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Jeff Pearlman's Showtime: THE INSTREAM Q&A

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Dave Jordan
Dave Jordan is the co-author of the critically-acclaimed baseball autobiography, "Fastball John."

Jeff Pearlman's Showtime: THE INSTREAM Q&A

After I see a film, I might read 25 reviews. Once I've finished checking out a TV premiere, generally I'll search through three or four episode recaps. With the proliferation of media outlets on the internet, I'm finding myself more and more tracking down Q&A interviews from books that I really enjoy. It's sort of like the narrative's after-party, where the writer provides a nod to his process and sometimes her muse in this pleasant exchange for the promotion of their hard work.

There’s been a swell of great Q&As celebrating writer Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime, which was released earlier this month by Gotham Books. Alex Belth knocked out a smart back and forth with Pearlman for his site The Stacks. Ryan Glasspiegel conducted a fun conversation for The Big Lead as well. Pearlman, who previously authored "The Bad Guys Won," the controversial biography of Walter Payton, "Sweetness," and a fascinating look at the Dallas Cowboys during the 1990s "Boys Will Be Boys," brings stellar reporting and exhaustive research to a subject one would think was done to death by numerous NBA TV clips and ESPN Sportscentury-level documentaries. Very simply, it’s a wonderful read, the quickest 400+ pages I’ve breezed through in quite awhile. I’ve always been fascinated by office politics and corporate intrigue in all its forms and "Showtime" offers a generous helping of the power struggles and boardroom-style conflicts both in the locker room as well as on the court with the clock ticking away.

Let’s be clear: I am not much of a basketball fan. At all.

I loved this book.

Pearlman took some time for a free-flowing chat with INSTREAM, contemplating the New York Knicks version of ‘70s Jabbar, the delicate relationship between beat writers and players, in addition to comparisons of viewing NBA Basketball then versus now, both at the arena as well as the family room.

INSTREAM: Did you discover any recurring themes as you conducted your research as opposed to any pre-conceived notions when the idea of a “Showtime” book came to you? In other words, was the book you thought you were writing on Day One the same as what you received from the publisher at the end of the process?

PEARLMAN: If you report right, it's never the same. You have this vague idea of what's going to transpire when you pitch a book, but reporting—detailed reporting—changes everything. I think what took me aback the most was the coaching craziness. Jerry Tarkanian agrees to coach the Lakers—his agent is murdered and he stays at UNLV. Jack McKinney's hired from Portland, starts the 1979-80 season 9-4 and flying fast—falls off his bike, lands in the hospital in a coma, never coaches the Lakers again. Paul Westhead takes over, leads LA to the 1979-80 title—and changes everything and is fired by Magic. Then we get Pat Riley. Weird, crazy, riveting stuff.

INSTREAM: In your view, what is the signature “Showtime” victory? If it’s too close to call, Top three?

PEARLMAN: Easily, Game 6, 1980 NBA Finals, Lakers-76ers in Philly, Kareem home with an ankle injury, Magic playing center and scoring 42 points. No close second for me. That was the absolute beginning of what became Showtime.

INSTREAM: Do you see comparisons between an owner like Jerry Buss and say, Mark Cuban, in how they enjoy interacting and fostering personal relationships with their players?

PEARLMAN: Sure. But Buss was the original, Cuban an endearing, quality carbon copy. Which I think he'd admit. When Buss bought the Lakers, the NBA was basketball. Just basketball. Buss wanted entertainment. He wanted POP! POW! WHAM! So he fired the organ player, brought in USC's marching band. He started up the Laker Girls. He filled the hot seats with celebrities. He made the Forum a place to be—not merely a place to watch basketball.

INSTREAM: What do you think are the main differences between the in-game experiences at The Staples Center & The Forum in its heyday?

PEARLMAN: The Staples Center is very nice, but it has the originality and spunk and heart of a piece of cardboard. There's nothing unique about it. It's a big, expensive NBA arena. Hell, it holds two NBA teams. Nothing special. The Forum ... man, just great. Cozy, organic, magical. Totally different. Even most Laker execs admit something was lost when the team left the Forum.

INSTREAM: I wonder how many people remember what became of Mike Warren after his time with Jabbar at UCLA (p.59). This is simply one of the finest theme songs in television history.

PEARLMAN: I was much more of a Cheers guy.

INSTREAM: You know, during the early '80s, it seemed as though the film AIRPLANE! was at every 12-year old kid’s sleepover party, along with Stripes & Caddyshack, of course, almost sown into the cultural DNA of everyone over the age of 40 at this point. Watching the Kareem scene now, especially after reading "Showtime," really allows you to consider how much of a stretch it was for him to portray "Roger Murdock."

PEARLMAN: Well, he did it very well. It's an eternal film moment, him at his best. Kareem was awkward, rude, confounding, perplexing—and very, very smart and cutting. He could be the funniest guy in the room, but it was on the sly. One time two Lakers—Mike McGee and Larry Spriggs—showed up at the Forum wearing the exact same purple shirts. McGee was a guard, Spriggs a big forward. When the two left the room, Kareem swapped shirts in their lockers. Everyone was cracking up watching the two guys try and fit in the other one's shirts. All Kareem.

