Jeff Pearlman Discusses His Showtime Lakers Book, the Writing Process, and Qualms With SI Swimsuit

Ryan Glasspiegel

Jeff Pearlman’s book on the Showtime Lakers comes out on Tuesday. An alum of Sports Illustrated who will be forever be linked to his John Rocker story, Pearlman has also written books on Walter Payton, the 90’s Cowboys, and the ’86 Mets. In this q&a, Pearlman talks about his thoughts on Magic, Kareem, Jerry Buss, the SI Swimsuit issue, and how to make it as a sportswriter:

One of the striking things about reading any literature based on events that transpired before a couple years ago is how differently they would be magnified by social media. Can you think of anything that you’ve covered or researched in sports that would have had as seismic an effect as Magic Johnson’s announcement?

First, anyone who calls a sports biography “literature” is cool with me. So … thanks!

It’s a fascinating question—and the answer is a big no. I’ve covered some enormous things, as far as buzz goes. John Rocker’s racist/xenophobic insanity. Barry Bonds’ explosion/implosion. Stuff like that. But Magic was different. It wasn’t just sports news—it was worldwide news-news. It was the Challenger explosion. It was Ronald Reagan being shot. It was that big, and the only things—sports-wise—from my lifetime that might compare are Len Bias’ death and the O.J. Simpson murder and chase. But I didn’t cover those. I was merely a curious and stunned observer.

I never really thought of this until now, but had Twitter been around when Magic announced, the whole event changes drastically. The Lakers PR team and Lon Rosen (Magic’s “guy”) did a masterful job holding off the reporting of the HIV revelation. Some news outlets knew of it, but the team convinced them to hold off. In 2014, that absolutely does not happen. It gets out—and explodes. The hardest thing about being in media relations these days is staying in front of the story. It’s nearly impossible.

I think a lot of media outlets had wind of Michael Sam’s sexuality before he came out and controlled the release of the news. Within just an hour or two, SI had a comprehensive response from (cowardly anonymous) NFL personnel executives. Lots of places could have broken the story, but didn’t, perhaps in conscious fear of what happened to Grantland on the Dr. V. story. You don’t think Magic’s announcement would have inspired similar, if uncharacteristic, tact from the national media at-large? 

I would hope media outlets that knew Michael Sam was gay didn’t report the story because to do so would have been, in my opinion, morally unconscionable. There’s no written rule here, but can you imagine a media outlet (besides TMZ, which is scum of the earth) digging and scratching and clawing to out a college senior? It would have been deplorable and disgusting. I heard someone criticize the University of Missouri’s student newspaper for not breaking the Sam-is-gay saga, and it sickened me. I applaud any student journalists who knew he was gay, and allowed him to handle the story as he saw fit.

I’m not saying this is fair, but Magic would have been somewhat different in the eyes of many media members, in that he was a full-fledged adult. Again, I’m not saying that’s fair. It’s clearly not. But there is a difference in the way folks view a college senior and an NBA veteran in his 30s.

It’s obviously impossible to talk about in a vacuum because Kareem’s life experiences that molded his temperament also would’ve been different in these comparatively more progressive times, but how do you think his surliness — i.e. telling a young autograph seeker to “go fuck himself” — would be perceived by today’s hyperconnected media and fans?

Hmm … another interesting one. Kareem would not fit in well in 2014. I actually saw him at the most recent Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and it was pretty painful. He’s awkward and distant, and somewhat incapable of enjoyable small talk. He also hasn’t helped himself. I haven’t told this story before, but Kareem was very hard to get for this book, and ultimately I had an intermediary ask him the questions I needed answered. He has a publicist who works for him, and she serves as his Plexiglass shield. She kept rebuffing my efforts and rebuffing my efforts, and I finally gave up and had to rely on someone who knew Kareem to ask my questions. I’m not even sure she told Kareem about my inquiries.

