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.
If everything felt a little too “kumbaya” at the end of the third episode of season two for the Lakers, that’s because it was. While Dr. Buss had set out to address the problems that led to the team losing in the first round of the 1981 NBA playoffs, he hadn’t done much to fix them.
And so, as the team took to the floor to start the 1981-82 season, everyone knew what the problems were but little had been done to fix them. Magic Johnson’s contract had, predictably, caused some issues within the team while Paul Westhead was far from popular.
The result was a very, very adventurous start to the season that ended in one big blowup. Let’s break it down:
Everybody hates Magic
Magic’s 25-year, $25-million contract had a rather predictable effect on the team. While it’s never been reported that Red Auerbach was the one who leaked it to the media — personally I’m fine with blaming him — the details did get out to the media.
To what should be the shock of no one, the team did not respond well. Kareem was actually upset. Norm was, once again, upset at Magic. No one reacted to it particularly well.
Jeff Pearlman’s book detailed the tensions that existed on the team.
“He’s getting all that money, and all the publicity.” Abdul-Jabbar, the longest-tenured member of the team, greeted the news of Johnson’s windfall with uncharacteristic emotion. The morning after it was announced, he asked the Los Angeles Times, “What is [Johnson], player or management? We don’t know.”...
Abdul-Jabbar was not alone in finding this troubling. He derisively referred to Johnson as Buss’s “favorite child,” and said the team’s morale was on the brink of ruination. “They were giving him all this money and saying, ‘Here’s the ball, go entertain everybody,” he said. “They would never have said it, but the unstated thing was not to win, but to entertain. “A basketball team is like a family. If you pick one person out and put him in front of everyone else and say, ‘This is my favorite child,’ other people in the family are definitely going to be affected by it.”
Magic wasn’t thrilled at the details getting out either. In his memoir Magic, he described it as being “in the middle of an earthquake.” Nixon, who had already had problems with Magic, was “irate” at Magic’s new deal, as described by Pearlman.
And the Kareem trade rumors? Those were real, too. Magic himself talked about them in his book.
For a full week, there were rumors that Kareem wanted to be traded to New York. I didn’t know what was going on, but I had a feeling I was going to wind up right in the middle of the whole mess.
Out of the gate, then, Magic wasn’t in a great headspace coming into the season.
Everyone really hates Westhead and “The System”
As much as the Lakers may have not liked Magic, they were united in their utter disdain for their head coach and his offense. Like, they really hated their coach.
The Sports Illustrated magazine? Very real. The Lakers had a photoshoot during the preseason under the idea they were going to be on the cover. But while not appearing on the cover might have been a disappointment, they really didn’t like how Westhead was positioned as a genius mastermind.
From Pearlman’s book:
“My concept was a classroom, and the coach is the teacher and the players are the students,” [the photographer] said... As the Laker players reported to the College of the Desert for the start of camp, they were more united than ever in their disdain for Westhead... Nixon and Johnson detested the picture (which wound up appearing inside the magazine -not on the cover), in that it made Westhead (dressed as a schoolmaster) look smarter and more competent than he actually was. He had been described as a Shakespearean scholar at least a hundred times since taking over the team-and it became really annoying. “That photograph was an awful idea,” said one Laker official who requested anonymity. “It reinforced the negative feelings about Paul, and made some guys even angrier than they had been. It was a huge -and I mean huge-error in judgment.”
Westhead wasn’t helping himself. From the start of training camp, he was feuding with the team about his offense. Magic spoke about the preseason in his book:
After one week of camp we were still having problems with the new offense. Westhead stood by the blackboard and diagrammed the play-sets. “You guys are not being patient enough,” he said. I raised my hand. “Yes, E. J.,” he said. “I don’t think that’s it, Coach,” I said. “I just don’t think it’s going to work.” “You guys are not running it,” he snapped. “We’re all bumping into each other,” I said. Everybody was quiet. You could feel the tension in the room. “Just run it, I don’t want to hear any excuses,” he said.
