.
Bestselling sportswriter Jeff Pearlman draws from almost three hundred interviews to take the first full measure of the Lakers’ epic Showtime era. A dazzling account of one of America’s greatest sports sagas, Showtime is packed with indelible characters, vicious rivalries, and jaw-dropping behind-the-scenes stories of the players’ decadent Hollywood lifestyles. From the Showtime era’s remarkable rise to its tragic end—marked by Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he had contracted HIV—Showtime is a gripping narrative of sports, celebrity, and 1980s-style excess.