Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s


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-reveredand dominantdynasties.
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 ...

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Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty ofthe 1980s

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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-reveredand dominantdynasties.
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, in 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

During the 1980s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five NBA championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), but it was how they won that held our attention. With their patented "Showtime" fast breaks, the team that starred Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar exhausted, then pulverized defenders. Jeff Pearlman's lively book on this exciting franchise decade entails more than recaps of run-and-gun offenses; with hundreds of interviews, he takes us into the friendships, rivalries, and even the off-the-court hijinks of these fabled players. Our best view yet of an incomparable combine.

Publishers Weekly
Pearlman (Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton) returns to his niche: Chronicling the exploits of pro sports' bad boy—the 1986 New York Mets, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s and now the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, who won five NBA championships between 1980 and 1988 with an All-Star roster that personified the decade's egotism and excess. Beginning with the drafting of 19-year-old Earvin "Magic" Johnson as the NBA's first overall pick in 1979 (punctuated by an awkward first lunch Johnson shared with the Lakers' playboy owner Jerry Buss), Pearlman spins a wild and wildly entertaining tale that leaves dirt on practically every man central to the Lakers dynasty, and even some who weren't. Enigmatic and aloof Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood seven-foot-two but possessed a short emotional fuse; Spencer Haywood was dismissed from the team for excessive cocaine use but wasn't the only Laker snorting; and Johnson dictated personnel moves and hosted extravagant, "orgasmic" sex parties. The nickname "Showtime" described the Lakers' relentless and unparalleled freewheeling run-and-gun offense, as well as the entire era itself; the book it inspired is just as enticing—full of fast breaks, dramatic intensity, and celebrity sightings. Color photos. Agent: David Black, David Black Agency. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
The sports-journalist author of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton (2011) returns with a tough-love look at the NBA team that won five championships in the 1980s. The author begins with an awkward interview with former Lakers' coach Jack McKinney--whom Pearlman and others credit for the Lakers' fast-breaking, showtime style--a man whose 1979 bicycle injury caused serious cognitive and memory problems that led to his dismissal. (Pearlman returns 70 pages later for a fuller treatment.) The author then moves forward chronologically, pausing continually to sketch both the darkness and lightness in the biography of the person under his lens at the moment. We learn details about owner Jerry Buss; general manager (and former star) Jerry West; players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, James Worthy, Byron Scott and others; coaches Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy. Although Pearlman recognizes the obvious athletic supremacy of these players and the domination of the team, he delivers a number of blows to the throats of some of his principals--noting, especially, the voracious sexual appetites of Buss and Magic Johnson and others. He tells us that Abdul-Jabbar hated white people and complains that he continued playing far too long. He slams both Westhead and Riley for considering themselves unassailable coaching geniuses. We see how Johnson made personnel--and even coaching--decisions, on and off the court, and we view the bitterness and jealousy of some of the players. Readers will be unsurprised when Pearlman focuses now and then on the Larry Bird–Magic Johnson relationship and the on-court enmity of the Lakers and Celtics. Some significant games receive sumptuous detail, and the author ends with Johnson's announcement in 1991 that he was HIV-positive. Pearlman ably demonstrates how deeply flawed human beings can nonetheless create a near-flawless beauty on the court.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592408870
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014

Meet the Author

Jeff Pearlman is a New York Times bestselling author and sports writer. He has worked as a columnist for and, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, a features writer for Newsday, and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and He lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

“Spencer Haywood?”

The name hangs there; awkwardly suspended as if attached to the string of a balloon. I am looking at Jack McKinney. Jack McKinney is looking at me. It is a warm February day in Naples, Florida. We are on an enclosed patio. Small glasses of ice water have been served. The wind whistles in the background.

I am the journalist, here to interview the greatest NBA coach 999 of 1,000 basketball fans have never heard of. Jack McKinney is here to answer my questions. And yet, he can’t. The replies start, then stutter, then stop, then start again. The thoughts seem on point, turn left, hit a traffic circle and wind up somewhere in Bethesda. There are, he insists, wonderful basketball memories circulating throughout his 77-year-old brain; joyful tales of his eight years as the head coach at St. Joseph’s University; tender moments with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton and …

“What’s your name again?” McKinney suddenly says, his eyes gazing downward.

“Jeff,” I say. “Jeff Pearlman”

“That’s right. I wrote your name down five different times before you came here. It’s embarrassing, the way my memory …”

From the next room, his wife Claire speaks up. “No sob stories, Jack!” she says.

With that, Jack McKinney refocuses. He looks at me, rubs his chin. “What were we talking about?” he asks.

“Spencer Haywood,” I say. “You coached him …”

“I coached Spencer Haywood?”