Anyhow, I’m at the Hall of Fame, and his publicist texts me something like, ARE YOU HERE? I said I was, and she wrote something akin to, WE NEED TO TALK. I HAVE GOOD NEWS. I was psyched … figured Kareem would supply some time. Well, the publicist and I meet, and she says she has this great opportunity for me and Sports Illustrated, something about this being the 50th anniversary of Kareem’s first SI cover, and the magazine could put all his trophies on a new cover. And I was stunned. A. Because I haven’t been on staff since 2003; B. Because … what in the world was she talking about?

The point: He’s brutally bad at connecting with people, and the people around him also seem bad. Back in the day, he was protected. Now, he’d be exposed.

Not to harp toooo much on the ‘Wow, everything was so different!’ trope, but your description of Jerry Buss’ purchasing the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke included the trading of high profile real estate properties essentially as poker chips. Can you fathom something like that happening in contemporary ownership transactions?

It sorta reminds me of Richard Gere’s character in “Pretty Woman,” when he laments no one building things any longer. The swap between Buss and Kent Cooke involved the Chrysler Building, as crazy as that sounds. Nowadays, it’d be an exchange of stocks, of holdings. It’d be boring stuff. So … no way.

Jerry Buss’ sexual conquests are legendary, and you discuss some of his courting rituals in the book. How many women would you estimate that he slept with in his life? If not an exact number, then a possible range?

I couldn’t venture to guess, but probably not as many as Magic. Jerry Buss was a fascinating man. Just fascinating. Because while women were certainly eye candy to him, they weren’t disposable pieces of plastic. He put many through college, paid for apartments, career starts, etc … etc. I’m sure he slept with many of them because, well, if I were Jerry Buss, I’d certainly sleep with a lot of them. But I do believe there was an element of showmanship, and also a longing for genuine companionship. And big breasts, too.

This would probably take you thousands of words to explain thoroughly, but can you give us the cliff notes on the broader processes of taking this book from an idea pitched to a publisher through its completion?

Sure. So my last book was Sweetness, the Walter Payton biography. And it was published by Gotham. As soon as the smoke cleared (and there was a shitload of smoke), I started pondering the next project. I tend to stroll through book stores, look online, see what’s out there, what’s not out there. I jot ideas, throw some by my friends, some by my agent, all by my wife. I have three considerations, and I’m pretty religious about them. 1. Is the subject something I’d enjoy obsessing over for the next 2-3 years? 2. Is there a reason for a book on the subject? 3. Does it at least have a chance of being a big seller? All the factors are equally important. For example, the Roger Clemens book was my least enjoyable experience, because he was a turd who lacked introspection, and those were some long, long years, and nobody wanted to spend $25 on a complete asswipe. Lesson learned.

I’m a huge nostalgia guy, and as a kid (even growing up in New York) the Lakers and Celtics owned the NBA. I never really liked the Celtics, and besides, Jack McCallum wrote an excellent book on their run. But the Lakers—well, they intrigued me. Admittedly, there was an excellent book out there called Winnin’ Times. Scott Ostler and Steve Springer put it together, and it came out in 1986. It’s excellent. But it was written in 1986. And I felt, nearly 30 years later, there would be much to add. And there was.

Anyhow, I wrote a proposal, gave it to Gotham—very quick agreement. I guess I had about 1 ½ years to work on the book. I spent the first year researching. Which means finding every imaginable clip about the team, the players, the coaches, the time period. Buying every book written by anyone associated with the era. Then tracking everyone down. By everyone, I mean everyone. I traveled to Canada to hang with Mike Smrek, to Miami to lunch with Billy Thompson, to LA to chill with Larry Spriggs. The Lakers had a backup point guard named Ronnie Lester, and I ran into him completely by accident. He must have thought I was insane, because I screamed, “Ronnie Lester!” Nobody had ever been happier to see him.

