Kareem's Insider Take on Episodes 3 and 4 of "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers"
The Lakers reach their greatest heights, their greatest lows--and Magic and I retire.
Episodes 3 and 4 of Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers strongly affected me because they delve deep into the times when the Lakers were making history as the best team in the NBA as well as when we went through a total meltdown as a team. They also portray two of the most emotional moments in my life: my retirement as a player, which was met with numerous celebrations, and Magic Johnson’s unexpected announcement that he was retiring because of his bout with HIV, which left us all shattered.
Here are my reactions to some of the highlights in each episode.
Jerry Buss Tries to Make His Family a Team and His Team a Family
I thoroughly enjoyed the biographical background on Jerry Buss’s childhood and how he became a self-made millionaire who seemed more interested in the game of becoming wealthy than in the money itself. He loved sports and he played real-life Monopoly with the same passion and intensity as any athlete slamming a ball through a hoop.
I never knew about all the family turmoil he had with his children as he tried to build a dynasty for them to inherit. Clearly, they didn’t all have his fire for empire-building, though Jeanie Buss proved herself to be as business savvy and smart as her dad.
Dr. Buss’s (we called him Doc) own tumultuous childhood made him all the more eager to build his own family into a tight-knit team ready-made to take over his many businesses. He figured that he could forge a family the way he forged his business: through sheer force of will. Alas, there is only so much control one can have over family—as every parent learns the hard way.
But Doc was able to build a basketball team that felt like family, which he did by treating us with kindness and respect and encouraging us to share activities outside the court. Which we enthusiastically did. And it worked—we felt more like a family.
The Mystery of the James Worthy Trade
When I heard the Lakers were considering trading James Worthy my first thought was, “Have they lost their minds!!” James was one of the best players in the NBA. I didn’t know who they wanted to trade him for but in my mind we would have been a much worse team no matter who they got. I expressed my trepidation to Jerry West who told me he was in a bad position because management (which was basically Doc) wanted to do something different. Fortunately, the trade never took place. If it had, we would not have had the success we did and this documentary would never have been made.
Pat Riley Opens His Big Mouth
One of my favorite segments of the series is the chronicle of Pat Riley’s rise from assistant coach to one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. I especially love Pat’s wise reflections and insights now on what happened then. His honesty about his hubris and the mistakes that resulted is refreshing.
After coaching us to the 1987 NBA Championship, he famously stood in front of a large Los Angeles crowd and guaranteed the Lakers would do it again the following year. You’ll see me jokingly stuff a towel in his mouth, but I was only half-joking. We just wanted to celebrate our victory after a tough season, then he piles on all this extra pressure on us. We all resented his proclamation. We wanted to bask, not gear up for the next season.
We definitely resented his bravado at our expense, but we put our heads down and worked even harder so we wouldn’t be embarrassed by his prediction.
Who can put a price on one’s precious memories? I can. It’s the price of subscribing. And don’t forget I have a new podcast series, Skyhook: The Podcast being posted with intimate conversations with all my Showtime teammates. There will be a total of 10 episodes for my paid subscribers to be able listen too. So hit the subscribe button and relive the memories with us.
Buss Faces Financial Ruin
Although Doc did face a serious financial crush after Black Monday, none of the team considered leaving the Lakers. I was at the end of my career, with only a year or two to play, so I didn’t get emotionally involved in the financial side of the team. Besides, we all had complete faith in Doc that he would find his way out. His ingenuity was what had made the Lakers so popular in the first place. When he sold the name rights to the Forum, renaming it The Great Western Forum, we knew our faith in his brains and creativity was justified.
1988 NBA Finals Against Detroit: Sweet Victory
We lost the first game of the Finals, which is usually a predictor of who will win the series (70% of the winners of the first game win the series). We weren’t worried, though. We knew we had a strong team, but we also knew the Pistons had figured out how to play us. The level of intensity in each game was exhilarating and exhausting.
We didn’t change strategies, we just turned it up a notch defensively. But we knew we’d be facing them again in the Finals the following year. They were that good—and they were hungry.
1989 NBA Finals Against Detroit: Bitter Defeat
Yup, they swept us 4-0, but we were a much different team than the one that beat them the previous year. Magic Johnson and Byron Scott were injured and we didn’t have a deep enough bench to replace them. We had good strategies, but without Magic and Byron, we couldn’t implement them. It felt like we were trying to perform brain surgery with no fingers.
In the documentary, Pat Riley admits that his plan of constant and relentless practices, especially the one in Santa Barbara days before the Finals, resulted in the injuries and our losing. At the time, all the players thought we were practicing too much and that it was taking a physical toll on us. Players rely on the coaches to understand the right balance between practice and play that sharpens players’ skills without fatiguing them. But nobody could talk to Pat then, he wasn’t listening. We all knew that we were either going to win the race or end up in a ditch by the side of the road. We ended up in the ditch.