On the table, I have placed a manila folder. It is labeled JACK MCKINNEY in brown marker. Inside are photocopies of 30 or so articles, chronicling the rise and fall of the man who, in the summer of 1979, was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers to coach a team that featured Abdul-Jabbar, the six-time NBA MVP, Haywood, a four-time NBA All-Star, as well as a rookie point guard from Michigan State named Earvin (Magic) Johnson. The clippings tell the story of a 44-year-old basketball lifer finally getting his shot. “He created Showtime,” said Norm Nixon, Los Angeles’ All-Star guard. “That should never be forgotten. Jack McKinney created Showtime.”

Yet now, as we sit here on a patio, sipping ice water to dull the awkwardness, the man who created Showtime barely remembers creating Showtime. The Lakers jumped out to a 9-4 start that season, and fans loved the way his team played. The Lakers were neon lights along the Sunset Strip. Johnson and Nixon formed perhaps the fastest backcourt in NBA history. Haywood seemed revived and Abdul-Jabbar, the standoffish icon, was smiling and laughing.

Back in the day, when the NBA was still relatively bare-boned, teams employed one head coach and one assistant. McKinney’s sidekick was Paul Westhead, another young Philadelphia guy who played for his boss at St. Joseph’s.

On the morning of November 8, 1979, the phone in McKinney’s Palos Verdes home rang. This was the Lakers’ first off day of the young season, and Westhead was itching for some time on the nearby clay court. It was 9:30 am, and the call woke McKinney from his sleep.

“Want to play some tennis?” Westhead asked.

McKinney grunted—sure.

“I’ve got the court for two hours,” Westhead said. “We can play singles at 10, maybe dome doubles with the girls at 11.”

“OK,” he said. “Give me a chance to get some coffee. I can be there in a half hour.”

McKinney showered and drank his morning joe. When he entered the garage, McKinney found that Claire had taken their one car. Leaning against the wall, however, was his son John’s red-and-white Schwinn Le Tour II.

Sure, it’d been a while since Jack McKinney had ridden a bike. But he certainly knew how. “Of course I did,” he says. “Of course …”


“Spencer Haywood.”

The name is stated again, only this time with more confidence. “I coached him in Milwaukee, right?”

“No,” I say. “With the Lakers.”

McKinney glances at me, initially puzzled, then dejected. He knows I am here in my quest to tell the story of the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers; a story that, were it not for a day off and a tennis game and a vacant garage and a wobbly bicycle and awful luck, would feature Jack McKinney as a star, not merely a small-ish name halfway through the credits. That’s what haunts everyone who knows and loves the man. Not the accident, per se, but what could have been had the accident never occurred. If—on the morning of November 8, 1979—Jack McKinney decides to ignore the phone; or opts to sleep in, or jogs the 1 ½ miles, is Paul Westhead known as one of the godfathers of fast-break basketball and the famed guru who ran Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble to 160-point games at Loyola Marymount? Is Pat Riley an eight-time NBA champion and multi-millionaire pitchman?

Is Jack McKinney universally acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association?

“I have no doubt that he would be,” said Nixon. “No doubt whatsoever.”

As we sit here, still talking, still sipping water, McKinney glances through the folder, searching for faded memories and long-lost sparks. He would coach again, hired by the Indiana Pacers at the behest of a guilt-ravaged Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner. Yet despite being named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1980-81, he was never the same. Members of the Pacers took the unprecedented step of writing their names in black marker along the front of their shorts so their coach wouldn’t get confused. Later, in a game during his final coaching stint, with Kansas City, several Kings players told the media that, during a timeout, McKinney characterized a play as one “just like we did against St. John’s”—a reference to the New York City school he coached against while at St. Joseph’s.

Ultimately, McKinney left the NBA altogether, devoting the remainder of his working days to selling sporting goods. He watched the NBA from time to rime, but the pain of what could (and should) have been far outweighed any moments of joy. McKinney is not a bitter man, but he is human. “Life isn’t always fair,” he says. “I’m OK with how everything has turned out. I’m loved. But, well, it’s not always fair …”

In his apartment, there is only a single hint that he ever coached the Lakers—a crystal wife carafe with LAKERS etched along the side. Occasionally Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, will leave McKinney tickets for a game. “He always says, ‘This is the guy who made my career possible,’” McKinney says. “’This is the guy.’”

There is a long pause. A long, lengthy, painful, awkward, ugly pause. I want to ask Jack McKinney so many things but, come the end of our interview, I simply shake his hand and thank him for the time.

Before me is the man most responsible for the birth of the Showtime era of professional basketball.

If only he could remember it.

Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.

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