Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: Showtime (2014)

By Jeff Pearlman

Former Sports Illustrated senior writer Jeff Pearlman has written five other books besides "Showtime" in the past several years. I've read most of them, and they've all been fine reads.

Yet "Showtime" is the best of the bunch. Let's talk about why.

Pearlman always takes interesting subjects. The first book was on the 1986 New York Mets was certainly a wild but talented bunch. Since then, Pearlman has uncovered stories about the Dallas Cowboys' glory years and their tendencies to party hardy, and about the dark side of football superstar Walter Payton. His books on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens weren't too flattering either, but in fairness that's sort of like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 to 1991 certainly qualify as interesting. Not only did they win championships, but they had a memorable cast of characters. You've probably heard of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley if you at least know what a basketball is used for. Yet the "sensational" material isn't so front-and-center here, and that makes it an even better story than most from a sports standpoint.

Pearlman brings his usual tools to the job here. He's obviously a thorough researcher, having gone through stories from a variety of media sources. Pearlman also talked to as many people as possible. Indeed, some of the best stories are either about or from the guys on the end of the bench. You know about Magic and Kareem, but you don't know much about Mark Landsberger, Earl Jones and Wes Matthews.

The author also spoke with those around the team, such as the public relations department and the newspaper beat writers. It's impressive just how many people were willing to be interviewed from that group, and how many were willing to be quoted on the record about that era. Some of those quotes can really sting. Teammate Michael Cooper says about Landsberger, "Good lord, Mark was the dumbest person I've ever met. Friendly, but historically dumb."

Pearlman is perceptive enough to put all the pieces together nicely too, and he has a good way with a paragraph. Therefore, the finished product gives what certainly come across as an excellent representation of what that team went through in those years.

The portraits of the personalities are certainly vivid. Johnson is much more than the happy-go-lucky personality he presents in public, making every practice as tough as most teams' games. Abdul-Jabbar is shown to be so aloof that even some of his teammates didn't like him. Riley turns into an egomaniac right before our eyes, going from someone who just wanted to survive as a coach to someone who demanded something close to dictatorial powers ... and was essentially fired despite a run of championships.

If you want some dirt served up with the basketball, well, there's some of that too. While Magic and Kareem stayed away from drugs, much of the rest of the team and the league wasn't too afraid to partake. But the vice of choice for the Lakers seemed to be women. Johnson's house parties seemed like something out of "Caligula." Sometimes it's tough to believe the Lakers had the energy to practice on road trips.

The whole operation was run by such figures as Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner who never saw a 20-something attractive female he didn't at least think about dating, and Jerry West, the driven general manager who was so wound up that he couldn't even stand to watch the team play in person at times.

Add this all up, and the reader not only see what those Lakers teams were like from a variety of angles, but understands why they won most of the time and occasionally lost.

"Showtime" checks in at more than 400 pages, but there aren't many dull spots along the way. The Lakers had quite a ride, and this entertaining book gives the reader a seat right next to the driver on it. Basketball fans of this era will absolutely love it.

Five stars

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