Over the course of the two and a half years during which I researched Showtime, I came across a slew of funny, funky, cool, weird characters. No one, however, matched former Laker forward Kurt Rambis.
During the 1980s, Rambis was something of a novelty. First, he was a white starter at a time when there weren’t many. Second, he was a little-known nobody out of Santa Clara. Third, he appeared to be disheveled and overmatched. Of course, standing alongside the likes of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, many suffered a similar fate.
The thing is, Rambis could play. Like, really play. His rise is the stuff that makes great book characters … —JP
During the early years of Showtime, when glory came easy and life was but a dream, a majority of the Lakers lived in a beige three-story Fox Hills apartment building on Green Valley Circle owned by Jerry Buss. The setup was perfect. Because he valued his players, Buss offered—for the discounted monthly price of $550—luxurious one-bedroom units complete with modernized kitchens, full baths, spectacular views of the city and a quick commute to the Forum.
Before long, being a Laker felt as much like joining a fraternity as it did playing for a basketball team. Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Mike McGee, Eddie Jordan, Mark Landsberger, Ron Carter, Alan Hardy, Jim Brewer—all Lakers, all Fox Hills residents. Come nights after games, most members of the squad could be found inside someone’s pad, listening to music, drinking wine, gorging on Fatburger (burgers topped with fried eggs were the sensation at the time), talking hoops, meeting long-legged beauties, planning a trip out to a club or bar or strip joint. “It was pretty great,” said Larry Spriggs, a forward who would join the organization in 1983. “We were all together.”
As his teammates lived The Life, Kurt Rambis—rookie forward and all-world ragamuffin—lived, uh, life. Or, to be more precise, when he was done at the Forum after a long night of work (aka: sitting on the end of the bench, pining for a couple of minutes of garbage time), Rambis would drive off in neither Mercedes nor Bentley, BMW nor Jaguar. Hell, not even a ’65 Opel Kadett. “Kurt didn’t own a car—I took him everywhere,” said Rich Brown. “He’d call if he needed a lift. Sometimes I’d loan him my car [a white Toyota Corolla]. Not often, but sometimes. And he slept on a mattress on the floor in my dining room.”
Brown, Rambis’s close friend and classmate from Santa Clara University, was not kidding. This wasn’t a joke, a gag, a prank, an effort to embarrass an old chum. No, in 1982 Kurt Rambis of the Los Angeles Lakers made his everyday home in Huntington Beach, on an old mattress plopped down upon the wood floor inside the suburban dining room belonging to Rich and Carlee Brown (and their two children).
The setup was, Rambis admits, a weird one—but not nearly as weird as the man himself. Ever since he scratched and clawed and rebounded his way onto the Lakers roster out of training camp, Rambis—a free-agent nobody who had spent the previous year playing in Greece—had emerged as one of the great NBA eccentrics. “What Magic was to basketball,” said Michael Cooper, “Kurt was to goofiness.”
This, again, is not insult. Simply fact. Rambis refused to move out of the Browns’ house because, hey, the dining room floor had served him well, and what was the benefit of a bed? Rambis owned one suit (it was a fecal shade of brown, and he wore it for his high school graduation) and only two collared shirts, because collared shirts were ugly and uncomfortable. “He would have had zero collared shirts,” said Brown, “except that his mother, Becky, once bought Kurt and his brother, Randy, identical blue collared shirts. Randy’s didn’t fit, so Kurt took it.”
When most players departed the Forum after games, they carried a gym bag, usually lightly packed with some socks, a T-shirt, maybe a pair of shorts. “But not Kurt,” said Brown. “Oh, no.” Rambis’s tote, weighing somewhere between thirty and forty pounds, would be stuffed with any and all items from the team pantry. Cans of sodas. Bottles of beer. Bars of soap. Q-tips. Shoelaces. Hubcaps. Hall & Oates records …
“Kurt was weird as shit—just batshit cuckoo,” said Frank Brickowski, a future Laker teammate. “A six-pack of soda is—what—two-fifty? He showed me a closet in his house, loaded with all the soda he collected for free. Fuck, I’m guessing Kurt didn’t even drink soda.”
For the first half of the season, this was Kurt Rambis’s lot in Laker life.
He was a geeky white guy with the bad haircut, the awful wardrobe, the horn-rimmed glasses, the weighted-down bag and the weakest on-court repertoire this side of Garry Witts. In the early 1980s, every franchise made certain to have one—if not two—white players glued to their benches. It was a common (if not somewhat despicable) way to keep the white paying customers content when the game looked too black. This was far from a secret. Black players knew the deal, and hated it. White players knew the deal and, quite often, thanked God for it.
