The current Lakers’ season has been a challenging one. If there was a single year that would have fans longing for a previous era of glory, this one would certainly be it. Well, for those wanting some nostalgia and great insight in one of the great dynasties in league history, you are in luck.
On March 4th, Jeff Pearlman’s SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s was released for mass consumption. You can get your copy here. The book offers fantastic stories, great memories, and a behind the scenes look into the people who made up one of the most dominant runs the NBA has ever seen. What follows is an excerpt on Pat Riley. Enjoy.
By Jeff Pearlman
I spent about two years working on Showtime, and it was an absolute joy. The book chronicles the Lakers dynasty from 1979-91, and while there were dozens of fascinating characters, few were as riveting as Coach Pat Riley.
When he was hired to replace Paul Westhead, Riley was a casual, easy-going man who was beloved by his players. With success, however, came an ever-growing ego. By the time the Lakers met Detroit in the 1989 NBA Finals, Los Angeles had a real problem.
Pat Riley could have waited. A day. Two days, perhaps. He could have taken some time to think about his players and his team; whether they would be best served by peace and solitude and a light work load; whether a veteran point guard who had endured 2,886 minutes in the regular season and a forty-two-year-old center and a battered roster would, perhaps, benefit from some time away from the court, sitting on a beach or inside a movie theatre or at home with the wife and kids.
He could have. He chose not to. Following the series-clinching win over Phoenix to reach the 1989 NBA Finals, Riley was asked by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune whether he would allow for a period of rest and relaxation. The coach didn’t pause to consider a reply. “Our players,” he said, “will wish that this series went longer. It will be a very hard week for them. The practices will be tough. Now is no time to relax.”
On the morning of May 31, the Lakers traveled ninety-five miles north to Santa Barbara, where they would spend much of the subsequent three days locked inside the Westmount College gymnasium (aka: the depths of basketball hell). Three hours before the first two p.m. practice, the team bus stopped at the luxurious Biltmore in Montecito, a hotel that charged $500 per night for a room. This was Riley’s little touch—a carrot in front of the wagon. Rich basketball players like fancy accommodations, and the coach surely thought his men would be wooed by the fine linens and a top- shelf room-service menu. He was, however, wrong.
The members of the Los Angeles Lakers were pissed off.
“I told Pat this was a bad idea,” said Bill Bertka, the assistant coach. “Pat was on a mission to three-peat, and he wasn’t thinking entirely logically. The guys needed rest. When we drove to Santa Barbara I told him, ‘Pat, if you turn the screw one more time, it’s going to break.’ He got pissed off at me and told me the guys were at the top of their games, and we had to leave no stone unturned. I’m not so sure he was thinking straight.”
Throughout his coaching career, Riley always demanded excellence. Players had to commit themselves 24/7 to the task of winning a championship. Wives had to commit themselves 24/7 to the task of helping their husbands win a championship. You were a (admittedly well-compensated) slave to the system, and what Riley said wasn’t to be followed but obeyed. Yes, Coach. Of course, Coach. Whatever you say, Coach. This sort of unblinking adherence to one man’s rule of law made many of the players uncomfortable—none more so than Abdul-Jabbar, the ultimate free and original thinker. Riley’s Jedi mind tricks worked on most of the Lakers, few of whom passed for Einsteinian scholars. Yet the center often viewed his coach’s procedures as gimmicky and simplistic, amateur psychology for the weak-willed. During his final season, Abdul-Jabbar traveled with a publicist, Lorin Pullman, who was friendly and well liked. One time, when the Lakers traveled to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers, she was stranded at the Sheraton in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Riley refused to let her ride the team bus to the airport, even when others pleaded her case. Why? Because he could. When Abdul-Jabbar learned of this, he turned indignant. What happened to his old coach? The one who was understanding and personable? Where did he go? Many Lakers players had recently been told that Riley—without uttering so much as a word—had officially purchased the trademark rights to the phrase three-peat. The term had first been coined by Wes Matthews, the former backup point guard who, after the last championship, turned to Riley in the locker room and yelled, “Don’t break this up—we’re gonna three-peat!”
“Riley was like, ‘Three-peat? I like that,’” Matthews said. “Then the bastard went and patented it. I was pissed. I was really pissed.”
Abdul-Jabbar was fed up. The ego was bad enough. But the pre-finals training camp. Why? “Riley thinks he’s doing the team a favor by getting us up [to Santa Barbara] and away from the distractions,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his season-long diary. “But I don’t feel there are any distractions at home; on the contrary, it’s where I’m most comfortable. For me, being away from home is the distraction; it’s a sacrifice to be up there.”
