It’s hard not to have competing expectations going into a book about the team that set the standard for winning and looking good while doing it.
On the one hand, you want to know everything about the kid from Lansing, Mich., with the 1,000-watt smile, who went from game-changing rookie to NBA star to cultural icon.
You want to know about the ultra-complicated center with the unstoppable sky hook, who may have taken as much pride in finishing his career with 38,387 points as he did in denying likely as many fans autographs.
You wanted to know about the slick coach, who landed in the job almost accidentally and then somehow became the architect of not only that dynasty but the one presently dominating the NBA down in Miami.
But on the other hand, part of you just wants to hear all the stories about the women, the celebrities, the drugs, the debauchery, the egos, and how the Lakers teams of the 1980s turned each NBA season into its own annual 82-game soap opera.
Such is the push and pull with “Showtime,” Jeff Pearlman’s look into one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. They were, and still are, Hollywood’s team.
At times, this history, which details the team’s rise, dominance, and decline, feels like a 400-page game story, swerving through every turn the Lakers took on their way to the five championships they won from 1980 to 1988. Then there are stretches when it feels as if Pearlman’s filling you in on everything TMZ wasn’t around to sniff out some 30 years ago.
The main characters — Earvin “Magic’’ Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley — have all become household names and hearing about their achievements, honestly feels a little redundant.
After Jackie MacMullan’s “When the Game Was Ours” and Jack McCallum’s “Dream Team,” it almost seems too easy to build a book around the larger-than-life Johnson. Pearlman’s depiction sometimes lurches toward the cartoonish, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar was “the darkest of dark clouds, moody and aloof and, in the opinions of many, unjustifiably arrogant and dismissive.”
But the book achieves depth the way a show like “Orange is the New Black’’ does — enriching an already compelling main plotline with the back stories of all the supporting characters. It’s heartbreaking to see Jack McKinney, the humble college coach originally hired to turn the Lakers into a scoring machine, be unfairly fired from his dream job not once but twice. Likewise it’s devastating to revisit the cocaine problems that derailed Spencer Haywood’s career.
And it’s great dish to learn that not only did Johnson and Norm Nixon begrudgingly share the same backcourt, but they also shared some of the same women. Reading all the accounts about the boundlessness of Mark Landsberger’s lack of self-awareness is just comical. (A Laker employee once asked Landsberger’s wife how the offseason was going. She replied that things were great — “Mark’s now using knives and forks when he eats.”)
Between the interviews with everyone from key figures to bit players and the impressive background research, Pearlman immerses readers in a golden era. There doesn’t seem to be a call he didn’t make, a clip he didn’t read, or a game he didn’t rewatch.
That Pearlman sees the team’s influence as far-reaching goes without saying. “The Showtime Lakers exist — in video, in books, in word-of-mouth, in YouTube clips, in yellowed newspaper articles, in LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Chris Paul and modern players who aspire to recapture similar brilliance,” he writes.
While the team clearly has a place in the history of the game, this book also feels a little like it springs partly from the current trend of nostalgia porn fashionable in sportswriting. There are the “30 for 30” specials. The endless oral histories. The books, like this one, that romanticize teams and time periods.
But it’s also true that those Lakers teams made every game feel like a movie premiere, and at its best reading “Showtime’' feels like rediscovering a true classic.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.