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 may have ultimately been a dynasty in the ‘80s, but that came only after some ups and downs in the early part of the decade. As we’ve seen throughout “Winning Time” so far, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the start and there were bumps along the way.
Because drama is more fun — and more compelling for a TV show — we sort of jump straight through the 1982 NBA Finals where the Lakers won and Magic Johnson was named Finals MVP, and through the 1982-83 season where the Lakers went 58-24 and had the second-best record in the league and right into the 1983 Finals for some more disappointment.
Doom and gloom?
It’s true that the Lakers were promptly swept out of the Finals by the Sixers to cap off their nearly perfect “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’” playoff run. But it was the third Finals appearance in four years and the Lakers had won two of those, so was it really as doom and gloom as it’s portrayed?
The Lakers certainly weren’t a bad team, but they were an aging team. And they weren’t a perfect fit amongst each other, as we’ve discussed with the Magic-Norm Nixon dilemma. So, while doom and gloom might be a stretch, there was an urgency to ensure this was not a flash in the pan for the franchise and that they’d be a contender for years to come.
From Pearlman’s book:
Had the Lakers dropped a close seven-game series, perhaps the team could remain largely unchanged. The finals, though, were embarrassing, and served to reveal Riley’s club as flawed and a bit old. “We need to reassess,” West said. “That’s what it came down to.”
And boy were there some decisions to be made.
Kareem’s free agency
It’s true that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entered free agency after the 1983 NBA Finals and it’s true that he wasn’t in high demand. In hindsight, that seems insane but in the moment, think about the context.
Kareem was 36 years old and had just been dominated by Moses Malone in the Finals. Malone won Finals MVP after averaging 25.8 points, 18 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game and shot 50.7% from the field. Kareem averaged 23.5 points but just 7.5 rebounds and looked his age.
In free agency, Kareem was also asking for a hefty payday at the time, looking for a contract at $2 million annually. Everyone in the league balked and Kareem, despite lowering his asking price, went unsigned for three months.
The Hattiesburg American detailed how rough the summer was for Abdul-Jabbar and his agent Tom Collins.
Abdul-Jabbar, 36, a former UCLA star center, had dropped his asking price to $1.8 million after initial reports that he wanted $2 million, the newspaper said. The Atlanta Hawks had made an informal offer of $1.5 million, while the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers made noise but offered nothing, Collins said. “It’s been a long summer,” said Collins.
Eventually, Kareem signed with the Lakers for a two-year, $3 million in September. But the Lakers had more moves coming.
Norm Nixon trade
On the note of poor performances in the Finals, Nixon joined Kareem in the doghouse of sorts. He shot just 40% from the field against the Sixers and struggled defensively against Andrew Toney, who scored 22 points per game for Philly.
Perpetually on the chopping block anyway, Nixon was the man the team started shopping once the offseason started. It didn’t come down to James Worthy or Norm Nixon, as the show portrayed. There was only one person that was going to depart at season’s end.
From Pearlman’s book:
“It made sense to look into dealing Norman,” said West. “He was a terrific player. I’ve never said he wasn’t. But we were lacking balance, and we needed someone in the backcourt who didn’t need the ball all the time, someone who was a better defender and a better shooter.” Put differently: Nixon was a pain in the rear, approaching his twenty-eighth birthday, struggling with tendinitis in his knees and not quite as explosive as he had once been. Plus, Johnson was tired of him.
Things moved a lot slower in free agency back then, as evidenced by Kareem signing in September. Nixon, meanwhile, wouldn’t be traded until late October...on his birthday. The team announced the trade on the day before his 28th birthday. It wasn’t a popular move as he and many Lakers fans, Jack Nicholson included, weren’t thrilled.
As pictured in the show, the team had a birthday party turned farewell get-together to bid him adieu as he walked across the hall — though technically they were still in San Diego at the time — to the Clippers.
Predictably, a motivated Nixon made the Lakers pay early in the 1983-84 season. Three games into the new campaign, Nixon scored 25 points with 12 assists to lead his new side to win over his old team.
The Lakers would have the last laugh, though unintentionally. Their trade with the Clippers was as much about acquiring Swen Nater, a Dutch 7-footer who played at UCLA and was seen as insurance for the aging Kareem, as it was Byron Scott, who was just drafted with the No. 4 pick in the draft that spring.
Kareem’s house fire
The timeline on a couple of things was moved around in this episode. For one, Magic Johnson didn’t make his first proposal to Cookie until 1985. For another, Kareem’s house fire occurred much earlier than in the show.
On Jan. 30, 1983, Abdul-Jabbar’s house burned down after an electrical fire. Kareem and the Lakers were in Boston, having lost to the Celtics 110-95. Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire but lots of valuables were lost, including that record collection.
The center could deal with the loss of the structure itself. What crushed him, however, was the incineration of his three prized collections oriental rugs, irreplaceable Middle Ages Qur’ans and more than three thousand jazz albums. “My record collection,” he said, “was probably the single most important thing that was destroyed.
Kareem, who had an uneasy relationship with the public at that point in his career, had his perspective changed by their response. As shown in the episode, the public reached out and tried to help him restore his collection. Kareem himself spoke about it in his book, “Kareem.”
As word got out about the fire, albums and books began finding their way into my hands from ev- ery part of the country. Friends and strangers, fans, people I never knew were there before, tried to help replace my collections and my loss.
It was like Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.
All of that, though, came at the beginning of the year, not at the start of the 1983-84 season. Perhaps in played a role in him returning to the Lakers in free agency, but it definitely endeared him to the fanbase in Los Angeles.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.