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LOS ANGELES, US – I was a newly-arrived immigrant in the ’80s, virtually starting from scratch in Los Angeles. From this perspective, I saw the rise of the Lakers from a middling team to the most successful professional basketball team in America in that era.
As a wide-eyed fresh-off-the plane émigré, I cheered on Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and their teammates, who symbolized El Lay, my new hometown, in their championship winning streak.
With that emotional connection to Los Angeles and the Lakers, I was excited to watch the first five episode screeners of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers.
Inspired by Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the series is a winning look, beyond the locker room, of the drama, humor, showbiz razzmatazz (this is LA, after all) and intrigue that made the purple-wearing team win the NBA championship many times.
Let me say right off the bat that you don’t have to be a Lakers fan to enjoy Winning Time.
Directed by Don’t Look Up’s Adam McKay (he megged the pilot, his first for TV since Succession’s 2018 pilot), among others, the series is ultimately a drama about real-life men and women behind a team – and their professional and personal lives – as they try to win.
The excellent cast, all perfectly picked, is led by John C. Reilly (Jerry Buss), Quincy Isaiah (Magic Johnson), Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Jason Clarke (Jerry West), Adrien Brody (Pat Riley), Hadley Robinson (Jeanie Buss), Gaby Hoffmann (Claire Rothman), Sally Field (Jessie Buss), Tracy Letts (Jack McKinney), Jason Segel (Paul Westhead), and Michael Chiklis (Red Auerbach).
Shot a la Super 8 to reflect the era – the look can be off-putting – but ultimately, Winning Time is like an engrossing NBA finals, anchored by John C. Reilly’s Jerry Buss. It’s John’s finest performance in his career.
Winning Time chronicles, among other things, how Jerry transformed the sports spectator experience from staid to a total entertainment experience, complete with one of his innovations, the Lakers Girls led by then-rising Paula Abdul (Carina Conti).
“It’ s Showtime!,” which came to be associated with the Lakers, came from a line announced by performers in an LA nightclub that the colorful Jerry frequented.
Complete with blonde hair combed-over look of the Lakers owner, John imbues his Buss with humor and humanity. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s longtime friendship and collaboration have reportedly gone kaput because the latter wanted the Jerry role. Instead, Adam gave the role to John.
And John runs away with the role of the man who grew up very poor but ended up buying the Lakers, Los Angeles Kings and the Forum in 1979.
In short, he became the virtual king of La La Land. Jerry, who led the Lakers to 10 NBA championships from the Showtime dynasty depicted in the series to the Kobe Bryant era, was 80 when he died in 2013.
“I was in Chicago and I was in eighth grade in 1979,” John recalled where he was during that time. I recently interviewed John and several of his castmates in separate video conversations.
“I was doing plays and I wasn’t interested in basketball. So, I knew nothing about the LA Lakers at this time when I was a kid.”
“Then when I moved to Los Angeles, it’s almost like the Lakers are more of a presence in LA than the LA city government is. It’s such a dominant presence. Jerry was the king of LA all those years.”
“So, definitely it was his name that you would hear over and over again. And with that said, I didn’t realize what a fascinating person he was and what a fascinating life he had.”
“To go from poor in Wyoming, to eventually getting a doctorate in physical chemistry, to teaching at USC, to becoming a massively successful real estate tycoon, to trading the Chrysler building for the Los Angeles Lakers – that is such an incredible story.”
“And I’m sure, as an immigrant, you can relate to that,” John added, referring to my comment that I just moved to the States when the Lakers began their dynasty.
“In America, these things can happen, that kind of social mobility. It’s an American idea. The fact that you can come from the bottom and you can end up the king of LA.”
“I found that really inspiring. I also come from very humble beginnings in Chicago. I come from a working-class family on the south side of Chicago.”
“So the fact that I’m here in California, now making movies, and people see me as this celebrity or this famous actor, to me, I’m just the same kid from the south side of Chicago.”
“So, in a way, I feel like an impostor. And in a way, my life tracks in a similar way to Jerry’s life, where people just constantly underestimated me from the very beginning.”
“And eventually, I came up with this saying, whenever I feel people are trying to intimidate me. I say, ‘The road behind me is strewn with people who have underestimated me.’ I think Jerry really related to that, too.”
