Winning Time: Everybody Loves It (Except Everybody Portrayed In It)
If you believe Rotten Tomatoes, both audiences and critics love HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
Winning Time: The Rise of Lakers Dynasty is Big: Big noise, Big names, Big twists, Big moves and most importantly, Big Fun. - Tom Long, Detroit News
HBO’s new sports drama is a lavish period piece unafraid to tell its story with painstakingly gradual detail. - Alison Herman, The Ringer
It’s a hell of a cast, all of whom deliver remarkable performances, and to McKay’s credit, he brilliantly captures the gaudiness of the cocaine-fueled late ’70s/early ’80s. - Dustin Rowles, Pajiba
In fact, it seems like the only people who don’t love Winning Time are the people on which the story is based, including three of the biggest ‘characters’ on the show.
We’ll start with Magic Johnson, whose rookie season serves as the framework for season 1. (Season 2 has already got the greenlight.) He refuses to watch the show.
“You can’t do a story about the Lakers without the Lakers,” says Magic. “The real Lakers. You gotta have the guys.”
Magic isn’t suggesting that he should star as his 20-year-old self -- at 62, that would be a stretch. What he is saying is that neither Adam McKay nor HBO reached out to him for his input on the series. (Instead, the show draws its Laker knowledge from Jeff Pearlman’s excellent Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.)
“So I don’t know what this stuff (Winning Time) is,” he says. “I haven’t watched it, I’m not gonna watch it.” (Let’s take this moment to note that Magic has his own 10-part series about the 1980s Lakers, They Call Me Magic, airing on Apple TV+. So he may have some self-interest in not endorsing a competing project.)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also had no plans to watch -- but when he did, he wasn’t a fan what he saw. He breaks out the alliteration on his Substack, declaring that Winning Time “isn’t just deliberately dishonest, but dreadfully dull.”
Because he’d already lived it, Kareem assumed watching the show would be “like being interviewed by Chris Farley in the famous Saturday Night Live skit when he asked Paul McCartney questions like, ‘Remember when you were with the Beatles?’”
Once he decided to see what the fuss was about, Kareem had no problems with how he was portrayed. Instead, he has two other issues: 1) He finds the show incredibly boring. And 2) While Kareem understands the need to create fictionalized versions of real events to make a story compelling, he finds McKay’s series to replace the facts with dull scenes that add nothing to the narrative.
There’s a compelling story to be told about the 1980s Lakers, Kareem argues. “Winning Time just ain’t that story.”
While Kareem is OK with his fictional counterpart, the same can’t be said for Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player whose silhouette is still part of all NBA graphics, earning him the nickname “The Logo.”
He’d also be in the Hall for his front-office work, masterminding winners with the Lakers, Grizzlies, Warriors and Clippers. So his portrayal in Winning Time does seem … jarring.
There’s Fake Jerry West chucking his Finals MVP trophy through a window. There’s Fake Jerry West getting drunk on the job. There’s Fake Jerry West throwing red-faced rage-fits.
And there’s Real Jerry West, demanding a retraction and an apology. West’s lawyers recently sent this letter to McKay and HBO:
The portrayal of NBA icon and L.A. Lakers legend Jerry West in Winning Time is fiction pretending to be fact -- a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family. Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
An impressive list of Laker folks included statements in the letter, including players Kareem, Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, and Lakers management types like Mitch Kupchak.
No word from McKay, but HBO has responded:
HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes," the network said in its statement. "'Winning Time' is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.
HBO has covered its tail all along by beginning every episode with this:
Which doesn’t mean West has no point. The rage scenes, especially, are nowhere to be found in Pearlman’s book. And while everyone expects some dramatic license, that’s a pretty tough portrayal for a guy who’s still living and will have to deal with the public’s new perceptions of him.
Make the apology, HBO. And thank all those ex-Lakers who are keeping Winning Time in the entertainment news headlines. This kind of publicity is right out of the Dr. Jerry Buss playbook. (And John C. Reilly as Buss is freaking brilliant.)
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Top image: HBO