TV Adaptation

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Season One (HBO); based on Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (2014), by Jeff Pearlman

“Las Vegas, NV: Kingdom of Tark the Shark.” This title flashes on the screen in the third episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. It’s 1979, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ new owner, Dr. Jerry Buss—swaggeringly portrayed by John C. Reilly—approaches UNLV basketball maven Jerry Tarkanian about taking his talents to La La Land. Tark (played by Rory Cochrane, best known as the character Slater in Dazed and Confused) seems poised to assume this much more lucrative position—but then backs out when some Vegas mobsters whack his best friend.

Did this really happen? Sort of. Tarkanian did have a friend who was murdered, though it seems unlikely that the unsolved homicide was somehow designed to scare the Shark into remaining with the Runnin’ Rebels. The Lakers’ previous owner, Jack Kent Cooke, had been trying to court Tarkanian for years to no avail.

Winning Time isn’t a documentary but rather a dramatization—a highly stylized romanticization of the past. (Executive producer Adam McKay brings Big Short energy to the story, and Reilly’s Buss often speaks directly to the camera, explaining to us what’s really going on.) Based on fact, it’s an adaptation of the 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (Penguin), by Jeff Pearlman. It also owes something to Winnin’ Times: The Magical Journey of the Los Angeles Lakers (1986), by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. Season One, the last episodes of which were released this past May on HBO, follows the Lakers in their renaissance 1979–1980 campaign. Season Two is in the works.

The drama of that 1979–1980 season has often been cast as the odd-couple alliance of the veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson. And that clash of styles—the icy intellectual Kareem and the exuberant extrovert Magic—is certainly front and center in Winning Time. Solomon Hughes and Quincy Isaiah, the actors portraying Kareem and Magic, respectively, are newcomers without film or television credits to their names. And yet, they are eerily perfect for these roles. Hughes needs no special effects to fill Kareem’s shoes. A former professional basketball player and captain of the Berkeley college team, he stands 6’11”. He also has a Ph.D. in higher education policy from the University of Georgia. Isaiah, meanwhile, like Johnson, is a Michigan native, and his infectious smile out-Magics the original.

But as great as it is to watch these two (and it’s worth paying attention to the details, as when Hughes’s Kareem cracks open Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon on the team plane in Episode 7), the show makes it clear that the real drama revolves around the team’s head coaching position. In a recent Substack post (“‘Winning Time’ Isn’t Just Deliberately Dishonest, It’s Drearily Dull”), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed that the players are one-dimensional caricatures, and that’s a fair criticism. To the extent that there is a plot in Winning Time (we all know they’re going to win the championship), it’s about figuring out who will get credit for manning the helm.

Did Paul Westhead really give the team the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V during halftime of Game 6 of the Finals? Probably not.

At the show’s outset, Jerry West (Jason Clarke), who coached the Lakers the year before, remains in charge. But when he retires as Buss is buying the team, panic sets in. Then Tarkanian seems like a lock, but the deal falls apart. Finally they settle on Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), who had been an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers. But thirteen games into the season, McKinney is hospitalized after a freak bicycle accident severely injures (and nearly kills) him. His second-in-command, Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), takes over, promoting color commentator Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) to the assistant coaching slot.

The big star power—Letts, Segel, Brody—is clearly concentrated in the coaching staff. And the three personalities bounce off each other in interesting ways. Are any of them talented enough to lead the team to an NBA Championship? Will McKinney recuperate in time to resume his role? Does Westhead have the nerve to standup for himself? Is Riley a backstabber out for himself?

Needless to say, there’s a lot of testosterone in this series. Despite strong work by Gaby Hoffman and Sally Field, most episodes don’t pass the Bechdel Test. But this is a program about the Showtime Lakers. Jerry Buss’s entire approach was about trying to turn the Forum into the Playboy Mansion. His biggest contribution to the 1979–1980 season was the creation of the Laker Girls. Winning Time has Paula Abdul leading the famed cheerleader squad in their inaugural season, though that’s stretching the truth; Abdul was still a high school student, not part of the organization, during that first year.

Such dramatizations of the historical truth are often fun. Did Paul Westhead really give the team the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V during halftime of Game 6 of the Finals? Probably not. But Westhead did love Shakespeare; he had written a master’s thesis on Titus Andronicus, and prior to working for the Lakers he was a basketball coach and English professor at La Salle College in Philadelphia.

Power forward—and longtime Vegas resident—Spencer Haywood has claimed that “95 percent” of Winning Time is true. And, though Haywood comes across as a villain in the show, he has spoken warmly of the series, which brings up his earlier 1970 antitrust suit against the NBA, a case ultimately resulting in increased salaries and opportunities for young players.

What’s especially compelling about the show is the atmosphere—the sense of what the NBA was like in the late 1970s. (Magic’s introduction to LA nightlife is going to the premiere of The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh—which featured several of his new teammates and also Jerry Tarkanian.) It was arguably a low point in the league’s history; public support was weak. Key to this sense of the time is a brief exchange at an owner’s meeting in the show’s second episode. “There’s no reason we can’t be as popular as golf or tennis,” comments NBA General Counsel David Stern (Andy Hirsch). “Who knows?” says Lakers executive Frank Mariani (Stephen Adly Guirgis). “Maybe we’ll catch up to bowling.” “You’re joking,” Stern replies, “but they’re killing us in the Nielsens.”

It’s hard nowadays to imagine a time when the NBA was less popular than professional bowling. The Showtime Lakers helped to create the fast, flashy, youthful, electrifying sport that we know today.

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