On Jeff Pearlman’s “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”

I don’t consider the 1980s rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers to be of one comprised of vitriol, but as such that is a brotherly feud. And that’s how I see it — the older brother in the guise of a pro basketball team known as the Boston Celtics beating up on the little brother in the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984 (and seven times before that!) before christening the little brother to a title in 1985.

If you see it differently, to hell with you. It’s undeniable that the Celtics/Lakers rivalry, and obviously I’m currently speaking of its 1980s iteration, encompasses a certain brotherhood and kinship as the two teams ruled the decade. Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers grabbed a title in ’83 (most underheralded champion ever? I think so! The ’82-’83 Sixers deserve to be talked about in the echelons of “best teams ever!” discussions) and the “Bad Boys”, the Detroit Pistons, finally brought in a pair, but by and large the decade belonged to the Celtics and Lakers. Brothers. But I digress.

Jeff Pearlman has become one of my favorite writers. His book on the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, “Boys Will Be Boys”, that was released in 2008 was an enthralling read, and his deep, dark look into the ‘true‘ life of Walter Payton in the book, “Sweetness” (that he was heavily — and, quite frankly, unfairly — criticized over by many) was equally entertaining.

Showtime by Jeff Pearlman, jacket photo.

I knew I had to check out “Showtime”, and that it would be a “must read” tome since, unalike most sportswriters/biographers, Pearlman isn’t an ass-kisser — he’s not the type of person that’s going to extol the hell out of an athlete or a team of the past due to their prestige. He tells it how it is (or was), and appears to do so impartially! No hagiographical bullshit going on! And as a die-hard Boston Celtics fan putting down money to read a book about the ’80s Lakers, that little anecdote alone should give you something to think about when considering your next literary basketball read. This book is for basketball fans and historians, period.

“Showtime” is an engaging read. A fast one, too. It’s not too long and it’s certainly not too short. A big aspect of the book is a look into the lives of the players who electrified in that “Showtime” offense on the court (and the masterminds behind the roster like Bill Sharman and Jerry West; the book even opens up with the story of how Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the team from Jack Kent Cooke). The stories are seemingly endless. I’m ashamed to admit, as a guy who considers himself a basketball historian of sorts, that I was ignorant of Jack McKinney, the man who’s truly responsible for what the ’80s Lakers’ offense ended up becoming before his unfortunate bicycle crash in October of 1979. (My excuse: I’m a young buck!)

I loved how the Celtics were portrayed in the book. There’s a minuscule Robert Parish story that’s hilarious! There’s a regaling of a particular Larry Bird-Michael Cooper tale, too, in which, when Cooper first met Bird and the Celtics in 1981, Bird looked him dead in the eye and said, “I’m gonna wear your ass out!” Larry Bird might just be the biggest trash talker in the history of pro basketball, at least in the ranks of those of his legendary stature, and when Bird said that to Cooper, Cooper’s retort was, “Bring it, motherfucker!” Cooper chased him around the court when Bird received a pass off a screen. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left Parish alone in the paint as he rotated to help Cooper lock down on Bird when, after Bird received the pass and went to shoot, he somehow managed to maneuver and deliver a pass to Parish that split in between both Cooper and Kareem that resulted in an easy 2. (*Paraphrased.*)

Wearin’ your ass out…” Bird said, retreating to the other end of the court.

Cooper said that Bird was not one-dimensional nor three-dimensional, that he was ten-dimensional on the court.

Speaking of Kareem, I already disdained the man before reading the book, and inexplicably that disdain might have just been augmented. Read the book and you’ll understand why.

The Lakers were in eight NBA Finals in the decade, and the book recounts them all, and all the backstories, and everything in between. It was a terrific read. It’s the best I’ve read in the category of those that have covered ’80s Lakers basketball. There’s absolutely no bias or favoritism going on. Just a lot of intriguing, compelling stories that make you want to continue reading and not even consider stopping.

4 thoughts on “On Jeff Pearlman’s “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”

  1. Pearlman was also criticized by Cowboy fans who I think for the most part didn’t read “Boys Will Be Boys”.

    They just assumed it would be a hit piece and reacted accordingly, when in fact, it was a carefully researched and balanced look at the Cowboys of the 1990s. I think if they had read it (as I did) they would have come to the same conclusion. And I say this as a lifelong Cowboy fan.

    I haven’t read “Showtime” but I’ve met Jeff and I fully expect his new book to be as good as “Boys”.

    • Maybe the losing will pay off with a certain high draft pick. Looking back, that Celtics/Heat/Warriors/Sixers trade from January isn’t looking too spiffy for the C’s if I read the terms right!

      Anyway, it would be nice to see the Celtics (I’m obviously not biased at all), Lakers (fellow C’s fans might hate my guts for saying this, but basketball is a lot more fun when these in-mentioning teams are playing well), 76ers, Pistons and Knicks all in tip top form.

      I love the Spurs, but my fanhood of them extends only for as long as Timmy, Pop, Tony P and Manu are there.

      Outside of Miami, the best NBA teams basically reside in small/medium markets ~~ San Antonio, Indiana, Oklahoma City? But they are also built for the playoffs.

      Bruce, I’ve got a question for you — back in the ’80s, basketball was a lot more physical compared to today’s Association, and guys could put a hand on the player they were defending, tug on jerseys, elbows and shoves weren’t even being called for a lot of the times, and yet there were scores going into the 130s more often than not! Today’s league is tailor made for backcourts to wreak havoc and put up points, and yet it’s not the case compared to back then. Any idea what’s up with that? Is it because of the game being slowed down from so many whistles and the flopping?

      • Troy, I am confused as well about the lack of scoring. I hate to say it but I do think today’s NBA players know it’s all about April May and June and just don’t look to bust it on every possession. I think all that hand-checking and chest-bumping from back in the Association’s 80’s made each game more energetic and warrior-like. There are a lot of whistles today. And, I think players have come to accept the pace is..the way it has to be…if that makes any sense. Old-timer like myself could easily dismiss today’s game with “the guys in the past wanted to score more and brought more of a sense of urgency to dominate each night, they were hungrier, etc.” I could say that. Oh wait, I did…

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