Saturday, March 15, 2014

Uno En Uno With: Jeff Pearlman, NYT Best-Selling Author of SHOWTIME

In a unique, new world era of journalism, Jeff Pearlman possesses a writer's old soul.

Pearlman, whose work has been featured in a bevy of sources--Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and The Wall Street Journal to name a few--is not like the rest.

His commitment to journalism is of highest order.

The Mahopac native asks hard questions, you'll be hard-pressed to find a softball in there.

 He nails down the source and gets the word directly from the horse's mouth, even if that does include dreadfully long road trips to Columbia, Mississippi.

While he'll refuse to engage in verbal warfare, he's as active a presence on Twitter as there is in the writing game. The former SI scribe takes stances on issues with nary a trace of trepidation.

He even engages those who chastise his viewpoints or snipes and digs at him.

He routinely fields a barrage of questions from students and up-and-comers. Pearlman is full throttle and consistent in engaging his following.

Pearlman travels to deep, shark-infested waters where a select few in today's mainstream media would tread even with a life jacket.

 He's stayed true, through time, with his beliefs on existing and nauseating racism, as well as alarming xenophobia and homophobia.

Perusing the day-by-day work on his blog,, this is all particularly evident. Pearlman doesn't masquerade his true feelings, he unveils them for anyone who see.

Hailing from a family of anti-jocks, Pearlman has been sold on the power of the pen since his days at Mahopac High School.

 Pearlman takes us beyond the flash and aesthetic flair of the 1980's L.A. Lakers with SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.

We caught up with Pearlman, canvassing everything from his start as a young reporter (who drew the ire of the high school cheerleading team) to his recent, 482-page book.

ZS: Beyond Magic's flashy dishes and beyond Kareem's sky-hook and everything you see in the highlight reels, what appealed to you about the character and beyond-the-court scene of this team?

JP:  Well, when I started thinking about new book ideas after Sweetness, I wanted something fun and jovial; preferably with warm weather thrown in (only sort of joking). The Lakers were IT in the 80s—high-flying, exciting, always on TV. The style of play was remarkable, and it became pretty well known that a lot of those men lived life vivaciously (to be kind). So, really, once the idea popped in my head, it wouldn't leave. It'd make a great book. Also, there was a book called "Winnin' Times" in 1986 about the Lakers that was fantastic. But that's nearly 30 years ago.

ZS: You have probably witnessed the sheer nuttiness and animosity that runs parallel to the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Was the Boston/Lakeshow rivalry as intense and what are some of the lasting images of the rivalry that you may convey in the book?

JP: Not as intense, in that Boston-New York play more often. But when Boston and the Lakers faced off, it was hard core. A lot of factors came into play—race, geography, style of play. It was often billed as Bird v. Magic, but there was more there. Boston was not an ideal place for African-Americans in the 1980s. Very bad racial city. So the LA scene vs. the Boston scene was very raw.

ZS: About how many sources have you attributed quotes to in this piece, and is Kareem that much of an assholish curmudgeon?

JP: I interviewed nearly 300 people, all with attributions. And, well, yes. He (Kareem) was not a nice man to most people.

ZS: AC Green's longtime protection of his V-Card has been widely known. Being that a vast majority of his teammates were apparently putting up numbers beyond the box scores (seemed like this team was having very few Blockbuster nights on the road). Did it create any locker room fodder?

JP: AC arrived as America's favorite athlete virgin. While at Oregon State he led a protest of the student book store because it sold Playboy. That was on the radar of veteran Lakers when he arrived. So, early on, Magic and Co. took bets on how long the virginity would last. Over-under was 2 months. He collected a lot of money—and remained a virgin until marriage. I don't fully understand that behavior. Sex is fun, and I don't consider it sinful. But he stuck to his convictions. Good for him.

ZS: The titanic ego on both Kobe and Shaq ultimately created a sideshow for the philosophical Phil Jackson. It was ugly. Jackson and Kobe had their fair share of issues, as well. While the 80s Lakers were known for their swagger and flamboyant, aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, was there similar division inside the locker room? Were there player vs. player beefs of Shaq/Kobe's magnitude?

JP: Some beefs, not to that degree, though. Back in 1980 Spencer Haywood had a major drug problem, and when he was kicked off the team he thought about having Coach Paul Westhead murdered. But he never did—so, hey. Magic and Norm Nixon also ran hot-cold. Lots of jealousy, also woman and ego issues. But then Norm was traded to the Clippers for Byron Scott. Problem solved.

ZS: The cocaine culture was established in the NBA in the 1980s. Len Bias' death and the rapid decline of so many have brought attention to this. Coke ran through NBA locker rooms like gas runs through a Range Rover. Were the Lakers using as much as everyone else? Did it ever evolve into a problem?

JP: There was cocaine everywhere in the NBA. Everywhere. Spencer Haywood had a huge problem. So did some other guys. Not to that degree—but certainly an issue. Magic and Kareem, however, didn't touch the stuff. And that's important.

