Showtime. It’s a name synonymous with not just the Lakers franchise, but the NBA itself, and one of the league’s greatest eras ever. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have long been credited with saving the NBA during the 1980s with their rivalry that started in the NCAA Tournament and carried into the NBA between, respectively, Bird’s Celtics and Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers.
For the franchise, it’s a time period that created many fans of purple and gold, and turned the Lakers into not just contenders once again, but champions and among the league’s greatest teams and franchises ever. Simply saying the name “Showtime” draws up fond memories for Laker fans of any generation.
It’s also a phrase that transcends the Lakers. Catch any team running a fastbreak with a couple of fancy passes, and an announcer will surely be interjecting the word “Showtime” into their description of the play. The Showtime Lakers were such a riveting team on and off the court that HBO funded a series, “Winning Time,” on that time period.
But it all begets the question: where does the Showtime nickname come from? While it’s strongly associated with a team, an era, a philosophy of how to play the game and an approach to the presentation of basketball, the genesis of the nickname is one that isn’t widely known.
So how exactly did the “Showtime Lakers” get their name?
The creation of the name isn’t actually all that surprising, given who came up with it. When Dr. Jerry Buss took bought the franchise in 1979, his vision was to make going to a basketball game as exciting as a night out on the town.
In fact, one of the primary motivations behind why, and how, he would reshape the experience of an NBA game stemmed from time spent at a nightclub called The Horn. As detailed in Steve Springer’s book “100 Things Lakers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” The Horn would host nightly shows for the roughly 150 guests that began with a singer stationed at one of the tables standing up and saying two words before being joined by fellow performers.
Appreciating how those words kicked off a night of fun and partying, Buss wanted to bring that to the Lakers and an NBA game. Anyone who caught the very first trailer for “Winning Time” is already familiar with a dramatization of the moment:
And it wasn’t as simple as throwing a nickname onto the franchise. Buss changed how the Lakers did just about everything.
Off the court, it started by welcoming celebrities back to the games, something previous owner Jack Kent Cooke pushed back against. Whereas Cooke refused, unlike previous owners, to comp tickets for celebrities — shoutout to Jack Nicholson for paying for his own way during that time — Buss welcomed with open arms the stars of Hollywood, seeing it as another way to draw fans to seats and create a bond between sports and entertainment.
His creation of the Lakers Girls and introduction of a live band only added to the atmosphere. Of course, all of that may have been for naught if he also didn’t have the point guard perfectly suited to run the style he craved on the court.
The Magic Ingredient
To go along with the excitement he added off the court, Buss wanted a fastbreaking, up-tempo offense on the court. Landing Magic Johnson with the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA draft fulfilled that desire better than perhaps any player in NBA history could have. His passing ability turned any possession into a fastbreak, and his size allowed him to play any position from point guard to center while his infectious smile, energy and attitude helped bridge the gap between Hollywood celebrities and basketball.
When it all came together, it was a blend of fast-paced, exciting basketball nirvana on the court paired with star-studded faces and entertainment off of it. It was a magical time and named that perfectly captured the blend between Hollywood and basketball the Lakers sought to encapsulate, a blend that spawned generations of Lakers fans and has lived on in various forms for decades since. It was success, it was style, it was substance and it was special.
It was Showtime.