Two Things Lakers Fans Must Do This Month

The HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is the closest thing Angelenos have to watching a hometown NBA team in the playoffs this spring.
May 20, 2022
John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clark as Jerry West (HBO)

This is a historic spring for NBA fans in Los Angeles. 

Usually at this time of year, the Lakers are making a valiant run for the NBA Championship. 

But not this year. 

Since the Lakers moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960, they have played in the NBA finals 27 times and won the NBA championship 17 times. In that 62-year span, there have been only four instances when neither the Lakers nor the L.A. Clippers qualified for the playoffs: 1994, 2005, 2018 and now 2022. 

So the HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is the closest thing Angelenos have to watching a hometown NBA team in the playoffs this spring.

The ten-episode series has generated a heated reaction from the people it portrays. Since the pilot episode aired in March, some of the real people depicted in the series have been irked by the creative license taken by the series in their portrayals. 

Former Lakers player and coach Jerry West took the most exception to the series, threatening to sue HBO for misrepresenting him if they did not issue a retraction. 

“The series made us all look like cartoon characters,” West told the Los Angeles Times. “They belittled something good. If I have to, I will take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”

HBO issued a statement emphasizing that the series is a dramatization. 

“HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes. ‘Winning Time’ is not a documentary and has not been presented as such,” the company said in their statement. A disclaimer appears on screen before each episode reaffirming the same message.  

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also wrote a critical response to “Winning Time” on his Substack blog. 

“The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. 

In the pilot episode, Abdul-Jabbar’s character is filming the legendary cockpit scene as Captain Murdock in the film “Airplane!” when he snaps a vulgarity at the child actor. According to the “Airplane!” filmmakers, that outburst never took place. 

“We had never seen anything like that on the ‘Airplane!’ set,” David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams wrote in a letter to The Los Angeles Times. (The three filmmakers briefly appear in that scene.) The actor who played the kid, Ross Harris, said that he was never contacted by the “Winning Time” production team. 

Max Borenstein, co-creator of “Winning Time” explained to Vanity Fair that he always strives to “root the show in facts.” 

The viewers of the show have been entertained to say the least — millions regularly streamed the show week after week. By the fifth episode of season one, a second season of “Winning Time” was ordered by HBO. 

The events in the scripted series were distilled from the book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” written by sports writer Jeff Pearlman in 2014. Out of the ten sports books Pearlman has written, “Showtime” is the first to be adapted for television.

Pearlman interviewed 350 people in his research for “Showtime” to ensure airtight facts — even if the top stars of the book refused to be interviewed for it. 

As he does with all of his books, Pearlman interviewed hundreds of people in his research for “Showtime” to ensure airtight facts — even if the top stars of the book refused to be interviewed for it. 

“Magic wouldn’t talk and Kareem wouldn’t talk,” Pearlman told The Journal. 

That wouldn’t stop Pearlman from interviewing practically everyone else in the vicinity of the top two stars of the Showtime-era Lakers. He spoke with any available firsthand witnesses to the on-court success and off-court theatrics that characterized the Lakers of the 1980s. Pearlman interviewed lesser-known Lakers, including Wes Matthews, Larry Spriggs and Earl Jones. He interviewed current Lakers president Jeanie Buss for two and a half hours. He even developed an unexpected fondness for former Lakers coach Jack McKinney. 

McKinney — Magic Johnson’s first coach with the Lakers — was Pearlman’s favorite character in the book. 

“I would love for people to know Jack McKinney’s story,” Pearlman said. “And I think people forget there was this guy who coached the Lakers and he really mattered. He started [the Showtime Lakers’ style of play] and very few people know about him.”

McKinney coached only 14 games with the Lakers before he had a bicycle accident that would keep him from coaching the Lakers again. He would go on to coach the Indiana Pacers and Kansas City Kings, but never had anything close to the success that the Lakers would have in the 1980s. After “Showtime” was published, McKinney wrote Pearlman a letter praising the book as “good in so many ways.” Pearlman still keeps that hand-written letter as a treasure in his office. McKinney passed away in 2018. 

Despite the backlash by some of the personnel who were portrayed, Pearlman sees his book and the HBO show each standing tall as two separate entities on the same subject. 

“The people behind ‘Winning Time’ researched their asses off. Thorough beyond thorough. And while they tend to be too classy to clap back [at critics], I’m not,” Pearlman wrote in defense of the series. “If you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you know how these things go. ‘Remember the Titans’ takes leaps. ‘Rudy’ takes leaps. ‘42’ takes leaps. It’s just the way of Hollywood. You want to capture the spirit of the era, the spirit of the team, the spirit of the peeps, while also utilizing narrative storytelling. It’s NOT a doc. As a journalist — being honest — it’s been an adjustment for me.”

Pearlman grew up in a Jewish family in New Jersey where he was the only sports fan. But he vividly remembers the epic battles between the Boston Celtics and Showtime Lakers. He was only eight years old when the events of “Winning Time” began. And even as a young New Jersey Nets fan, he was quite taken by the emerging spectacle the NBA was becoming in the 1980s.  

“I just remember being a kid and when the Lakers and the Celtics played, sitting in front of the TV, holding my basketball, just like emulating [Larry] Bird, emulating Magic, trying to be those guys, the no look passes,” Pearlman said. “Then you go outside and you try doing it yourself in the driveway.”

Pearlman is currently writing a biography of baseball and football star Bo Jackson. When asked to describe “Winning Time” as a mashup of two shows or films, Pearlman described it as “‘Entourage’ meets ‘Hoosiers.’”  In an ironic twist, HBO did not use the title of Pearlman’s book since their rival premium television network happens to also be called Showtime. 

“Winning Time” stars an ensemble cast, including John C. Reilly, Sally Field, Jason Segal and Adrien Brody. And amongst them are first time actors Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Quincy Isaiah (Magic Johnson) who both put in strong performances. 

So if you’re a basketball fan in Los Angeles longing to immerse yourself in hometown basketball glory, here’s two things you should do: watch “Winning Time” on HBO, then read the book “Showtime” and form your own conclusions on the entertainment value and perils of dramatic license.

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