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‘Winning Time’ is a flawed but fun look at the ‘80s Lakers

The show is coming back for more in season two, but its first outing was flawed.

Magic hoisted the trophy, Kareem pondered if the Lakers were still his, and Jerry Buss was ready to do it all again. Sunday night marked the season finale of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which ended with the team’s first ring, and while we watched the drama of 1980 play out on our screens, plenty brewed off it in 2022.

Winning Time had no shortage of critics. Based off Jeff Pearlman’s seminal 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the HBO series caused an extreme reaction from several who were a part of the Lakers at the time. Jerry West has been incensed by his portrayal in the show, going so far as to threaten legal action against the series, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has denied scenes from the show — including a moment during his filming of Airplane! in which he told a young fan to “go f*** himself,” after he was asked for an autograph.

We’re left with an occasionally brilliant, oft-frustrating show that can be uncomfortable to watch as a viewer. With the line between fiction and reality blurred to the point that so many are disagreeing with the content it becomes very difficult to swallow the show’s most hard-hitting and poignant moments, like Spencer Haywood’s struggles with addition and Kareem’s efforts to get him clean.

The lingering question is: Can we really believe what we watched all season?

That’s where this all gets murky. By all accounts Pearlman seems happy with show, judging from his Twitter account. Meanwhile Max Borenstein, one of the co-creators of Winning Time has defended the portrayal of characters in the series, saying it was “heavily researched,” not just from Pearlman’s book, but myriad sources. However, Borenstein still acknowledges that concessions had to be made to tell a story.

“It is, of course, a dramatization, and we’re not doing a documentary. So it’s something where we’re making choices and trying to tell the story of a decade in what will hopefully be a few seasons of television.”

The dramatization of historical events is nothing new, but it’s more rare to take on a topic where the majority of its central characters are still alive. Especially where so many are, even in fleeting moments, portrayed in such a negative light.

Haywood aside, the Lakers players themselves are largely all presented positively. Sure, there’s promiscuity and drug use, but nothing overtly negative. The others characters, however, is where this all goes off the rails a little.

  • Jerry West is depicted as a depressed malcontent, incapable of feeling joy and constantly looking to sap the life out of those around him.
  • Larry Bird is largely presented through Magic’s gaze, but the show portrays him as a foul-mouthed, country boy, with an abundance of racist undertones.
  • Jerry Buss is a misogynistic man-child whose business decisions are so bad he seems incapable of running a fast food franchise, let alone a professional sports team.
  • Pat Riley comes off as goal-driven, but also underhanded, and lacking any kind of empathy for Jack McKinney when the Lakers coach suffers a near-fatal head injury in a cycling accident.

It’s these over-the-top depictions that can make the “reality” of the show seem suspect. As Borenstein said, they weren’t looking to make a documentary, so there was ample dramatization — but this also leads to a major issue the show has.

Winning Time struggles at times to decide the kind of show it wants to be

Anyone with an interest in watching Winning Time knows how this show plays out. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of basketball knows the Lakers will become a generational dynasty, hell it’s in the show’s title. Unlike a fictional tale or a lesser-known team we knew the Lakers were going to win in six, beating the 76ers in Philly. We knew Kareem would be out due to injury. We know that Riley will ascend and become one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time.

With all these known quantities there’s pressure on showrunners to inject drama into the story, but this is also an inherent joy to the subject matter. We’re watching the rise of one of the greatest basketball players of all time, on one of the greatest teams of all time — that’s fun, it should be fun, and sometimes Winning Time struggles when it attempts to blend comedy with the drama in an attempt to make the show feel lighter.

The issue is that the majority of comedic moments come at a character’s expense, which is normally fine, but comes off as cruel knowing these were real people. In early episodes this worked fine. We had a funny montage of Magic doing his rookie duty of bringing Kareem his morning orange juice and newspaper, only to get rejected each time by the mercurial superstar, for instance.

As the show progresses these attempts at comedy become more awkward. West is often made the butt of jokes as his nervousness and neurosis take hold. Buss’ playboy lifestyle begins funny, with a half-naked John C. Reilly thinking he’s god’s gift to women, but becomes reprehensible when Jeanie Buss remembers witnessing a sex act between her father and a much younger woman in the booth of a restaurant. McKinney is presented as an ornery, pottering fool, only so later we don’t feel bad when he’s booted off the team as Paul Westhead and Pat Riley take control.

This may have been intentional on the part of the show’s producers, as a way to onboard us to these characters’ origin stories, but tonally the show doesn’t often hit its marks. It rarely feels like we’re laughing along with the characters in its moments of comedy, and instead laughing at them.

With this blend of uncomfortable humor lightening the tone for dramatic events we can’t really rely on, the end result was an enjoyable first season — but a deeply flawed show.

Where does Winning Time go from here?

HBO has already greenlit season 2, announcing in April it was renewing the show. We know that in 1980-81 the Lakers took a huge step back, as Magic Johnson was limited to 37 games with a knee injury, and the team was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Moses Malone and the Rockets.

Borentstein has said to expect a more well-rounded presentation of Larry Bird in season two, not just limited to the critical lens of Magic, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a whole season chronicling just one down year of the Lakers dynasty.

What we’re really waiting for is 1983-84, when Boston and Los Angeles met in the NBA Finals for the first time during the Magic/Bird era — though it’s unclear at this time whether we’re get that far forward in just one more season.

Ultimately Winning Time is a fun, albeit flawed look at one of the NBA’s most fascinating eras. Quincy Isaiah shines as Magic Johnson, Solomon Hughes is brilliant as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Adrian Brody steals almost every scene he’s in as Pat Riley. However, in watching it’s helpful to take the subject matter with a big grain of salt and understand you’re seeing a hyper-dramatized version of what took place, while also appreciating that a lot of people who were on the Lakers at the time vehemently deny a lot of the subject matter. That certainly takes some of the shine off the finished product, but I’ll still be watching when season two debuts.