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.