By Ron Keurajian
I have never been able to get excited about basketball. First, as a youth, I was never very good at it. Whenever my friends would play a game of hoops, I was always relegated to the dubious role of ref! Second, the game simply moves too fast for me. I like games that are a bit slower in pace. Baseball and golf are good examples. Hit the ball, then wait 30 seconds. It allows the brain to reset and process all the action. I’ll take Mickey Cochrane and Walter Hagen over Jerry West and Michael Jordan any day of the week.
I received an advance copy of Showtime – The Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (Gotham Books, 2014). I thought, “Great, another basketball book.” I expected a book filled with game after game and score after score. The Lakers beat the Pistons 105-99 and the 76ers beat the Lakers 101-100, blah, blah, blah!
After reading the first few pages, I realized this book is anything but that scenario.
Showtime is a killer read with explosive material. Written by New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, it was a book I could not put down. I was quickly hooked on a world of NBA basketball I did not know existed. The author brings to life not only the game but the behind-the-scenes dealings of the game – the back room deals, the big money contracts and the take-no-prisoners business that is professional basketball.
You get the sense that the NBA is not the promised land of milk and honey. Sure it’s glamorous with all the big money contracts, lucrative endorsements, endearing fans and stardom. For the casual fan looking in from the outside, it appears as the ultimate Fantasy Island episode. But Showtime digs deeper, past the superficial fluff, and peels back the layers of the onion to expose a seldom seen – and rather disturbing – side of the NBA and its premier franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers. Warts and all, Showtime reads like a bizarre soap opera and crime novel rolled into one.
One of the recurring themes of this book is the drug use. Cocaine was the drug of choice. Back in the late 1970s, it hit the NBA like a tidal wave, or more properly, a snowstorm. The book quotes former Lakers star Spencer Haywood that “80 percent” of players were snorting cocaine. The book goes into graphic detail how drugs destroyed Haywood’s career. It led to a downward spiral that culminated in Haywood hatching a plot to murder Lakers coach Paul Westhead, with the help of two “associates” from Detroit. Really, you just can’t make this stuff up.
The book details the contract-style murder of a friend of famed UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. The drugs, the sex and late-night parties come to life in vivid detail. It is all in here for the taking!
What is also great about this book are the biographies of the Laker players. From Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to the flamboyant Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Kurt Rambis and on and on. The relationships and the tension between players make for a gripping read. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar were vying for the team’s top dog position. The quirkiness of Rambis and his aggressive play shines through, and Nixon’s uncanny ability of rubbing just about everyone on the planet the wrong way jump out at you.
My dad always told me that “it’s a cold, cruel world out there” – words that hit home in this book. A certain degree of callousness repeatedly bubbles to the surface in the chapters. It reminded me of the cut-throat Cobbian era of baseball where ballplayers were nothing but mere pawns of MLB. In the world of the L.A. Lakers, winning was everything and if a person or two got hollow-pointed in the process, so be it.
The genius of Lakers coach Jack McKinney (an almost forgotten figure to today’s basketball bug) is well documented. His tragic accident led the Lakers owner Jerry Buss to toss the ill McKinney overboard like a bag of week-old garbage. The rise and fall of McKinney’s replacement, Paul Westhead, who increasingly alienated his players with a Captain Queeg-like precision is also well documented. The legendary Pat Riley’s genius shines through in this book, but like other coaches, Pearlman tells of an increasingly dictatorial Riley who fell out of favor with the Lakers players, especially Johnson.
For all the bad there is a lot of good in this book. Lots of funny anecdotes and tidbits about the history of the NBA are scattered throughout the pages. I particularly like the stories about young players whose lives are changed for the better by a George Leidy-type mentor who sets them on the straight and narrow.
The book has a lot of levity and funny stories. Pearlman’s quick-wit and sharp pen keeps the reader engaged throughout. Showtime will no doubt be another New York Times best-seller and a must-have addition to your sports library.
Ron Keurajian is a long time contributor to SCD and the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide (McFarland Publishing, 2012).