“That’s why Jerry wore fringe on the bottom of his jeans for his entire life because when he was a boy, it was cheaper to buy unhemmed jeans than it was to buy hemmed jeans.”
“So he had these fringy jeans all the time when he was a kid because his mother couldn’t afford properly hemmed jeans. And he wore that as a badge of honor, like a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life.”
“I’m definitely like that. I’m definitely not ‘to the manor born.’ I’m not a product of Beverly Hills. I’m a product of the south side of Chicago and somehow, I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to share what I can do with the world. So I really relate to Jerry in that way.”
On how he navigated playing a real-life person like Jerry, John answered, “In some ways, that was a burden actually because we get into some very private aspects of my character’s life and Quincy’s character’s life also.”
“The tendency as an actor in films is like, well, it’s just the character. It’s just what’s written in the script. No offense.”
“But knowing that this guy has a family and those people who are involved in the story are still alive – that was, in some ways, kind of a somber responsibility to take on. I know that I would feel pretty conflicted if someone were to tell the story of my father and all of his triumphs, tragedies, flaws, and attributes.”
“So, it was definitely something I thought about every day because I really feel for people when their private stories are being shared. I’m a very private person myself and I think I would find that difficult.”
“That said, Jerry and Magic were both public figures and they are a part of our public story, the history of the world, the history of entertainment.”
“So, the way I personally dealt with it is that I didn’t find out what was real and what wasn’t, on purpose. I never knew whether something was artistic license taken by the screenwriters or whether it was something based on a historical fact.”
“Because I knew I had to play all of it as if it is real. I didn’t want that lack of confidence underneath things if I knew that it didn’t really happen. Another way I dealt with it was by not reading the scripts until right before we shot that episode.”
“So, if it looked like things were going really bad for Jerry in episode four, that’s all I knew. Obviously, I knew that the team went on to great success later in the years but in terms of beat by beat of the plot, I didn’t actually know like, ‘Does this person make it? Do I pick this person?’ ”
“Like, ‘What do I decide here?’ I didn’t know. That really helped me to keep it very much in the present tense. And all that said, I try to say it as many times as publicly as possible, that I really appreciate the chance to play someone, and I really have a lot of respect for Dr. Buss, and have a lot of feeling of compassion towards his family at this very public moment in their family’s life.”
Quincy, who was paired with John in the interview, captures the essence of Magic Johnson, down to that irresistible, winning smile.
“I would just echo everything John said and say it really started with respect,” Quincy said. “You want to bring that respect into playing your character. You acknowledge that you are living out some private moments but you want to make sure that you lead the character with love.”
“And John said it earlier about you don’t want to judge your character. It’s about having empathy with your character and really just playing a person. You want to play a full, complete character. We get the opportunity to do that so I’m forever grateful to be playing as well.”
Magic, Kareem, the Lakers, and NBA reportedly didn’t cooperate with the production. Magic and Jeanie Buss, Jerry’s daughter who took over, are developing their respective Lakers docuseries projects. Maybe it was for the best so Winning Time’s creators had free rein in their depiction of the colorful characters in the Lakers world.
Max Borenstein, Winning Time’s showrunner, co-creator and co-writer, stressed, “There’s always a tremendous responsibility when you’re telling any true story, especially one with such significance and cultural significance worldwide.”
“We know that while we’re not doing a documentary and we’re not writing a textbook, it is on us to do the research and to make sure that we are being true to the reality of what happened, while at the same time understanding that on any narrative as sprawling as this, we have to composite some characters occasionally.”
“We have to adjust the timeframe. There’s dramatic and creative license that comes into play. But our rule of thumb from the very beginning and throughout, as we were working together to write this show and to create it, it was always that the pieces of this story that you lean forward when you’re watching and say, ‘Wait a minute, that couldn’t possibly have actually happened.’ ”
“Those are the elements that we absolutely can’t make up. Those are the pieces that have to be true. And that goes for some of the things, without giving any spoilers away, that you probably have seen.”
“People will see the story of Jerry Buss’ attempt to recruit Jerry Tarkanian, the story of Jack McKinney as a Lakers coach, of Spencer Haywood. There are so many remarkable things that we put on screen.”
“The ones that you want to call BS on, those are the ones that we had a stringent rule about. We can’t make any aspect of that up.”
“Now in terms of the real people that we were portraying, I can’t imagine how strange it must be to have some strangers approach your life and say, ‘We’re going to make a television show about anything on your life.’ I don’t know how I would react. It would be weird.”
