So, like a lot of other basketball fans, you hate the Los Angeles Lakers. You have no intention of watching a TV series about them. Or you’re not a basketball fan.
Well, believe it or not, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” — which premieres Sunday on HBO — is entertaining no matter who you root for. And, while it’s about a basketball team, it’s not really so much about basketball.
Which makes it a lot more fun to watch … even if you’re, say, a Utah Jazz fan. And, yes, there are some Utah references in this 10-part series about the Lakers.
It’s the fact-based yet totally insane story of the creation of Lakers Showtime and the dynasty that won five NBA titles in the 1980s. And there’s not much of any faux game footage until midway through Episode 5. As a matter of fact, in the eight episodes screened for critics, only one game — a showdown with the Celtics in Boston — merits more than a few seconds of screentime.
“Inspired by” Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers,” “Winning Time” focuses on 1979-80, when Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) bought the Lakers and struggled to avoid financial ruin at a time when the NBA was struggling to survive. For those who weren’t paying attention — or weren’t born yet — it’s shocking how unstable the Lakers and the NBA were.
Against the advice of the basketball experts, Buss drafted Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), whose Michigan State team had just beaten Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) and Indiana State to win the NCAA championship. And that draft pick set the Lakers on a path to unbelievable success.
“Winning Time” is surprisingly, intentionally funny. Characters — particularly Buss — often talk directly to the camera and to viewers. It’s not exactly subtle — much is made of the belief that the NBA was struggling because it had so many Black players. And when the Magic vs. Bird conversation comes up, the screen fills with white-white-white graphics for Bird and black-black-black graphics for Magic.
Reilly said the “sense that the characters in the story could at any time turn right to you and start talking to you … creates this kind of chaotic wonderful energy. … It’s a way to get the audience on your side, too.” And he’s right.
When then-future Clippers owner Donald Sterling appears, there’s a graphic labeling him the “second worst Donald of the ‘80s.” (Sterling was, of course, forced to sell the Clippers after recordings of him making racist comments surfaced in 2014.)
“We were trying to have fun above all,” said co-creator, executive producer and showrunner Max Borenstein. “But it’s a show about showmanship. This is a moment where sports became entertainment.”
It’s the story of how the Lakers’ style of play changed basketball, but it’s even more the wild story of the people involved, including Buss (John C. Reilly), his daughter, Jeannie (Hadley Robinson), his mother, Jessie (Sally Field) and multiple Lakers coaches — Jerry West (Jason Clarke), Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) — along with Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and other players.
How crazy is it? Well, Jerry Buss’ attempt to hire UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane) resulted in a mob killing, we’re told.
A few Utah ties
The announcement that Buss was buying the Lakers came 11 days before the NBA approved the Jazz’s move from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, and the Jazz barely factor into “Winning Time.” Which is not surprising because the team barely factored into the NBA at the time — the Jazz were 24-58 in 1979-80, went 0-6 against the Lakers, finished last in the Midwest Division and second-to-last in the Western Conference.
However, midway through Episode 5, we see a body in a Jazz uniform when the Lakers acquire Spencer Heywood (Wood Harris) from the Jazz. “That was a close call, man,” Heywood says. “I was about to be the only Black man in Salt Lake City. What mother------ would take a team called Jazz to Utah?”
That trade brought Adrian Dantley (Terence Davis) to Utah, by the way.
At least through the first eight episodes, that’s the biggest mention of Utah. But there are a few others:
• In Episode 1, there is a faux clip of the 1979 NCAA title game between Michigan State and Indiana State, which was at the University of Utah. There’s no indication the game was in Salt Lake City, but a brief clip of the actual game clearly shows Utah’s floor in Episode 7.
• In Episode 3, there’s an extremely brief but identifiable clip on the floor in BYU’s Marriott Center. While Buss is considering hiring Tarkanian, we see his UNLV team scoring against the Cougars in Provo.
• In Episode 7, Jerry West tries to talk Buss into hiring Elgin Baylor to coach the Lakers midway through the season. “Him leaving Utah now, that’s just kismet,” West says. (That’s not accurate. Baylor had been fired by the Jazz shortly before the move to Salt Lake City.)
• Edwin Hodge plays longtime Jazz TV and radio analyst Ron Boone — traded by the Lakers to the Jazz in 1979 — in multiple episodes. The character does not get along with Magic. And longtime Jazz announcer/former Lakers player/announcer Hot Rod Hundley (Mel Fair) makes a brief appearance.
The series opens in Los Angeles in 1991, with Magic learning he’s tested positive for HIV before flashing back to 1979. It doesn’t show that Johnson was in Utah for a preseason game when he was called back to L.A. to get the news in person.
It’s going to be controversial
It’s not a hatchet job on most of these people — although Tarkanian and Boston Celtics chieftain Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) both come off looking very bad — but the flaws of just about every character are a big part of their stories, from Buss’ and Johnson’s non-stop womanizing to Jabbar’s surly behavior and more.
Borenstein acknowledged “how strange it must be to have a movie made about your life,” but he insisted, “We made this show as fans with a tremendous amount of respect and love for all of these characters, for the NBA, for the Lakers.”
But some of these people, or their survivors, aren’t going to be happy, even though HBO and the producers are upfront about the fact that “Winning Time” is a fictionalized retelling, not a documentary.
“Some of it is blanks that have been filled in by our screenwriters, some of it is based on historical record,” Reilly said, “and I didn’t know the difference. I’ve never wanted to know the difference … because I needed to be acting like it all happened.”
“Winning Time” is definitely for adults — it’s filled with adult language, partial nudity and sex scenes.
By the way, the rampant sexism and outright harassment is true to the era, but shocking four decades later. As is the homophobia. Longtime Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) is obnoxious throughout, but when out-of-work Pat Riley comes looking for a job as his radio sidekick, Hearn tells him he sounds “like a fruit,” and uses a gay slur to describe Riley’s voice.
The worst thing about “Winning Time” is the title. The Lakers of the era were known as “Showtime,” and that was the title of the book. “Showtime” should be in the title.
But … there was no way that HBO was going to approve calling the series “Showtime.”
Executive producer Adam McKay, who also directed the first episode, said he and the other producers pushed “pretty hard” to use the it, but that was a no-go with HBO executives. “Initially, we were going to call it NBC,’ he joked.
“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on HBO. Episodes will also stream on HBO Max.