For me, these books have never been about the stars. Magic, Kareem and Riley have combined to write nine or 10 books. They’ve said all they have to say, and even if I’m interviewing at my absolute best, there’s only so much juice left to squeeze. But I sat with Wes Matthews inside a Bridgeport diner and had a PhD-level course on Showtime. I watched Bill Bertka—a former assistant coach—break down the offense like nobody’s business. The team was originally coached by Jack McKinney, and we sat on his patio in Florida and chatted away about what could have been. Just great, great times. Great.

So I report and report and report, and with six months left I say, “Time to write.” And I spend the remaining time roaming from coffee shop to coffee shop with these ludicrously large duffle bags stuffed with paper. If I saw me coming, I’d walk the other way.

Is there any chance you’d be able to share a page of your handwritten notes that are possibly only decipherable to you?

Here you go

What percentage of your research would you estimate is curated from written materials versus interviews?

It’s probably 50-50 for this book. You obviously want as much original material as possible, but there were games played that were covered by excellent scribes. I probably read 1,000 game stories alone researching this book. So it’s almost like there’s a foundation of information, and you—the reporter—add onto it. For example, I’ll read about a game against the Kansas City Kings, where Springer or Ostler or Randy Harvey or Roy Johnson or any number of guys who wrote about the Lakers (and the basketball writers back then were fantastic) refer to, say, an amazing Norm Nixon pass. Then I’ll call as many Kings and Laker players as possible and ask what they recall. You’d be surprised how many guys remember minutia. It still surprises me.

Who was your favorite person to talk to in putting together this book, and why?

As strange as this might sound, I’d have to say I have three—Linda Rambis, Jeanie Buss and Wanda Cooper. Explanation: Linda is Kurt’s wife, and she’s worked for the Lakers for years. She’s cool and laid-back and happy to chat about anything, everything—sans embarrassment, sans remorse, sans hesitation. I just felt a genuine kinship with her. Jeanie, obviously, is one of the team’s owners, and when we were scheduled to lunch I had no idea what to expect. Well, she walks in … and she’s just chill. And self-deprecating. And smart. Like Linda, she didn’t shy away from things, or try and gloss over stuff. There was no PR person present. No shield. If every team executive were like those two, life would be easy.

Lastly Wanda—Michael Cooper’s ex-wife. Throughout the early stages of the book, people repeatedly asked, “Have you talked to Wanda? Have you talked to Wanda?” When I finally tracked her down, I understood. Wanda Cooper is one of the most unique and special people I’ve ever met. She’s from New Mexico, but she’s blunt like a New Yorker. No shield, no bullshit. I’ll give you a great example. There’s a quote in the book that makes me laugh every time. A reporter asks a wife whether she worries about her husband fooling around on the road. And her response is, “One less blowjob I have to give at home.” I knew Wanda had said it, but identifying her (in that case) wasn’t necessary, and I certainly didn’t want to humiliate her. Well, a few weeks ago I asked Wanda, via IM, whether she would have been offended or angry had I attached her to it. Her exact response: “I love that quote & would not have minded ownership.” Says it all.

You received a bit of backlash over personal details that you uncovered in your biography of Walter Payton. What do you think is it about athletes in particular that people get so defensive about when a complete picture is painted of their lives off the field?

A bit? Ha. I think people take ownership of athletes. Not merely in a fantasy sports sort of way, but in a “This is our guy!” mode of thinking. I mean, let’s use Walter Payton as an example. Before the book came out—literally, before he read a word—Michael Wilbon wrote a column slamming me for authoring “Sweetness.” Why? Because he was from Chicago, and Walter was Chicago’s guy. And you don’t mess with that sort of bond. You can write glowingly and lovingly. But once you get dark … well, no. Not allowed.