“All I can say is that speaking for myself, for Rodney (Barnes, one of the writers and producers), for everybody involved in this production at every level, including the actors, we have made this show with a tremendous amount of love and appreciation for these people and everything that they gave to culture and to the world. And so I hope that if and when any of them decide to watch it, they will feel that love.”
Adrien Brody, who portrays Pat Riley, the coach who shepherded the Lakers to four NBA titles, said, “I’m a big fan of the Lakers. I’ve gone to quite a few games and I look forward to going to more. When I was younger, also kicking around in LA, it was very exciting because I had friends who would invite me to those games.”
“It’s such a wonderful experience. If you ever get the chance to be courtside, you’re really so present with the game.”
“And furthermore, as I grew up, Pat Riley was indelibly marked in my mind. I had such a sense of him, even when I was very young. I really felt genuinely impressed by him.”
Added Adrien, whose Pat Riley was still shabbily dressed in the early years (he became GQ-sleek later): “And he had a unique sense of calm and control over it. He was a force so I remembered that. And so, it’s very exciting for me, as well, to get to step foot in this era, also in this era of basketball because it’s the birth of the Lakers as we know him.”
Solomon Hughes adroitly conveys the introverted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, regarded by many as the best basketball player of all time, who eventually opens up, especially when Magic joined the team.
“I grew up about an hour east of The Forum in Inglewood,” Solomon said about the Lakers’ home before they moved to the Staples Center, now named Crypto.com Arena. “And so, growing up, the Lakers were the center of my sports universe.”
“When I was growing up in the 80s, they were so successful that it was just normal to admire a team that was like world champion year after year, with such incredible players like Magic and Kareem.”
“And my father was a really big fan of Kareem’s for who he was beyond the basketball court, who he was as an intellect, as a writer, as a social justice warrior, etcetera.”
“And so, oftentimes you don’t like the things that your parents like but Kareem specifically was someone that I really latched onto very early. But yeah, just the entire organization.”
“When you think about what the Lakers represent historically with regard to sports entertainment, it was like I grew up right around the corner. Obviously now, it’s not right around the corner but it was the universe that I was in.”
Jason Clarke, very convincing as Jerry West, the NBA All-Star who became the Lakers’ coach and then general manager, recalled, “I didn’t really grow up with basketball but I knew Kareem probably more than anybody from the movies. From the Kung Fu movies, from Airplane! and then from even 21 Jump Street.”
“Then you realize, oh, he’s the most famous basketballer ever. And then the point of history I remember was Magic Johnson at the Olympics when he made the comeback from being HIV positive.”
“I do remember that really vividly as like the first time it was a positive message about being HIV positive, that it was okay, and that there was a way to deal and live with it.”
“And that dream team, when it went to Barcelona, really sold America as amazing. But not only were you seeing the best athletes, probably the greatest basketball team ever assembled. They set Barcelona alight, and they set the idea of basketball. That’s when I started getting into it.”
“Then for Jerry West, I really had no idea about his significance. It wasn’t until I was out and about here. Somebody just called out, ‘The Logo,’ and I’m thinking, what?”
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, they’re referring to you because you’re playing Jerry West.’ And also, I’ve gone down the road of Jerry, then, and his book and everything about him.” Jerry’s silhouette is used in NBA’s famous logo.
“He’s an extraordinary man, all these people involved in this, their stories are really immense. We all know who they are and what they’ve done.”
“I’ve read all of Kareem’s books. I think he’s one of the best writers in our business out there at the moment. It’s a bunch of people that have gone on to have great post-careers as well. They’re not just athletes. And bravo to all of them.”
On his physical transformation into the man also known as Mr. Clutch, Jason replied, “It takes a while. If you’re going to get good wig, hair and makeup people, you need to give them the time. It took a lot to get Jerry’s hair right.”
“I tried teeth originally in the pilot, just a little thing to get Jerry’s smile. My teeth are very different. We had (contact) lenses in. You experiment around.”
“I’ve never seen so many hair and makeup trailers on a show. It was massive – four trailers. And you’re trying to find that level of heightened realism that Adam talks about, that Max wrote, where it’s still us inside yet when I look and see Solomon on the court, it’s like, goddamn, that’s Kareem out there with those goggles.”