Kurt Rambis, however, didn’t know the deal. Upon being drafted by the Knicks in the third round in 1980, he had reported to training camp with a long-shot chance of sticking, then proceeded to outwork the team’s veteran frontcourt players. To the returnees, the act grew old quick. Diving for loose balls, clawing for rebounds, running extra laps after practice—who the hell did this white boy think he was? When Coach Red Holzman cut Rambis loose (“Big heart,” Holzman said, “but needs work”), nary a tear was shed. “I was used to structured ball,” Rambis said. “And everyone was trying to show up, make an impression. It was hard for me.”
The ensuing year in Greece—living two hundred yards from the Mediterranean Sea, sharing an apartment with two young female waitresses, starring for the AEK team in Athens—was blissful. Rambis’s club won the Greek title, and the young American blossomed as a minor celebrity. “There were little restaurants, and everyone knew you,” he said. “Instead of handing you a menu, they’d bring you to the back and let you try everything. I can’t overstate how wonderful it was.” Rambis’s plan was to play in Greece long enough to be able to pay his way through medical school. Then he would become one of the world’s tallest doctors.
And yet, as much as he loved olive trees and chaniotiko boureki, Rambis felt the tug of an unfulfilled dream. He looked back at the Knicks experience not as a cherished sliver in time but as a dreaded What If. “I put a lot more emphasis on making the club than I should have,” he said. “I wanted to show them I could do everything: handle the ball, pass, shoot, make steals. And, as a result, all phases of my game suffered.”
After returning from Greece, Rambis was participating in a summer league in San Francisco when he was spotted by Mike Thibault, a Laker assistant who had coached against him in high school. “His greatest strength at the time was finishing around the basket,” Thibault said. “He had a natural knack for finishing things off.” The Lakers extended Rambis an invitation to camp, but he declined. “They were loaded,” Rambis said. “What chance did I have?”
Paul Westhead, however, was undeterred. The forward reminded him of some of the bruisers he had once relied upon at La Salle. He convinced Rambis that, ever since Spencer Haywood’s drug-induced implosion, the team was on the lookout for muscle and edginess. “I can’t promise you a job,” he said. “But you’ll be given a fair chance. You don’t let people push you around. I like that.” Technically speaking, the last thing the team needed was another punisher. Mitch Kupchak had just joined the roster, Mark Landsberger was as big and goony as they came, veteran Jim Brewer knew every beneath-the-basket trick in the book. Yet Rambis was different. “I never met a white guy before who wasn’t afraid of the black guy,” said Ron Carter, a Laker guard. “But Kurt didn’t care. Kenny Carr was a beast, Jim Chones was a beast, Jim Brewer was tough. Kurt fought them all.” For those who subscribed to at-first-glance basketball cliché, Rambis’s talent seemed marginal. But, upon closer inspection, his exterior masked an impressive skill set. He had soft hands, quick feet and a nose for the basket. Rambis averaged 19.6 points per game as a senior at Santa Clara. “He was a bruiser in college,” said Ron Cornelius, who played against Rambis for the University of the Pacific. “But he was a bruiser who’d score seventeen points.” Was he graceful? Hardly. Smooth? No. Did he give in? Give up? Back down? Never. “One day I looked around and I said, ‘Who’s this guy in the glasses that’s blockin’ all my shots?’ ” Magic Johnson said. “Then I saw he was pushin’ and shovin’. He even riled up [Abdul-Jabbar] a couple of times. I said, ‘Hmmmm, this boy can play.’”
“That training camp was brutal,” said Rambis. “It was an all-out brawl every single day. We were diving for balls, trying to get loose balls that had already bounced twice out of bounds. We were still diving. I went into camp with the mind-set that, if they’re bringing me in as a guy with a chance of making the team, I’m gonna prove that I should make it. And if they’re just bringing me in as a practice player, I’m going to beat the crap out of them. I’m not going to be a punching bag for these guys. I’ll be the one doing the hitting. Any time some guard came in and tried to lay the ball up, I put him down. I hit him.”
Westhead was on the fence when it came to keeping Rambis. Would he hold up against the best of the best? Could he contribute? Then, during a practice, the coach was approached by Jerry West, who looked toward Rambis and snapped, “Who invited the guy with the long hair? What’s he even doing here?”