If Riley’s goal was to unite the Lakers, it worked. Only the uniting wasn’t against the Detroit Pistons, the team they’d meet in Game 1 of the finals on Tuesday, June 6, in Detroit. No, it was against Riley. Whereas long ago, Riley was liked by an entire roster, he now was viewed as a wannabe dictator set in his ways, even if his ways lacked logic and common sense. Nobody—Johnson, Bertka, Cooper—could convince the coach that this mini-training camp was a dopey idea. “Our goal is to go there and work hard,” Riley said. “This is an opportunity. We had huge layoffs in ’82 and ’87 and I think if our players use proper preparations, we can take advantage of this opportunity. We can hone and replenish.”
What ensued were three days of intense, hard-core, unyielding sessions that made the workouts in Hawaii feel like a day at the spa. Pummeling two- a-days and full-court scrimmages were the norm; sweat poured by the bucket.
“Pure hell,” moaned Cooper.
“The thing that upset us more than anything else was how hard we worked,” said Scott. “It was like training camp all over again. We didn’t feel that we really needed that.”
“I thought it was too much,” said Gary Vitti, the team’s trainer. “It was a boot camp, but I didn’t criticize him for it. Look at his track record. You had to assume he knew what he was doing. He almost always did.”
Riley barked and screamed like a man possessed. He was no longer merely a basketball coach trying to win. He was a flesh-eating hoops zombie, focused on killing off the Pistons and continuing his team’s world domination. He slept Pistons, ate Pistons, walked Pistons, talked Pistons. “[The Pistons] are so committed to the revenge thing,” he said. “Their mission is to beat us. They are challenging us more than anyone’s ever challenged us. We’ve got to want them more than they want you. If we go in there and say we just want to ‘three-peat’ and win one for Kareem, then you don’t have the right competitive attitude. You’ve got to stimulate [the players’] minds more, bring back all the little things that were said last year, bring back some videotapes. You got to bring it all back, otherwise they forget. Then, after the first or second game, they’ll realize what it was like.”
The Lakers returned from Santa Barbara an exhausted, though well-prepared, team. Riley’s squad arrived in Detroit on a Monday morning, checked into the Marriott, then held a closed (to the media) practice inside the Palace at Auburn Hills. Generally, teams in the Lakers’ position (finals, on the road) use the day-before session to stay loose, review opposing personnel, adjust to their surroundings. “Nice and easy,” said Vitti. “Nothing too tough.”
Riley didn’t want to hear it. As was the case in Santa Barbara, he had his players go all-out. There would be no downtime, he insisted, until a third- straight title was secured. That’s why the Lakers were conducting a box-out drill, which called for the players to crash the boards and fight for rebounds. “Pat was setting the tone in practice, and I understand that,” Vitti said. “But, theoretically, if you don’t know how to box out or you don’t have the mentality to do it the day before the first game of the finals, you’re not going to develop it.
“So we’re doing this box-out drill, which in retrospect doesn’t seem very bright . . .”
Byron Scott dropped to the floor. Not as if he were shot. No, more like a tree being cut down by a lumberjack. The Laker shooting guard was jostling for position with David Rivers when he fell off balance, landed awkwardly and ruptured his left hamstring. It took Vitti less than two minutes to know that Scott would not be participating in at least the first two games of the NBA Finals. He wound up playing nary a game. “It was devastating,” Vitti said. “For the team, for Byron . . . devastating.”
“All we needed was to have a nice, relaxed shootaround,” said Bertka. “But instead Pat wants to do some intensive work, and Byron fucking hurts himself.”
By now, Scott was more than just an elite sharpshooter. He was a borderline All-Star who averaged 19.6 points during the regular season and owned Phoenix in the four-game Western Conference Finals sweep. “You can’t overstate his value,” said Rivers. “He did everything you’d want from your two- guard. When Magic needed an outlet, he knew to look for Byron.”
Riley tried his best to hide his disappointment. Cooper, in his eleventh season, wasn’t as explosive as he had once been, but he remained capable of quality play. This was, the coach insisted, an opportunity for others to step in and step up. Tony Campbell, the former Piston, would certainly receive big minutes. So, in all likelihood, would Jeff Lamp, a seldom-used shooting guard from the University of Virginia. Even Rivers, all six feet of him, could wind up getting time. “This is not the end of the world,” Riley said. “We can—and will—overcome.” Laker players didn’t necessarily disagree. Scott was important, but not Johnson-and-Worthy important. Yet, even if his words rang true, Riley was the villain. Why had he pushed them so hard? So long? So rough? What the hell was Scott even doing down low, boxing out a teammate the day before the biggest game of the season? “It wasn’t smart,” said Campbell. “I loved playing for Pat. But it just wasn’t.”