Westhead was feeling the pressure. The preseason game against the Celtics really happened and Westhead really treated it as a real game. The Celtics were forced into taking it seriously to save face in the second half.
Magic vs. Westhead
Specifically, the battle came down to the team’s star point guard and its head coach. Magic didn’t feel like “The System” was the best way to play with the roster. Westhead felt like Magic wasn’t trying, as he wrote in his book The Speed Game:
...Magic ... was unwilling to cooperate with the program unless it was on his terms. During the game, Magic ran at his pace. When he felt like pushing the ball on the fast break, he went hard, when he didn’t, he strolled... As I saw it, Magic’s major problem was that he was struggling to get by defenders who were easy marks before his knee injury, and now, out of frustration, he was finding fault with the system.
Everyone was well aware of what was happening. Magic, in fact, did not board the bus after the demoralizing loss to the Spurs. It wasn’t quite the scene in the show, but it was dramatic all the same.
In the book Winnin’ Time by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer, the scene painted was almost cartoonishly theatrical.
Instead of boarding the bus, Magic walked across several lanes of busy traffic, that slow off-the-court gait of his halting cars and buses, and stopped on a narrow traffic island, right in the middle of the main thoroughfare of Houston Intercontinental Airport. He plopped himself down right there, shut his eyes, turned his head skyward, and turned up his music...
Michael Cooper spoke to Pearlman about how things had changed with Magic and Westhead.
“Magic really came to hate Paul,” said Cooper. “I mean, he really hated him. Magic’s the type of guy, when he gets on the bus he says hello to everybody-’Hey, what’s up? How you doing? What’s going down?’ Now he would get on the bus, walk straight to his seat and just sit there. He wouldn’t even look at Westhead-not even for a second. Magic would walk right past him, like he wasn’t even there.
“In practice, usually Magic would be on the top of the key, asking for the ball, and he’d be bobbing back and forth, all energy. Now he would just stand straight and still. And I said, “This shit is not looking good. And Westhead would talk, giving instructions like coaches do, and Magic wouldn’t look at him. Westhead would tell him what he wants, and Magic would say, cold as ice, ‘So you want me to go over there and do that?’ And he did exactly as he was told. But usually Magic would dribble and bounce and respond with energy. But with Westhead ..you had a coach trying to get his star’s attention, and his star basically saying, ‘Fuck you. I don’t believe in a thing you’re doing.”
Pat Riley noticed, too. In fact, he admitted that there were moments he could have stepped in, including in Utah. The stress of the situation did force him to wear a neck brace.
As everything boiled, the emotional game against the Pacers played a role. While the lunch with Jack McKinney and Westhead did not happen, the game itself was more than a regular season game.
The Pacers were a bad team that year that finished under .500 at the end of the season, but they took the Lakers to double overtime at home. Incredibly, that game, which took place on a Sunday, was the third game of the weekend as the team played a back-to-back-to-back.
While the result was three wins, with a trip to Phoenix mixed in the middle of two home games, none were by more than four points and only one of the teams was a playoff team in that stretch. Things were spiraling at this point.
The breaking point
Largely speaking, everything that happened in the Jazz game was real. The one real dramatization was that Magic nearly walked out on the team. He was outside of the huddle but not quite in that way.
Outside of that minor detail, everything mainly played out as such. The Lakers barely survived against a Jazz team that went 25-57 that season. After the game and once in the locker room, Westhead took Magic into an equipment room and the two had it out.
From Pearlman’s book:
After the players entered the small visitors’ locker room, Westhead requested a moment of Johnson’s time. They walked into the nearby equipment room... “I’m tired of your horseshit attitude,” the coach said. “And I’m not going to put up with it anymore. Either you start listening to me, or you don’t have to play.”... “You might as well sit me down, because I ain’t being used anyway,” Johnson said. “Just sit me down.” “I don’t want to hear that,” Westhead replied. “Are you done?” asked Johnson. “Yes,” said Westhead. Johnson exited the room.
From there, the locker room, having heard everything that just played out, remained silent awaiting Magic’s response. Reporters walked in and Magic dropped the bomb and demanded a trade.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.