“But you’re not watching a nose and wig show. And the same thing with Adrien. We haven’t yet seen him sleek in an Armani suit but it’s on the way and it’s set up brilliantly. There was a lot of work put into those transformations.”
“And the hair and makeup, it’s notorious in town now for high turnover because it was a massive job. There were so many wigs and so much hair. The hair and the wardrobe department were amazing.”
“That’s also the fun of working with Adam. He makes that available to you because you can’t do it without it. Although I’ve got to say Quincy’s smile is a hundred percent real. No fake teeth, no nothing. That lights up a room every morning.”
DeVaughn Nixon shared how he landed the role playing his dad, Norm Nixon, the Lakers’ point guard, and how the latter reacted when he heard the news.
“I auditioned for Francine Maisler (casting director),” DeVaughn began. “On the first call, like everybody else, they put me through the ringer. Got a callback and that’s when Adam McKay and all the executives were in there.”
“And funny thing enough, my brother is actually an actor, too. They actually brought him in to audition as well. So, my brother got a callback, too. I told my manager. I was like, ‘Look, can you schedule us like an hour apart so we don’t see each other on a callback?’ ”
“Because I didn’t want to mess up his process or whatever. And there was kind of a silent competition but I just wanted us to have a fair shot equally. But I ended up running into him because they had kept him so long.”
“So, we talked for a little bit and we were both rooting for each other. Eventually, I got the call maybe about a week after and they were like, ‘You got it.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ ”
“I called my dad. He’s a tough lover, to say the least. I’ll score 30 points in a basketball game and he’ll tell me about the one time I didn’t get back on defense.”
“I was like, ‘Okay.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t make me look like a fool.’ But I showed him some clips of the pilot and he was just like, ‘Have fun, man. I’m rooting for you.’ So, he’s excited for me. He’s cheering for me.”
Tamera Tomakili, who delineates Cookie Kelly, Magic Johnson’s girlfriend and eventual wife, reflected on what she learned from playing the woman who stood by Magic in their relationship’s ups and downs.
“What I got from her memoir is that they kept a very good friendship,” she said. “I think there was respect. She understood where he was at, the industry that he was in, and the world that he was going into.”
“I’m not Cookie and I’m not in her mind. But I feel that in some sense, you have to prepare yourself for someone who is going into that kind of lifestyle. You have to try not to expect much.”
“What I got from Cookie is that she really tried to hold onto that friendship, knowing that this is a person that she connects very much to. And if it happens that they end up together and in blissful matrimony, great.”
“If it doesn’t, this is someone that I can say is my friend, we have great conversations and it feels like I’ve known him all my life, even though I just met him in college.”
“And yeah, it really is interesting to see their relationship. I’m hoping as we go on in further seasons, that we can see and explore that.”
“Because I do think that is a very interesting part of their lives, to see how they both navigate growing up as adults, one in the basketball world, in the limelight, and one that is fresh out of college, trying to make it on her own as a black woman in the world, trying to enter into the world of fashion.”
“To see how they both navigate it and try to sustain a relationship – that is hopefully coming.”
Sally Field exulted in taking on Jessie Buss, Jerry’s mom, because she is a rabid Lakers fan.
“I was then, and I am now, a huge fan,” beamed the Oscar and Golden Globe winner. “I was the one, and you could ask anyone who I worked with, I would come on the set and tell them everything that had happened in the game the night before.”
“I said, ‘Oh my God, AD (Anthony Davis) is injured again. What are we going to do? And LeBron is…And we won the championship that year.’ ”
“I went to these games. I took my young sons. I saw Magic play. I saw Kareem. I saw all of this. Then to hear the backstory, I would call my sons when I’d get the scripts and go, ‘Did you know? I had no idea that was going on.’ ”
“I think of all of the actors, even probably the athletes, I was the one that got the biggest kick out of it all because I was there. And I loved hearing all of these little things about everybody.”
“A lot of it is accurate. Some of the real facts of what went down with the coaches, their families and the players – it’s there, it’s the truth.”
I am happy to read reports that the creators and writers of the show, originally announced as a mini-series, are already working on a second season because each real-life figure in Winning Time has a potential for even more interesting storylines.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty premieres same time in the Philippines as the US on Monday, March 7 at 10am on HBO and HBO GO with a same day encore at 10 pm (both Manila time) on HBO. – Rappler.com