Kareem's Insider Take on the First Two Episodes of "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers"
It gave me fresh insights into that time that I'd never thought about before.
Watching the first two episodes of Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers brought back a lot of wonderful and emotional memories. The effortless camaraderie, the elite athleticism, and the dominating play was exciting to watch.
But I was surprised that it also gave me some fresh insights into that time that even I hadn’t thought about before. While enjoying watching one of the best teams in the history of the NBA find their mojo as a team together, I also realized that Dr. Jerry Buss and I were on parallel journeys at the same time.
In 1979, when Dr. Buss bought the Lakers, I’d been playing for the team for four years. I’d come from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles had a lot of expectations for me. As a Buck, I set NBA records and helped them win their first NBA championship by sweeping the Baltimore Bullets 4-0. The Lakers expected me to bring them championships, too. Believe me, I felt that weight every single day.
I tried hard those first years to live up to what LA expected: My 1,111 defensive rebounds my first season as a Laker remains an NBA single-season record. I received my fourth MVP award that same season, the first in Lakers franchise history. Despite me playing some of the best basketball in my career, the team didn’t win the championships all of LA was hoping for. I felt like I’d let the LA fans down.
Doc Buss and I Were on Similar Journeys
When Doc (which is what many of us called Dr. Buss) bought the Lakers, he was 46 and I was 32. Thirty-two isn’t exactly young when you’re playing professional sports. Most players retire in their mid- to late-thirties. Sports writers started discussing my age whenever they wrote about me. Could I ever do the one thing the fans wanted from me: bring them an NBA championship? Sure, I could roll up great personal stats as a player, but could I lead a team to that same success?
Doc also had his naysayers. Who was this flashy playboy upstart thinking he could suddenly show up and take over an esteemed institution. There were traditions, precedents, rings to kiss. He didn’t care about any of that. He would do things his way—with charm and a laugh—but his way nonetheless. Team owners and head coaches throughout the league wanted him to fail.
Neither of us had yet achieved what we were capable of. And we were willing to do whatever it took to prove what we could do—to the fans and to ourselves.
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Doc’s Family Dynasty
The documentary series starts by telling us that Doc was trying to build a family dynasty that would include all his children. But the children had their own ideas. “He put the plan in motion,” the documentary explains. “[His children] just didn’t want to follow it.”
I knew nothing about any of that. Doc and I were friendly, but not friends. We didn’t socialize off the court. We didn’t play horseshoes in his backyard. That was true with all the players. We all knew where we stood with him: he treated us all like valued and respected business associates.
Until Magic Johnson. The series accurately depicts the special relationship Doc had with Magic. It was clear to all of us that the bond between them wasn’t just about business. He wasn’t only cultivating his next star player. He was also bringing Magic into his family to give him some sense of emotional support and stability as a twenty-year-old kid far from his own family.
Jack McKinney Masterminded Showtime Lakers
Doc Buss brought in Jack McKinney in 1979-80. It was Jack’s first head coach job and he got it right away. He encouraged a running offense and put Magic in as a point guard instead of forward. Norm Nixon was already a great point guard, so the move surprised a lot of people. But Norm wasn’t mad. In fact, he greatly benefited from Magic in this new position because Magic would feed him the ball in the wings and Norm would consistently drain the shots. It turned out to be a great benefit for Norm. The combination of two of them coming down the court was a gift from the basketball gods.
We all knew we were onto something special that season when we started winning so regularly right from the start. Those early victories are especially important later in the season because if you’ve done well early on you don’t have to scramble to make the playoffs. Instead, you can spend more time resting and preparing for the post-season.
Those early victories were in large part due to Jack’s coaching. He understood Magic and gave us an unstructured offense that let Magic open to improvise. Then 13 games into the season (9-4), Jack fell off his bicycle and suffered a brain injury that nearly killed him. He was never fully able to come back and was replaced by his assistant coach Paul Westhead.