The Beginning of the End of Showtime: I Decide to Retire
Retiring for anyone is a momentous decision. But for an athlete, it can be even more traumatic. First, I had to admit that I couldn’t do my job anymore because I was too old (at 42!!). Second, I had to worry about what my days would look like because I’d been going to the gym almost every day for 30 years. Where would I go now? The beach? Third, I didn’t get all my self-worth from being a famous athlete, but I did get some. Being exceptional at something and having millions of people praise that ability makes you wonder who you will be to them after you stop being exceptional.
One other retirement issue has to do with being Black. There is always an extra weight to being a famous athlete and being part of a marginalized group. You know that everything you do, good or bad, will be scrutinized as representative of the entire group. Every achievement a Black athlete makes buoys everyone in the community. We aren’t building just a personal legacy, but a cultural legacy to instill pride. Retiring would lift some of that responsibility from my shoulders, but it wasn’t one I was eager to shed. I would have to continue that commitment in some other less flashy way.
What the documentary doesn’t show is that I was ready to retire in 1987. I felt I was no longer able to play at the All-Star calibre and I didn’t want to be the kind of player who hangs around too long, dragging his team down with him. But when I told Jerry West I was retiring, he talked me into playing another year. When we won the championship that year, it wasn’t too hard to talk me into yet another year.
Vlade Divac: The New Kareem?
I knew that the Lakers were taking a big chance when they picked Vlade to replace me. Yes, he was an excellent player, but it was a big question whether he could adapt to the Lakers’ style of playing. He definitely played a different kind of game than I had: I played the post, backing down players to get in close. He shot 10- to 12-footers. And he wasn’t strong as a rebounder.
I went to training camp with the Lakers and worked with Vlade. He was very open to new ideas and he was a very hard worker. He also had strong determination. It wasn’t long before he became a powerhouse in his own right.
Pat Riley’s Year of Living Dangerously
The year 1990 was a challenging one for Pat. In the documentary, he talks about how the fame—commercials, books, TV appearances, magazine covers—went to his head. He felt the pressure to live up to the hype and therefore became a bit of a coachzilla. We didn’t really blame him because we’d all had experiences with being seduced by fame and how easy it is to get twisted into a knot.
One of my favorite poems (it was also a favorite of Coach Wooden) is “If” by Rudyard Kipling. In it, a father gives advice to his son about being a man. Two lines that are especially memorable to me are: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same[.]” Winning and losing are both imposters in that they don’t really measure who you really are. That’s a hard lesson to learn—especially today in a society that worships wealth as a measure of worth.
There is no doubt that Pat was a great coach, when he was with the Lakers and after. But when he left, it was the right time. He couldn’t do anything new with the Lakers and the fans would always measure him against his previous successes. He needed a fresh start.
Mike Dunleavy and “Slowtime” Versus Showtime
While it’s true that Mike slowed down the pace—for which he took a lot of heat—he actually improved the team by making them focus on some old-fashioned fundamentals. But in the end, you have to let Magic be Magic. Give him the ball and let him run. It’s more exciting for the fans than fundamentals.
The Jordan-Johnson Showdown
The 1991 Finals between the Lakers and the Bulls was hyped as being a showdown between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. In truth, it wasn’t much of a showdown. The Bulls dominated. The Lakers were a good team but the Bulls were a great team. Jordan was the best player in the league that year and he couldn’t be stopped.
It’s important to remember that a good player rises to greatness because of the teammates around them. Jordan had a stronger combination of teammates than Magic.
Magic’s Retirement Announcement Had Us All in Tears
The episode does a great job capturing just how shocked and devastated the team was by Magic’s announcement that he had HIV and would be retiring. I only found out five minutes before he made it public. I’d received a phone call urgently asking me to come to the Forum immediately. I had no idea what was going on.
Afterward, there’s a segment that shows me hugging a weeping Jerry Buss. I’m not generally a hugger, but this shook us all to our core and all we could do was try to comfort each other that our brother was going through such pain.
Magic and I never had personal discussions about his condition. Once he’d made the announcement, he shut himself off from the world while fighting for his life. At the time, popular opinion was that HIV was a death sentence. But he was in our thoughts daily.
“Being One of the Boys”
In his retirement announcement, Magic said that he wouldn’t miss playing basketball as much as he would miss “being one of the boys.” He was referring to what it feels like to be part of a team every day. The friendship, the sense of being a family. It resonated with me because I felt the same way.
But it turned out that we all remained close friends long after the stadium doors closed. The friendship that made us such a great team made us even better men.