Westhead was furious. How dare someone question his ability to piece together a team. At that moment, Rambis’s roster spot was secured. “Years later, Paul told me that Jerry’s words saved me,” Rambis said. “I had no idea.”
He was, however, stuck on the bench, a glorified cheerleader in glasses and short shorts. When Riley took over, he began paying the rookie more mind. Bill Bertka, the new assistant coach, liked the way the kid hustled. Riley tried both Brewer and Landsberger as the starting power forwards but found neither up to speed. Brewer was past his prime, and Landsberger lacked the basketball IQ to follow basic instructions. Bob McAdoo made his debut against the Jazz on December 29 but was rusty and slow. “The first couple of weeks he was with us, Bob couldn’t make a shot,” said Thibault. “He was out of shape, sort of fat, awful. People said to me, ‘What the hell were you thinking, suggesting we get this guy?’”
In a game against Indiana on January 15, Rambis received his most extensive action to date, scoring just two points but collecting 14 rebounds in twenty-five productive minutes. “Herb Williams was killing us,” said Rambis of the Pacers’ star forward. “Riley pointed at me and sent me into the game. To be honest, I was the warm body, and he wanted anyone but Landsberger in there. But I ended up doing really well against Herb, and we won.”
Two days later, six hours before tip-off against the Kansas City Kings at Kemper Arena, Riley pulled Rambis aside to tell him he’d be in the starting lineup. “OK, Coach,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”
“It was a dream come true—an absolute dream,” Rambis said years later. “But I couldn’t show too much emotion. I was a professional. At least I was trying to be a professional.”
That night Johnny Dolan, the Kings’ public address announcer, introduced the Lakers’ starting lineup. To the 9,879 fans in attendance, the names were all familiar (Wilkes, Abdul-Jabbar, Nixon, Johnson)—save one. As Rambis ambled out for the opening tip, he looked like the fortunate schlub who lucked into winning the “Be a Laker for a Day” raffle. This was the Lakers’ power forward? Yet as Los Angeles won, 109–97, behind Johnson’s 29 points, Rambis sparkled. Sure, he scored only four points and grabbed 9 rebounds. But as Riley and Bertka watched the new starting unit, they were struck by a singularly unique skill that Rambis—and only Rambis—seemed to possess.
Whenever the Kings scored a basket, Rambis somehow teleported from wherever he was on the court to directly under the basket. The movement was as fluid as a dolphin slicing through a wave, and could be easily missed. Rambis—snap!—went from there to here, reached his arms beneath the net and, in a singular motion—grabbed the ball, stepped onto the baseline and passed it to Johnson or Nixon as they darted up the court. “Kurt became the best outlet passer and inbounder in the history of the game,” said Thibault. “Little skills often get overlooked in the NBA, because we value certain statistics. But what Kurt was able to do with the ball was astounding.”
Before long, Rambis turned into a Forum cult hero. Fans arrived wearing fake mustaches, number 31 jerseys and replicas of Rambis’s ubiquitous horn-rimmed glasses. (“They weren’t actually horn-rims,” Rambis later said. “They were special glasses with a rubber frame, so they couldn’t break.”) He appeared in a couple of commercials, and symbolized a certain genre of geek chic. He even managed to meet his future wife, a team employee named Linda Zafrani. (“Our first date didn’t go so well,” said Linda. “He thought I was weird because I liked video games. Kurt thinking anyone was weird was strange.”)
Most important, the Lakers won seven of Rambis’s first eleven starts and—after an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak in mid-February—went on a seven-game unbeaten run. The Lakers were often considered to be suspiciously soft and wimpy. Give Abdul-Jabbar or Nixon a few jabs to the midsection, they crumbled. Well, Rambis was anything but soft. His elbows were scabbed; his fingers—jammed from one-too-many misfired basketballs—jetted out at impossible angles. He wouldn’t score 25 points, but he’d score six while putting an opponent on his back. “Rambis has the least physical ability of anyone who had the job,” Jim Chones, the former Laker forward, said at the time. “Everyone else could do more. But they just want you to do the shit. You’re asked to limit your scoring, do the garbage stuff. You’re paid well and you get to be with a winner. They sell you that shit, but you’re the only guy banging, getting gashes upside the head. Nobody mentions that. Over eighty-two games, you are abused. It’s a hell of a spot to play, but they got it down to a science here in L.A.”
Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.