The thing is, that’s bullshit. And dumb. Maybe it’s just optimistic thinking, but I believe a sports biographer is a sports historian, just as Robert Caro is a Lyndon Johnson historian and David Herbert Donald is an Abe Lincoln historian. You’re writing about something in the hopes that—when it’s done—it will exist as the authoritative record on the subject. And not merely about the sports side of things (Payton’s rushing yards and touchdowns), but the entirety of the person, or team, or era. I want to know what makes a person tick. I want to understand the triumphs and the hardships. I want to hear about struggles. As I said repeatedly in 2011, why is it so awful to learn that Walter Payton suffered through depression and suicidal thoughts? Isn’t he more of a man, battling through his difficulties? Doesn’t that make him more impressive? And, if nothing else, more real? These are people. All of them. They shit. They fart. The burp. They make mistakes, just like we do. Why is it wrong to know that?

Recently, you published a story about the 1984 Olympic hockey team on SB Nation, and also one about the troubles of former famed recruit Willie Williams on Bleacher Report. What was the reasoning behind pitching those stories to newer web sites, as opposed to legacy media institutions? 

Hmm … in these cases, it’s about relationships and opportunities. A couple of months ago I was approached by Bleacher Report about writing one lengthy piece per month for nice compensation. I was flattered and, truthfully, intrigued. The site has hired some great writers; clearly, it’s working to establish itself as a player. So … why not? I’ve had a nice career, but it’s not like I get 1,000 offers a day to write 7,000-word pieces for good money for a site with great visibility. And, to be honest, the Williams story idea was theirs, not mine. It was a fantastic idea, too.

As for SB Nation, I’ve been an admirer of Glenn Stout for years, and when he started editing the long-form pieces I got really excited. He’s tremendous at what he does; one of the two or three best line editors I’ve ever seen. I wrote two lengthy pieces for him, and he told me he was looking for some Olympic-related ideas. I’d always wondered about that ’84 team … and I don’t even like hockey that much.

As I read it, one of your implied opinions in Boys Will Be Boys was that Jerry Jones has generally been inadequate in his role as Cowboys GM. Do you see him ever having the humility to step back from the intimate details of football operations and let a specialist operate unencumbered? 

Yes. When the lobotomy kicks in.

As an SI alumnus, can you explain your qualms with the Swimsuit Issue? Do you think SI could feasibly cover sports as comprehensively without that income stream? (Full disclosure: I used to write for the SI Swim web page.)

I’ve never liked the Swimsuit Issue. Never, ever. Not when I was a kid. Not when I was a teenager, who was supposed to be fondling it beneath the sheets. Not as a staffer. Not now. Sports Illustrated is a sports magazine. A great sports magazine. It covers sports better than anyone, and features some of the country’s top writers. The Swimsuit Issue is demeaning—to the brand, I guess, but mainly to women. There are so many powerful, strong, impressive women in sports these days, from athletes to agents to executives. When we devote an issue to having women pose 90 percent naked, what does it say? To me, it says, “We view women as objects.” And I know the people at SI don’t feel that way. They’re my friends; my colleagues. They’re people with wives and daughters.

The Swimsuit Issue is, factually, a cash cow. I don’t know the revenue numbers, but they’re huge—still. Which is weird, because one can find 8,000 skin pics all over the web for free (not that, ahem, I’ve ever tried).

What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give aspiring sportswriters?

You know, I’ve been an adjunct professor at Manhattanville College and Purchase College the past bunch of years. I’ve loved both experiences, and I’ve had some wonderful students. But the one thing I haven’t had—like, really, really had—is a student who wanted it. Truly, desperately, painfully wanted it. When I was working for the student paper at the University of Delaware, many of us wanted it. We applied for hundreds of internships, we took first jobs all over the country. We hungered for the chance to write and report, and make a career out of it. I was not the most naturally gifted guy at Delaware—we had a kid named Greg Orlando who’s one of the most talented pure writers in the country. But I fucking wanted this so, so, so, so badly. And when people say, “You’re lucky you get to write books for a living,” I actually get a smidge offended. I busted my ass.

So that’s the absolute best advice I can give someone who truly wants to make it in this field: Bust your ass.

Showtime comes out on Tuesday, March 4th.