We’ve seen a lot of dramatizations and biopics, especially in recent years with streaming platforms. We’ve also seen Adam McKay, director most recently of Don’t Look Up, but in my heart, always always the auteur behind Anchorman and Talladega Nights, do quite a few interesting adaptations of real-life events. Now we get Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which opens in a clinic with Magic Johnson getting the most devastating news of his life (1992) before jumping back to 1979 and Magic as a draft prospect.
I suppose it’s only fair that I put my own biases on the table. It feels like this show was made for me. I am a fan of McKay’s work, especially his ability to explain complex ideas in cheeky ways (like The Big Short). More than that, I’m a fan of the Lakers having grown up in LA around the time that the real-life Showtime was at its peak. So the series gives me a mix of stuff I already knew, demythologizing of some of the larger-than-life stories, insights on the things that weren’t out in the open, and a real humanizing of the people who we’ve only watched playing the game or read about. Granted, this is a fictionalization and there’s definitely some work that’s being done to serve the story. It’s still great to see how they might have interacted with each other in this incredibly intimate way.
So for the non-Laker fans, I’ll set the stage. Winning Time, at least in the first eight episodes I had access to, takes quite a lot of time in developing this story. We follow the outstanding John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, as in the first episode he attempts to acquire the Lakers. I’ve always liked Reilly’s performances, and seeing him bring Buss to life is a feat. Buss has always been a larger-than-life figure in the Lakers mythos, and Reilly portrays a wide range of his humanity, easily shifting from irresistibly charming to terribly flawed. Perhaps the best bits are when he is on the verge of becoming a scamming huckster, but just barely claws his way to some measure of success.
Magic was always the draw on and off the court. But Winning Time balances its time between Magic and the game of basketball against back-office drama and the nitty gritty of pro basketball in that time period. It’s a testament to the series that we get so little on-the-court pyrotechnics, and yet it’s thrilling in showing how Buss is wheeling and dealing, or how the coaches are trying to formulate an offense.
In terms of explaining basketball, it turns to very similar approaches as in The Big Short. It’s likely going to boil down to taste. If you like the cheeky, looking-at-the-camera, winking-at-the-audience kind of thing, then you’ll probably enjoy how the series breaks down concepts, from how debt can be restructured to how to set up a motion offense, to certain minutiae in NBA history. I found this approach to be surprisingly fun and a great way to catch people up on the concepts. As the series progresses, though, we get less of this and go deeper into the drama, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Quincy Isaiah serves up a solid performance as Magic Johnson. He exudes all of that charisma that drew people to him. And he doesn’t shy away from leaning into the flaws, either – and ooh boy are there a lot of flaws. It’s an interesting space to create his character, since recent NBA history has seen Lakers fans sour on Magic as one of the team’s executives (a post he left a few years ago). What Isaiah really has throughout is a quality that makes him likeable however problematic he is or the things he is doing are.
The entire cast here is pretty overwhelming in caliber, whether it’s people like Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, or even small performances like Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach. I particularly enjoyed Solomon Hughes as the often sullen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar’s spiritual journey has been a big piece of his mythos, and it’s told with real care here. It’s so interesting to watch Hughes as Jabbar wrestling with the issues of his day and then to know how it reverberates with issues in 2022.
One benefit the series has in taking its time to develop is that it is able to cast a focus on a lot of different aspects that we might gloss over as basketball fans. There’s the business aspect, of course. But throughout, the series does not lose its focus on the impacts of systemic racism on the development of the NBA. In addition, we see here that the beginnings of the modern NBA, as we know it, were rooted not just in how the Lakers played (definitely a huge part, since the seeds of the Small Ball revolution can be traced back to Showtime’s Run-n-Gun offense), but in how the game was marketed to fans.
If you just pitched it, it might be hard to imagine taking something like Narcos or The Wire and then mashing it up with basketball. But Winning Time does just that to great success. It matches the approach which (sure I might be biased) just the right team in NBA history. It’s a turning point in the game. It’s incredibly colorful characters on and off the court. We get small and big stories, whether it’s the legendary Magic/Bird rivalry or the struggle to fix the PA system in the bar.
This show isn’t going to work for everybody. I think that the tone is going to be the first challenge. There’s a smugness to it, again with breaking the fourth wall, but also in that it tries to play between that meta layer and then also asks you to care on a deeper level when characters are going through emotional things. If you can get past that, then the question is, are you up for a series about the Lakers, flaws and all? Oh and throw in that, in weird HBO fashion (is this a thing because of Game of Thrones?), there’s an obligatory sex scene in each episode. But if you can get past all of those things and are up for a high-energy dramatization of one of the wildest runs in NBA history, then this show is going to deliver as much excitement as their playoff runs did. – Rappler.com
Stream Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty on HBO and HBO GO.