The Los Angeles Lakers are arguably the NBA’s most storied franchise by virtue of their 17 world championships. They’ve been so successful over the decades that even when they haven’t won it all, they have had some impressive squads that were memorable, not to mention talented, star-studded and very competitive.
The 1989-90 season looked to be a transition year for the Lakers. Legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had just retired, and several of their key players were getting older and had lots of wear and tear. They ended up playing very well and posting a stellar record, but in the end, things came crashing down to earth for them.
The beginning of the end of "Showtime"
On the surface, the 1989-90 Lakers seemed like a very, very good team and a championship-caliber one. They won 63 regular season games, the most in the NBA, making it the fifth time in the past six seasons they had surpassed the 62-win mark.
Magic Johnson, who was now 30 years of age and supposedly starting to lose his mojo, averaged 22.3 points and 11.5 assists a game, which was good enough for his third regular season MVP award. Meanwhile, James Worthy made his fifth straight All-Star team and averaged a career-high 21.1 points a game, and a rookie center named Vlade Divac from the former Yugoslavia was turning heads with his unique (at that time) offensive skill set.
To the naked eye, it may have seemed as if it was business as usual for the Lakers, even without Abdul-Jabbar, the man they had affectionately called “cap,” short for captain. But in reality, there was some real ugliness festering just behind the curtain, and it involved the franchise’s two main leaders.
Let Jeff Pearlman, the author of “Showtime,” break it down with an excerpt from that excellent book.
Via Bleacher Report:
“Save for Divac’s quirky antics and scattered moments of levity, Johnson and Pat Riley, the veteran coach, were sapping the joy from the franchise. The star point guard would win his third MVP award in four seasons, but devoted too much time to berating and screaming. Having played so long for Riley, he was now becoming Riley. His practice comments no longer included soothing touches. If you messed up, Johnson rode you hard. With Abdul-Jabbar’s departure came a certain behavioral liberation. Johnson’s inner-dictator was emerging. This was not a good thing. “He was really pushing us in practice, telling us, ‘Hey, you got to do this better, you got to do that better,’ said [Michael] Cooper, his closest friend on the team.
“… Unhappiness and discomfort replaced peace and tranquility. Riley behaved more like a schoolmaster than a coach. Little unimportant details now held tremendous importance. Riley didn’t like how, come the fourth quarter at the Forum, the crowds paid more attention to the Laker Girls than the game. Consequently, he forced the cheering squad to sit during the period. Thanks to the generosity of Jerry Buss, the team’s owner, the Lakers traveled on the luxurious MGM Grand plane, which featured individual staterooms. Riley, for a reason no player understood, insisted everyone be relegated to the seats he assigned. ‘He’s just like that,’ Johnson told Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times. ‘What happened, he wanted to control everything. …He tried to control the whole arena. He wanted to control the locker room, the band, the Laker Girls. He tried to control everything and he got away from what he was there to do.’
“Cooper, a faded copy of the high flyer he’d once been, averaged twenty-three minutes per game and cursed Riley out beneath his breath. [Byron] Scott, a stubbornly confident man, was shooting thirteen times per game—far too low for a player of his stature. Worthy was worn down by the negative vibes. Divac endured Johnson’s nonstop criticisms. In January, Cooper, Worthy and Johnson—the three captains—met with Jerry West to complain about Riley’s abusiveness and some of his on-court strategizing. There was, Johnson told the general manager, a gap in communication that needed to be resolved. Shortly thereafter, West held a team meeting for everyone to clear the air. He told the press it was a ‘small thing.’ This was a lie.
“Riley didn’t like what was he was seeing. He believed players were done listening to him and no longer sought out his approval.”
Despite the negative energy, the Lakers went into the playoffs looking to make big things happen, as usual. They dispatched the Houston Rockets three games to one in the first round, and just about everyone expected them to handle the Phoenix Suns in the next round.
Instead, the Suns looked more like the Lakers than the Lakers did themselves. Kevin Johnson’s crew ran through and around the Purple and Gold, and the Purple and Gold simply couldn’t find an antidote.
With the Lakers trailing two games to one in the series with Game 4 in Arizona looming, Riley decided to let his players have it. Here is Pearlman again to tell the story.
“The Lakers had been in past holes. But they’d never been this divided; this angry; this intent on telling their coach to go to hell. They wanted to win. But did they need to? Did it consume them? No. Riley’s motivational speeches—delivered in high-pitched, desperate tones—fell upon tin ears. All the old themes (Family. Unity. Peripheral distractions.) had shriveled and died. Players like Johnson, Worthy, Scott and [Mychal] Thompson were no longer eager kids seeking out guidance. They were hardened and jaded. The rah-rah blatherings failed to take.
“… Heading into Game 4, Riley had delivered a behind-closed-door sermon to his players that was, even by Hulkamania-meets-Jerry Falwell standards, downright crazy. Excluding Johnson, Riley went around the room and blamed everyone. Scott’s defense was invisible and his shots weren’t falling. Thompson was playing like an old woman. Worthy, averaging 23 points in the series, was forcing the action. Woolridge was a loser who belonged on loser teams. ‘He singled me out the other way and that kind of killed everything,’ said Johnson. ‘ “Only one guy playing good in this whole group and that’s Buck!” I was saying, “Oh, man.” It was over. We were through after that meeting…no way we could beat them.'”
Los Angeles dropped Game 4, 114-101, despite 43 points from Johnson. They then fell with a whimper in Game 5 at home, 106-103, leading to a long, empty and depressing summer for a team that was used to playing for the NBA championship in June.
Soon afterward, Riley left as head coach. Officially, it was called a resignation, but some veteran journalists, including Pearlman, believe Riley was covertly fired because of his authoritarian ways.
Whatever the truth was behind Riley’s departure, “Showtime” was gradually coming apart at the seams. The 1990s had arrived, and the reckoning for the excess and hedonism of the 1980s was about to descend onto those who succeeded wildly during that era, most of all Johnson.
Record: 63-19 — first in the Western Conference
Scoring: 110.7 points a game — sixth in the NBA
Offensive rating: 114.0 — first in the NBA
Defensive rating: 107.0 — eighth in the NBA