INSTREAM: Did Riley ever publish the 400-page book he wrote while on the beach?

PEARLMAN: He did not.

INSTREAM: Let’s talk about the Steve Springer/Michael Cooper story on page 309. In terms of the relationship between beat writers and their subjects, whether it be the players, coaches or management, how often do you think the writers ask “Do you really want me to print this?” as opposed to simply going ahead and including the quote in their column?

PEARLMAN: More often than you think. Remember, these aren't columnists, these aren't bloggers. They're guys who travel with the team, depend on the players for stories and scoops and breaking news. It's a delicate balance. If you develop the rep as one who screws over players, you're dead. Springer was a great reporter, and no dummy.

INSTREAM: I really enjoy reading business books to discover the difficult path men and women travel to success in life, and the issues they deal with along the way. Do you think there are any management lessons found in the "Showtime" story that others can learn from?

PEARLMAN: Well, I believe Jerry Buss was the ultimate example of the power of treating employees well, and also the importance of trusting those you hire to do their jobs. He wasn't a Steinbrenner, hanging over every move, insisting on final say. He trusted Jerry West, trusted Pat Riley, never believed he was a basketball genius.

INSTREAM: There’s a great quote from assistant coach Mike Thibault on page 255 when discussing James Worthy being drafted over Terry Cummings & Dominique Wilkins: “For all of Dominique’s talents, he needed the ball in his hands. When you have Magic & Kareem, you don’t want a third focal point.” Do you think this is a concept many basketball teams fail to consider? Reminds me of this wonderful moment in "Miracle."

PEARLMAN: Most NBA teams are pretty savvy about this stuff, although the bad ones make the same mistakes over and over. Perfect example right now: Cleveland. Where they have Kyrie Irving, and they have Dion Waiters, and they're clearly two guys with somewhat similar skill sets who should not be playing with one another. Bad teams often get blinded by talent, without realizing the importance of gelling. The 1980s Clippers made that blunder repeatedly—they'd have these high-powered, big-name drafts, but the pieces never fit together.

INSTREAM: Talk to me about the experience of watching basketball on TV now versus when we were kids, especially those late-night, tape-delayed NBA Finals on CBS during the late ‘70s & early ‘80s.

PEARLMAN: Well, I barely watch basketball on TV now, because it doesn't hold my interest like it once did. That's not actually a slap at the NBA—I'm 41, and I just don't care as much as I did when I was 12, and the big Lakers-Celtics game was on CBS, and it felt like an event. I think one of the issues is the massive number of games—any games, all games—now on the tube/web. It lacks the specialness of the 1980s, when seeing Magic play Bird or the Doctor was a treat. Now I can see LeBron whenever I want. Cool, great, neat—but not special.

INSTREAM: Returning to the office politics element of this story, how much do you think Jerry West’s personal feelings for Norm Nixon played into his decision-making?

PEARLMAN: Well, his personal feelings mixed with his feelings for Norm as a player. He liked his talent, hated his need to be the man. West was the anti-ego guy. He hated big egos, hated the I'm The Man bullshit. So that's where it started with Norm.

INSTREAM: Back to Jabbar and his cultural impact as we view this legendary clip of Bruce Lee teaching Kareem some manners. Let’s explore the idea that the Hall of Fame center doesn’t end up Los Angeles. What do you think Jabbar’s career looks like if the Knicks acquired him in ’75 instead of the Lakers?

PEARLMAN: He doesn't win as many titles, he's rude to New Yorkers, killed by the tabloids, lives a miserable life until he's traded to Cleveland.

INSTREAM: Without discussing the notion that athletes are overpaid (when in most cases it’s simply a transfer of wealth from owner to employee), do you think coaching basketball demands the most personal “buy-in” from the players versus the other major organized team sports?

PEARLMAN: No, football. It's the ultimate do-don't-think sport.

INSTREAM: Couple questions on the craft. Do you believe that “Writers’ Block” exists or is it simply a case of someone wanting to write but either lacking something to say or the tools to convey it properly?

PEARLMAN: It certainly exists. You have something to say. You're ready to write. You've researched. You're prepared. And ... nothing. Just ... nothing. It doesn't come out. The words don't flow. It's awful. I've found Wonder Years re-runs a decent cure.

INSTREAM: How difficult would it be to write a book (or even a longform piece) that demands this number of interviews as an independent project? Assuming you put the proper legwork in, is access a major stumbling block if you're not connected to a publisher or major magazine?

PEARLMAN: Well, it wouldn't be hard—work-wise. I mean, I rarely have a subject ask, "Who's publishing this?" Most people are happy to talk. The big thing, honestly, is time and money. Books are expensive, hard, soul-sucking, mind-ruining projects. They beat you up, beat you down, consume you. I lose 5 years off my life with each project—if I'm lucky. And yet, I also love it. Looooove it.

The New York Times best-selling author talks Kareem, Basketball's Game 6 & the validity of Writer's Block.

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