There’s Cool, and Then There’s Jack Nicholson At a Lakers Game

Iconic NBA photographs tend to fall into a few distinct categories. You have your candid shots (Michael Jordan crying holding his first Larry O’Brien Trophy), and your live game shots (Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid in the split-second before Leonard’s buzz-beater sent Embiid’s 76ers home from the playoffs). Then you have the off-the-court style shots: Google “Isiah Thomas fur coat” and you’ll see the clear line to modern fit kings like LeBron and Russell Westbrook.

But this 1986 photo of Jack Nicholson by Brian Lanker—where the star is being held up in the arms of Lakers players Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis and Magic Johnson, all of them in sunglasses—seems to belong to another category entirely. The Lakers—especialy that era of the team—are always at the vanguard of the NBA, even when they’re mediocre, there’s always the feeling they won’t be for long. Nicholson is, well, he’s Jack. You could just say that very common name, and people will probably have a vision of Nicholson screaming “You can’t handle the truth” run through their heads, even if their dad or brother shares the same name.

Finding a picture of Nicholson in the ‘70s or ‘80s where he doesn’t look great is a difficult task. In the Lakers photo, for instance, he’s in a yellow shirt, white pants and a pair of bucks with bright yellow laces. That sounds pretty basic, but at that moment in time Nicholson was one of the biggest actors in the world, smack in the middle of a multi-decade run of great films (from 1980’s The Shining to 1989’s Batman), all of which enhances the cool element by a factor of 19 billion. Also, he’s hanging out with guys from the era-defining basketball team that he had a hand in making famous, even though he never suited up. Winning Time, the new Adam McKay-produced series about those Lakers, only has a few glimpses of Jack (played by Max E. Williams), but it’s still difficult to imagine Showtime without him.

Nicholson and his friend, record producer Lou Adler, have had courtside season tickets since the early 1970s. In an interview, Jeff Pearlman—author of Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the book Winning Time is based on— says that making sure everybody knew Jack was at the games was part of the Lakers experience. “Jerry Buss wanted to create this ‘thing,’” he says. “He bought the team in 1979 when the NBA was about basketball, not entertainment. Buss thought entertainment sold—basketball was sorta the 1A thing to entertainment—so it was the Laker Girls, the Forum Club, loud music, etc. A big part of that was courtside celebrities, and Jack was THE guy.”

Jack Nicholson at the 1985 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics at the Boston GardenDick Raphael

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