If his new book “Showtime” accomplishes anything, Jeff Pearlman said, he hopes that it will give Jack McKinney proper credit for his contribution to basketball.
McKinney had devised the high-tempo offense that had 6-foot-9-inch Magic Johnson as its flashy playmaker. But 19 games into his tenure as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, McKinney suffered severe head injuries after toppling over the front of his bicycle while taking a spin on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. He remained away from the team, recovering while the Lakers captured the championship that season.
The Lakers won the first of five titles in the 1980s, all won using that pizazz that McKinney had first built in to the Lakers’ style of play. McKinney would never coach again, but players Pearlman talked to said that he deserved to be credited as the architect.
On a Sunday panel at the Festival of Books, Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer who has written six books about sports, joined John Rosengren and Andy McCue in discussing their travels back in history to unearth the proper context surrounding sports stories.
Rosengren learned that a single ugly incident from a 1965 baseball game was more than just bad blood between two rival teams.
When San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal lifted his bat to swing at the head of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro -- a moment captured in an iconic photo that paints Marichal as the villain -- he was already emotionally charged from the United States occupation of the Dominican Republic, his home country. Similarly, Roseboro was worried about his family back in Los Angeles, where the Watts riots were raging.
The stress on both players combined with some in-game grievances set off a brawl that left Roseboro bleeding from the head and Marichal suspended. “It’s not about who wins or loses, it’s about what’s won or lost,” said Rosengren, who wrote “The Fight of Their Lives.”
McCue wanted to clear up misconceptions about former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who became a polarizing figure when he moved the franchise from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. He said documents were key to writing his book “Mover and Shaker” -- not interviews -- because many close to O’Malley would not talk.
Rosengren had similar issues in writing his book. He couldn’t get Marichal to discuss his role in the brawl, and Roseboro had died.
When Pearlman first approached Magic Johnson, Johnson’s agent said he wouldn’t talk and suggested that Pearlman give up on his efforts to write the book. Even if he couldn't get Johnson, Pearlman wasn't worried because his stories were already out there.
“Magic has done a gazillion interviews ... and written books. So has Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. It’s about getting the guys who were there but haven’t told their stories,” said Pearlman.
For all three panelists, digging into decades-old sports stories was complicated by the passage of time, but motivated them to keep finding new sources to talk to.
“A lot of these guys are about to pass away, and take their stories with them,” Rosengren said.