Jack’s accident devastated me—and the rest of the team. For me, he had really figured out how to bring out the best from us as individual players and as a team. I was happy to do whatever he suggested. We used his offensive ideas for the next four or five years to great success. And he’d given Doc Buss the showbiz pizzaz that Doc had wanted to promote the team.
Magic Wanted to Be Traded
One of the dramatic hooks in the first two episodes revolves around Magic wanting to be traded from the Lakers. Let me give you some context from my perspective.
In 1981, Magic signed a 25-year, $25 million contract (worth about $75 million today), which was the most any athlete had ever been paid. He was 22 years old. Was the rest of the team jealous? Come on, of course we were. But we were also realistic. The contract was about the Lakers’ future: locking up Magic was a keystone to securing that future. I was 34 and although I would continue to play for the Lakers for eight more years and win five NBA championships, Doc Buss was taking an even longer view.
One of the admirable qualities of Doc Buss was his ability to seek and accept advice. After he bought the Lakers, he kept on as general manager Bill Sharman, who had previously coached the Lakers to their only NBA championship in 1972 with Wilt Chamberlain. He respected Sharman’s advice, which undoubtedly included keeping Magic at all costs. The cost just happened to be $25 million. The players all understood how the economics worked and none of us felt underpaid, but I also think that contract lit a fire under all of to prove our own worth.
Record-breaking contract or not—none of us wanted to see Magic leave the Lakers. I certainly did not want to lose him just as we were hitting our rhythm.
Unfortunately, Magic’s conflicts with Coach Paul Westhead in 1981 were all over the media. We had just come off a successful 1979-80 season, winning the NBA championship under Paul’s coaching. I’d sprained my ankle in Game 5, which gave Magic the opportunity to really shine in Game 6, earning him the MVP Award. That MVP Award caused friction because some sportswriters and fans thought that I deserved it for my contributions during the full series, while others thought that Magic deserved it for his amazing display of versatility and leadership when the pressure was on. When I met the plane when the team flew home after winning the Finals, Magic tried to give me his MVP Award because he thought I had earned it. “Thanks, Earvin,” I said, “but you should keep it. We aren’t going to let something like this come between us.” And we didn’t.
The real issue wasn’t between me and Magic. It was between Magic and Paul Westhead. After that victorious Final, both Magic and Paul were at career highs and confident of their skills.
Here was the problem: The Lakers were used to outrunning teams and Magic was a key part of that strategy because he had an uncanny intuitiveness about when to drive and when to pass. He was the first part of our offense and I was the second part in the post. We were less choreographed and more like jazz, anticipating each other’s moves, reading the body movement, reacting to the notes the other was playing.
Paul had a more methodical, tactical approach. He added more set plays that stifled Magic’s spontaneity and killed our fast-break advantage. Magic couldn’t be Magic. When you try to reign in a 22-year-old elite athlete from pushing himself to be his best, you’re going to get conflict.
The conflict ended with the firing of Paul Westhead.
Personally, I liked Paul. He had once taught Shakespeare and I had a love of literature so we had a lot to talk about other than basketball. We was amiable and smart. I didn’t think it was necessarily fair to dump him after a winning season, but I knew it was what was best for the team. It was the right decision.
There’s No Business Like Showtime Business
What the series understands and captures is the fact that Dr. Jerry Buss was a visionary who also had the guts to make that vision a reality—despite all the opposition. He saw the potential in basketball as a much more popular sport because, let’s face it, in any single NBA game there are more amazing athletic feats than in any other sport. He just had to bring more people to the games so they could experience it firsthand.
What did the team think of all the changes? We loved them. We were completely onboard with the glitz and glamour. Introducing the Lakers Girls was a slick move. As the documentary shows, they proved to be a distraction to other teams as well as a great source of entertainment for the fans. We felt like it gave us an extra element of prestige because we were the team forging a whole new approach.Despite their initial complaining, all the other teams quickly followed in our footsteps. Every team wanted to be like the Lakers.
We were the future of the NBA. For the Lakers, the future looked pretty bright.