This Friday on my weekly radio show, Edge of Sports, I am going to interview Jeff Pearlman, author of the new book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. I cannot put this book down. Showtime is both like an excavation of a long-lost era, as well as a pulsing, utterly relevant roadmap into our twenty-first-century sports celebrity culture. It is a fascinating window on the last time when fame not only opened doors but also then closed them behind you.
The book is also reminding me just how emotionally connected I was as a kid to these particular Laker teams. Growing up in New York City, it was a rare year when I did not find a way to get what was then a $10 ticket to see the Showtime Lakers on one of their two annual trips to Madison Square Garden. With a perennially middling-to-awful Knicks team to root for, I first shouted myself hoarse for the Lakers because they were the greatest threat to thwart the dreams of the hated Boston Celtics. (The Lakers and Celtics took every championship but one from 1980–88.) Any team that could keep Red Auerbach from lighting that damn cigar deserved all the preteen support I could muster. When Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis or Larry Bird looked like he wanted to fight Kareem, I remember getting off the couch as if I could jump through the TV to enter the scrum. (Yeah, I also probably could have used some more adult supervision).
But I really loved these Lakers to death because of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic was the synthesis of two extremely different styles of playing that, as a short, athletically challenged basketball obsessive, I could at least try, through sheer will, to replicate. He couldn’t really jump, he rarely dribbled in a fancy manner and he had an ugly push shot that looked like it was borrowed from a grainy 1950s video. What he could do, like no one before or since, was combine this olde-timey game with a twenty-first-century brand of flair. He saw angles no one could see and could throw no-look passes that smacked people right in the hands, ready to shoot. I would go to 77th and Amsterdam and chalk a Lakers yellow circle on the wall no bigger than a grapefruit and whip different kinds of no-look passes—chest, baseball, behind the back—and see how many would hit their mark. Sure, I would never be Magic, given that he was six-foot-nine, could rebound like a power forward and dribble the length of the court in seconds, but I could feel like Magic any time one of my no-look passes didn’t break a window and instead found someone for a layup.
I took this approach to the courts with confidence far beyond my game. As a Caucasian playing ball in New York City, a 12-year-old who would loiter on the courts until the big kids would let me play, I was a bit of a curiosity, treated with more affection than I probably deserved. I would hit shots and people would yell “Bird!” I would grit my teeth and say, “Call me Magic!” This was always good, if nothing else, for a laugh.
The Showtime Lakers were a rolling party and to be a fan felt like you were getting a secondhand high off of their vapors of glitter, glamour and glory. They also projected an image of Los Angeles, especially for us cloistered East Coasters, as a place of endless celebrity and sunshine.