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Winning Time: The Lakers ‘circus’ of a 1980-81 season

After winning a title in 1980, the Lakers had anything but a successful title defense the following season as things went awfully awry.

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Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson... Set Number: X26282

Each week of season two, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

The Lakers have an unfortunate history of having seasons with high expectations implode in dramatic fashion while falling short of expectations. The 2004 Lakers were a sort of standard-bearer for a while...until the 2012-13 Lakers showed what underperforming looks like.

But the true originators? That would be the 1980-81 Lakers. As shown in the first two episodes of season two of “Winning Time,” the history of the Lakers being a “circus” of a team dates back many, many decades.

Fresh off a title, the Lakers had high hopes heading into the season. Magic’s injury, which we discussed last week, knocked things off course initially before they were flying in another direction by season’s end.

Fights among teammates, blockbuster trades discussed and a growing rift in the coaching staff all highlighted the season. Let’s break it down piece by piece to take a look at this week’s episode.

David Thompson to Lakers

The Lakers’ days of chasing a third star far pre-date modern times. Back in 1980, the team nearly landed one of the league’s top scorers in David Thompson. Memorably, Thompson finished second in scoring in the 1977-78 season after scoring 73 points in the season finale only to be outdone by George Gervin’s 63 points in his own season finale to win the scoring title by one-tenth of a point.

Thompson was a four-time All Star by 1981, a two-time All-NBA First Team honoree, and was third in MVP voting in 1977-78. He was very good, and the Lakers very much had a trade in the works centered around Norm Nixon.

While Jerry West and the front office were all aboard this trade, Paul Westhead had hesitations. His belief of Nixon being crucial to run his offense and concerns about Magic’s growing ego made him value Nixon more than just about anyone else.

The one difference from the show is that the discussions of the trade came much earlier in the season — around December when Magic was still sidelined — which might have further played into Westhead’s reservations. The nail in the coffin for him, though, came when Dr. Jerry Buss consulted Magic himself — then currently rehabbing in Michigan — about the deal.

Westhead wrote the following in his autobiography about the trade:

“The deal was all but complete, except I still disagreed. I sensed the others [in the front office] were annoyed with my dissent. But I had some strong doubts, so I said no... Jerry Buss...decided to consult Magic Johnson, who was back in Lansing, Michigan, recuperating at home. I thought it dangerous to bring Magic into a matter concerning a fellow teammate... Magic’s answer was trade Nixon... It would allow him to handle the ball all the time, versus sharing...”

This only served to grow the wedge between Westhead and the front office, one that was growing larger and larger.

It probably bears mentioning that the Lakers probably made out better by not trading for Thompson. Despite being in his prime at 26 years old in the 1980-81 season, Thompson would play just three more seasons in the NBA.

In 1983, he entered drug rehabilitation. In 1984, he suffered a career-ending injury after a fight in a New York nightclub. In 1985, he attempted a comeback with the Pacers but, following a preseason tryout, he was arrested that night for public intoxication. In 1987, Thompson was sentenced to 180 days in jail after assaulting his wife.

Fortunately, the story has a good ending as Thompson got his life back on track, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and has worked around the NBA in years since. But I think it’s safe to say the Showtime environment may not have been the best for him, even if he was a supremely talented player in 1981.

Magic vs. Norm

Nixon’s time with the Showtime Lakers was short but boy did that man make his time count. The drama between Nixon and Magic was real, as showcased in the episode. Many players on the team weren’t thrilled with Magic’s ego, which we discussed last week.

While everyone else tried to keep it behind the scenes, Nixon spilled all the beans. In fact, Nixon had a bit of a habit of having no filter when it came to speaking to the press.

The most damning article came in an LA Times piece in which Nixon really did say the line uttered in the show...

“Anyway, 15 years from now, everyone will have forgotten Magic.”

An all-time cold takes exposed moment.

It was a rather odd article overall in which Nixon repeatedly says he’s not requesting a trade while talking about how much playing next to Magic holds him back. Both acknowledged that fact and that they weren’t a perfect backcourt combination, but they also just won a title together a year prior.

Nixon made it pretty clear he desired change, even if he kept saying he wasn’t requesting a trade. And then he wildly threw in that final line and the damage was done.

He tried the tried and true “the press twisted my words” argument. He also said in Pearlman’s book that Magic was younger and didn’t handle it the right way.

But Magic didn’t take kindly to the comments and probably rightfully so when Norm said no one would remember him. Tension grew throughout the season, culminating in a full-blown shouting match in the playoffs.

Frustration about Magic’s attitude from the whole team and Nixon’s comments specifically boiled over after Game 2 and prior to Game 3 and Pat Riley explained the scenes in his autobiography, “The Winner Within.”

Once I got there, I opened the door on one of the most painful and inappropriate things I’ve ever seen. A full-blown argument was going on about what had been reported in the papers.

In short, things were bad.

Westhead vs. Riley

This is probably a dynamic we’ll further explore in the coming episodes, but the roots of dissension between Westhead and Riley were planted during this season.

For one, the players didn’t love the idea of Westhead’s offense and felt handcuffed not playing up-tempo, something Riley also agreed with. While he never said anything publicly, as described in Pearlman’s book, Riley was just as confused as the players.

Even Pat Riley, Westhead’s assistant and a man of genuine loyalty, was scratching his head over the shifts. Although he never said so publicly, behind closed doors he expressed confusion over a system that deemphasized the Lakers’ greatest strength—a pair of point guards who could think on the fly. Johnson found a sympathetic ear in Westhead’s right-hand man, whining to him about the blessed Jack McKinney offense that won the team a title, then was promptly dismantled.

Riley did help Magic return to full shape physically and mentally from his injury. It’s unclear if that impacted Westhead in the way it showed, but he was definitely aware of Riley’s growing influence as he described in his autobiography “The Speed Game.”

As time went on in the coming seasons, Pat became overly confident in his position and gave the impression that he knew more than the man who fought to hire him – you know, me. I don’t think it was intentional on Pat’s part, but nonetheless, he became too big for his job.

The fact Jack McKinney left the Lakers, went to the Pacers and won Coach of the Year probably didn’t help anyone either, even if it was kind of odd. He did lead the Pacers to their first playoff appearance since the ABA/NBA merger and improved the team’s record by seven wins, but ultimately they only finished 44-38, the sixth-best record in the conference.

Alas, though, things were far from peacy in Los Angeles.

Game 3 loss

The end result of all of this was an incredibly awful Game 3 performance. At the time, the miniseries in the opening round of the playoffs was a Best-of-3 format and made it do-or-die in the Forum.

The two teams had a normal first quarter with the Lakers leading 29-27. Neither team managed more than 22 points in a quarter the remainder of the game, though. The Lakers shot an abysmal 35.1% from the field, which somehow was only slightly worse than Houston’s 39% shooting.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did everything he could, finishing with 32 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. But with the game on the line, just as it played out in the show, Magic looked off Kareem in the post and drove the middle of the floor where he put up a 10-foot jumper. According to LA Times’ writer Mike Littwin’s recap of the game, the shot “traveled maybe four feet.”

It was emblematic of Magic’s awful night. He finished 2-14 from the field with 10 points. If Game 6 of the Finals in 1980 was his magnum opus, this was his goose egg. Nixon was barely better, shooting 7-17 for 15 points.

No defending champion had lost in this round, showing how far of a fall from grace this was.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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