Winning Time: Fun Yet Controversial Tale of Basketball’s Golden Age – The American

The golden age of pro basketball continues in the second season of Winning Time.

While loyalists in New England may claim the unprecedented glory run of the Boston Celtics from the late 1950s through the end of the 1960s as the sport’s pinnacle period, and more-recent Windy City die-hards might point to the 1990s and their Michael Jordan–led Chicago Bulls, it’s pretty hard to ignore the 1980s.

Here was an unforgettable, glorious decade of pro basketball, beginning precisely in 1979–1980, with the arrival from the college ranks of two hugely skilled, generational talents who went by single-word monikers — Magic and Bird — and played for the league’s two iconic franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, respectively.

One was a slow 6-foot-9 white guy who couldn’t jump; the other a faster 6-foot-9 black guy who couldn’t jump either. One played forward; the other point guard. One was introverted, painfully shy; the other could light an arena with his smile. One dazzled with his outside-inside virtuosity; the other popularized the triple-double (Oscar Robertson invented it, although it had yet to be so named when he played). Both reified unselfishness on the court, and both would be largely responsible for saving pro basketball from the specter of solipsistic one-on-oneism to which it had devolved. Both boasted telepathic passing abilities; both utilized the anachronistic set shot (one never did develop a jump shot); both craved the ball with the game on the line; both extracted the best from their teammates; and both were consummate winners.

Pro basketball in the late 1970s–early 1980s was barely watchable, as attested by the TV network treatment of the NBA Finals — as late as 1981, those games were broadcast on tape delay, three hours after they were played. Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, and the two dominant teams they led, saved the league.

And, starting Sunday night, basketball fans will be able to relive vicariously those Magical (and Bird-like) days as Winning Time, an HBO series that goes inside the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers dynasty, kicks off its second season.

Winning Time Memorializes the Lakers–Celtic Rivalry

It’s not all sweetness and light, for sure. As might be expected of any drama depicting still-living personalities, some of the figures portrayed in Winning Time have pushed back against their portrayal. We’ll get to those angry reactions — and what precipitated them — in due time.

But first, a few words about the series. Based on a book by Jeff Pearlman titled Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the series is obviously not centered on the Boston Celtics. But you can’t talk about the ’80s Lakers absent considerable discussion about the ’80s Celtics. Season 2, which begins with the 1981 season and continues to the conclusion of 1984, centers on that iconic rivalry, as the Celtics, led by Bird and perhaps the best front court in basketball history (Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), rose rapidly to the top of the Eastern Conference and faced the Lakers in the 1984 Finals, the first of three memorable heavyweight Finals meetings during the ’80s between the two franchises.

Season 1 set the stage. A parvenu owner, Jerry Buss, a real estate baron from Wyoming with big dreams and a playboy lifestyle, buys the Lakers from media mogul Jack Kent Cooke. The franchise, although stocked with all-star talent, plays a plodding style and has sold out the Fabulous Forum only once in the previous season (1978–1979), with but an average of 11,000 fans filling its 17,000-plus seats; also, the coach, all-time great Jerry West, hates his job. But the Lakers win a coin flip, earning the right to choose first in the upcoming college draft, and they pick Johnson, fresh off an NCAA championship at Michigan State. A new coach from Philadelphia with a revolutionary running style, Jack McKinney, instills new life into a lethargic team but falls off his bicycle early in the season, suffering a serious head injury; he is replaced by a Shakespeare scholar, Paul Westhead, who quotes the Bard during time-outs and is assisted by Chick Hearn’s sidekick in the broadcast booth, color announcer Pat Riley, who exchanges a microphone for a clipboard. Glitzy amenities are installed at the arena — like a flashy after-hours stadium bar, a dance team called the Laker Girls, and celebrity front-row seating. Magic, playing center in the absence of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, does everything in leading the team to an unlikely NBA championship with his 42-point performance in Game Six of the 1980 Finals against the Philadelphia Sixers as season 1 concludes.

Season 2 — whose cast includes Quincy Isaiah as Johnson, John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Jason Segal as Westhead, Adrien Brody as Riley, Jason Clarke as West, Solomon Hughes as Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Patrick Small as Bird, and Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss — will ramp up the Celtic–Laker rivalry. Bird, who in his brief appearances in season 1 was every bit the Hick from French Lick, is granted character development during season 2 and takes on a starring role opposite Johnson. Bird’s relationship with legendary Celtic coach/owner Red Auerbach reportedly receives extensive treatment and parallels the Buss–Johnson relationship.

Also developing is Riley, who gradually transforms from a semi-schlump with a hippie mustache into the Armani-clad, immaculately coiffed (gelled and combed straight back), Kenny G–listening fashion plate roaming the sidelines and imposing a hard-nosed style onto the Showtime squad. And Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, currently president of the franchise, who grows from the go-fer kid wanting to gain a little of dad’s attention to a lead influence in the organization.

Winning Time’s Portrayal of West Stirs Controversy

Hopefully, this development extends to West. Of all the characters dumped on and trashed in season 1, “the Logo” — it’s his likeness that graces the NBA’s principal advertising image — got the worst of it. West’s lawyers even dispatched a letter to HBO and series producer Adam McKay, a couple of weeks into season 1, seeking a retraction and alleging that the series “falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic,” a portrayal that “bears no resemblance to the real man.” The Logo said he’d take it all the way to the Supreme Court if he had to.

Many a Laker eminento has sprung to West’s defense. Former players Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Michael Cooper, along with front-office people, claimed the portrayal of the all-time all-star to have been “cartoonish” and false, a serious departure from that laid out in Pearlman’s book.

Indeed, Abdul-Jabbar penned a lengthy takedown of season 1, in which he said, “The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans Solo resembles Harrison Ford.” And when the series came out, Johnson said he wouldn’t watch it, not because of a negative portrayal — he is the star of the series, and a likeable star at that — but because the Showtime Lakers were a case of one-off greatness. “I won’t watch it because it’s hard to duplicate,” Johnson is quoted as saying. “You can’t duplicate Showtime.”

If you yearn for more accurate basketball history, you might want to stick with documentaries such as ESPN’s 10-part series The Last Dance, chronicling Michael Jordan’s final Chicago Bulls season. But for an over-the-top treatment of an equally over-the-top period in a glamorous franchise’s history — and if you don’t mind generous portions of literary license — you’re sure to be entertained by Winning Time.

I just wish they’d not done Jerry West dirty.

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