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.
As if being a teenager isn’t dramatic enough, this love became gothic tragedy, as both Showtime and my dreams of Los Angeles skidded to a stunning end. Magic Johnson, after years of abundant unprotected sex, became HIV-positive and quit the game he loved in 1991. The Los Angeles Times described the public reaction to the news like “an icon had been shot down in mid-stride…. The news was treated like the death of a head of state or the outbreak of war.” It was assumed, in our collective ignorance, both that he had to quit and that he would slowly die over the course of the next several years. In life, he was already being mourned.
But then, in a manner that was both upsetting and confusing for a kid who went to school in the East Village and whose mom had worked in an AIDS clinic, Johnson also felt the need to emphasize repeatedly that he had contracted the virus only by having a lot of random, condom-free, heterosexual sex. I remember watching The Arsenio Hall Show, more puzzled than angry, as the crowd cheered when Magic said, “I’m far from being a homosexual, you already know that.” This made him acceptable. President George Bush even gave him a position as head of AIDS Awareness. Thank God for Martina Navratilova. I remembered that she did not go along with this narrative and, for this article, I looked up what she said exactly, and it is even more bracing than I remember. The tennis legend said, “There have been other athletes who died from AIDS and they were pushed aside because they either got it from drugs or they were gay…. If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men, they’d call her a whore and a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon. And she’d never get another job in her life.”
Her reaction prompted outrage from the mainstream press and demands for an apology. But in her follow-up comments, she said, “I certainly don’t want him to take it personally because it is not meant as an offensive thing to him. But the double standard is there, and it makes me mad as hell…. This Magic thing is another example of women losing power, and we are taking steps backwards.” Holy crap. If an athlete of her stature said that today, Twitter would implode.
As if Magic’s retirement wasn’t enough for those of us seeing the fall of Showtime’s seductive imagery, that very spring, during the same season when Magic retired, the so-called “LA Riots” took place after the Simi Valley verdict was handed down, clearing the LAPD officers who were captured on videotape beating Rodney King. For the young and ignorant, myself surely in those ranks, Los Angeles was revealed, beneath the dazzle, to be a cesspool of police brutality and institutionalized racism.
The aftermath of the “LA Riots” brought a level of hysteria that cannot be put into words. At my high school in New York City, administrators shut the school down at noon and I was assigned, as an upperclassman, to walk younger children home, presumably out of fear that they would be attacked by looting black teenagers. (These marauding teens were, alas, a figment of the NYPD’s imagination.) As an administrator openly wept and children cried at the thought of never seeing their parents again, a friend on the basketball team turned to me, like he was Marlin Perkins surveying a scene on Wild Kingdom, and said, “Damn. White people are crazy.” That was prophetic. After the LA Rebellion, we saw the ramping up of the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1980s that brought us to a point where our prison system now represents a “New Jim Crow,” packed with young black men serving mandatory sentences.
If I am fascinated by Jeff Pearlman’s book, it is because it has brought me back to a time before I felt like the world was too often just floating unconsciously from one set of injustices to the next. Obviously, there was evil aplenty in the 1980s, and I was just too young and too sheltered to see it. But it definitely took the fall of Los Angeles, both the team and the city, for me to be shaken out of a youthful slumber where a bad day could be remedied with a successful no-look pass. If I still cannot get enough of the Showtime Lakers—as profoundly hackneyed as this sounds—it’s because it reminds me of what it once felt like to feel the presence of magic.