The Pistons opened the series with a decisive 109–97 win, and Scott’s absence was the difference. Los Angeles shot just 1-for-6 from three-point range, and Detroit backed far off Cooper and Campbell and dared them to try. Worthy shot 6-for-18, scoring 17 points. “It hurt,” Johnson said of Scott’s absence, “but we can’t think about it. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do. Defensively, we didn’t guard anybody. When you don’t guard a great team as they are, you usually lose.”
Were the clubs both at full strength, it’s still unlikely the Lakers would have won the series. Detroit was the better, deeper and more motivated team. The Pistons also seemed more cohesive. As the fatigued and irked Lakers regularly tuned Riley out, Coach Chuck Daly’s voice carried oomph with Detroit’s players. He was a warm man who encouraged input.
On the day off between action, Riley made it clear to his men that, even without Scott, Game 2 was a must. The Lakers played with a sense of desperation and, behind Johnson’s 19 points and 9 assists, led at the half, 62–56. He had promised to “go crazy” on Detroit, and now was delivering. Then, with 4:48 remaining in the third quarter, the unthinkable happened—again. With Los Angeles holding on to a 75–73 advantage, Mychal Thompson’s shot was blocked by John Salley, and Isiah Thomas pushed the Pistons on a four-on- two fast break the other way. As he whipped a pass, Thomas turned and saw Johnson pull up and grab his left hamstring. He had felt a slight twinge early in the third quarter, but paid it no mind. This time, though, it wasn’t a mere twinge. It was a pull, and the pain was unbearable. A similar injury had caused him to miss five regular-season contests, as well as the All-Star Game. Riley called a time-out, and Johnson limped around on the court, trying to evict the injury from his body. “I came out onto the floor, and he described to me what had happened,” Vitti said. “I immediately told him, ‘You’re done for today, but you might not be done for the series.’” Johnson pushed Vitti away like a crumpled napkin across a table, but was resigned to the fact that he could no longer play.
Without Johnson, the Lakers battled back, only to lose 108–105. “You’ve just got to get them any way you can,” the Pistons’ Joe Dumars said afterward. “You can say that we escaped with a win tonight; that’s fine, we’re still ahead 2–0.”
The third game would be played at the Forum on June 11. This gave Vitti a full two days to work on Johnson’s hamstring. From morning until evening, the two men tried everything. Ice. Heat. Stretches. Equipment. Prayer. Johnson told teammates he would definitely play. Then he told teammates he would definitely not play. The frustration gnawed at him. He and Thomas were still friendly, but the wedge from the previous year remained. Johnson hated the thought of Thomas and the Pistons taking the title. Especially in Los Angeles. “We were back here at the Forum on the night of the game, and we were back in the boiler room so nobody could see us,” said Vitti. “I got him this heavy wrap for his hamstring, and he’s cutting, trying to make these cuts in and out of the boiler poles back there. We didn’t want to give Detroit knowledge of whether he could play or not.
“I actually remember telling Pat, ‘Magic said he can’t do it.’ I remember being choked up because I felt helpless, and I felt as if I’d let Pat down. I let the team down. I let the fans down. I let Magic down.”
And yet, when Lawrence Tanter, the Forum’s public address announcer, introduced the starting lineups, there was Johnson jogging onto the court, the crowd standing and cheering. Maybe, just maybe, everything would be OK. Maybe, just maybe, the Lakers could return from the brink and . . . and . . .
Johnson lasted four minutes and forty-six seconds.
Watching him try to play was akin to seeing Ruffian hobble around the bend in her final race at Belmont. As he limped from the court, the silent audience of 17,505 seemed to know that hopes of the three-peat were limping off with him. Although the Lakers again kept it close, the backcourt trio of Cooper, Campbell and Rivers was, on a good day, Grade C. Dumars and Vinnie Johnson, Detroit’s two top shooting guards, dominated the replacements, shooting 20-for-32 while scoring 48 points. The Pistons won, 114–110.
“I’m always optimistic,” said Worthy, who scored 26 in the setback. “I always like to think there’s a way, that you can always fight. But, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh, shit, how can we possibly win this without Magic?’ It was like a plane losing a few engines. You can still land, but there will be problems.”
“We knew we needed a miracle,” said Thompson. “Miracles happen in one game—but in seven games, against that Pistons team, we knew the odds were greatly against us. It was almost like the odds of winning the six- hundred-million-dollar lottery. It can happen. But, with Tony Campbell and David Rivers playing big minutes, it probably won’t.”
It didn’t. The Lakers were swept. The dynasty was over.
Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.