ZS: There is perhaps no easy answer to this question, but how would you describe the lengthy research process of writing  a book like this, a book which discloses inside information and brings to life this team's legacy?

JP: Writing a book is a bear. It beats you down, pounds you, hurts you, makes you doubt all your writing and reporting skills. You always think your material sucks; is weak; isn't enough; won't sell four copies. I probably read through 10,000 pages of notes and articles; buy about 40 books; interview hundreds of people. It's the high of finding some obscure lost nobody; the low of Magic saying he won't talk. I compare it to getting a back scratch from a woman with sharp nails. You're not wearing a shirt. It hurts, it's fantastic. Both.

ZS: Terse words and harsh criticism came from devout Chicago fans following "Sweetness." Of course, no superfans are easy to appease. Among those incensed were Mike Ditka and Walter's brother, Eddie Payton. Do you understand where their outrage stems from? Does it elicit a response from you?

JP: It was all very hurtful, mainly because 95% of them didn't read the book. I get it—Walter was their guy, how dare someone write anything but gloriously about him. But ... read the book. Really. The number of apologies I've received over the years has been somewhat affirming. But I won't lie—that will always stick with me. Especially Michael Wilbon calling me out without having read the book. Lazy bullshit from a guy who knows better.

ZS: A lot of college kids and journalism majors are approaching June graduation without concrete plans. Of that crowd, many are entertaining thoughts of becoming the next Rick Reilly or Bill Simmons. As a professor and someone who assesses talent as a professor, what would you tell a young kid who is thirsting to ascend the food chain? Where does he/she begin? What tactical steps does he/she follow?

JP: Apply everywhere. Write for everyone. Being serious. Everywhere. Everyone. Make your name known.

ZS: In Boys Will Be Boys, you gave as an interior look at what a nuthouse that locker room was, among other things. What is the general appeal of this Laker group, personality-wise, and what made them fun/tough/challenging to cover?

JP: Well, they were really fun, and they lived that existence to the fullest. I really enjoy that—people in the spotlight, embracing the spotlight.

ZS: I'm not huge on the mainstream media, but I have read many of you guys religiously since I was 12. Has the culture changed? I feel like there is a lot of people white knighting for their friends these days, a lot of ass-kissing, a lot of young kids befriending PR guys and swearing on everything they love all the coverage will be positive. A few hometown homers here and there, a lot searching for controversy where there is none and race-baiting. Is this from the paranoid and delusional compartment of my brain, or do you see some of the same things?

JP: Culture has certainly changed, because blogging has blurred the line. Is someone a reporter? An observer? A fan? We're all wearing the same press credentials, so it seems like we—as a group—are becoming softer, more ass-kissing. In truth, we're just hard to define.

ZS: How did your experience at the (Mahopac school newspaper) Chieftian shape your writing career? Was there an it moment, where you told yourself that this is the path you wanted to pursue?

JP: Definitely. My senior year in high school I was a pretty forgettable, ignorable geek runner. Then I wrote a piece about why cheerleading wasn't a real sport. The day it comes out, I'm surrounded in the cafeteria by angry cheerleaders. I'm sitting there, 17 and pimply, surrounded by hair and legs and breasts, the smell of perfume, thinking, "Dang."

ZS:Out of all the books you've done, has Showtime been the best? What separated this from others of its ilk? What made it more challenging?

JP:Honestly, I don't know. I sorta think Sweetness might be my top work ... but I've heard some many "Showtime is your best!" from people that maybe I'm the wrong dude to ask. Factually, my Clemens book was my worst, which is fine. You can't always hit a home run. I'm very happy with Showtime. I think I'm evolving and improving when it comes to books, and how I approach them. So, hey.

ZS:You can either go back into time and watch Jordan's 55-point game against the Knicks, rewind the clock back a few years ago and sit court side for Jeremy Lin's 38-point eruption against the Lakers (as Linsanity heightened), or witness a one-on-one game between James Worthy and lacrosse guru Joe Lombardi at UNC. Which one?

JP: I'll take an afternoon with my wife, a warm spring day and a park bench and pass on all three.

ZS: Speaking of Joe, you've expressed an attitude of gratitude to him. How instrumental was he in sparking your career? In what ways did he cultivate your skill-set and what values did he instill?

JP: Huge, times 1,000. He hired for my my first professional gig—contributing to the Putnam and Patent Traders beginning the summer after my senior year at Mahopac High. He taught me so much. I mean—ledes,. how to interview, sourcing, etc. I knew nothing. He showed me how great this career could be. I owe him a lot.

ZS: Jeff, its been 15 long years since the John Rocker story exploded. There have been a few incidents along the way. If Rocker challenges you to a game of one-on-one (game to 21 by 1s, 3-pointer counts as two, no take backs on an airball) for some delicious Macon, Georgia grits... Do you take him up on his offer?

JP: Um, no. He's the Hepatitis C of my existence. No interest.

ZS: Tupac's "I Get Around" Or the Biggie classic, "Unbelievable." Which one would you bump on the way to the Staples Center?

JP: Tupac. Always Tupac.

Check out Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.