YOU DIDN’T NEED to be a hoops fan to enjoy season one of Winning Time, the HBO series about the Magic Johnson-led LA Lakers. In fact, it could be argued that the series was more enjoyable if you didn’t know the real-life story.
Why’s that? Well Winning Time took some liberties with the truth and for finickity hoops heads, that was frustrating. As can often happen when you’re too close to a subject, you find yourself picking at its faults and sometimes glaring inaccuracies, instead of enjoying the ride. For the real-life protagonists, many of whom are very much alive and kicking, it’s especially galling, particularly if you feel an actor’s OTT portrayal borders on character assassination.
Most put out was Jerry West, the man whose likeness embodies the NBA logo, former star player and general manager of the Lakers during their ’80s heyday. Aussie actor Jason Clarke’s hilariously bombastic portrayal of West was entertaining as all get-out, but perhaps too far removed from ‘gentleman Jerry’, one of the more venerable men ever to step foot on a hardwood floor or occupy a GM’s office.
The real-life West was so disappointed by the portrayal he released a statement through his attorneys that said: “the Jerry West in Winning Time bears no resemblance to the real man”. Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played by newcomer Solomon Hughes, lit up the show on his Substack: “If you gathered the biggest gossip-mongers from the Real Housewives franchise and they collected all the rumours they heard about each other from Twitter and then played Telephone with each other you’d have the stitched together Frankenstein’s monster that is this show,” he wrote, damning the series as elegantly as he sunk skyhooks.
It should be noted that Abdul-Jabbar, as well as being in the conversation for the NBA’s GOAT and former all-time scoring leader, is a highly respected author and journalist, as well as being something of a curmudgeon. In season one, Hughes did a great job capturing Kareem’s intellectual aloofness, providing the perfect foil for Quincy Isaiah’s magnetically charismatic turn as Magic Johnson. Apparently, Isaiah worried about his lips cracking from all the smiling required to fully inhabit the Lakers’ point-guard.
But the performance that was perhaps most intriguing in season one was Adrien Brody’s as Pat Riley. As someone who has watched the NBA since the days it was on once a week on the ABC with Peter Gee in
a forest green blazer, I have only ever known Riley as the Armani suit-wearing, slicked-haired operator, who looks like a cross between Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and a ‘made man’ in Goodfellas. So, it came as a shock to see the current Miami Heat president of basketball operations as a struggling former player, who after doing some sideline commentary with legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn, comes on board the team’s coaching staff to help out Shakespeare-quoting head coach Paul Westhead, played by Jason Segel.
This Riley has no traces of product in his hair, while sporting a moustache and a slightly hippy vibe. For me, one of the standout scenes in season one was when Riley, just for a moment sees his future slick self in a mirror during a crisis of confidence. Watching his ongoing transformation is set to rival Walter White’s ‘Mr Chips to Scarface’ metamorphosis in scale, and sure to be one of the highlights of season two and beyond.
But the character who might have had the most to say about his portrayal in season one, had he been alive, would have been Jerry Buss, played with irrepressible huckster charm by John C. Reilly. In season one the larger-than-life Buss buys the Lakers, then a rather moribund franchise, and sets about turning them into the razzle dazzle outfit they become. Even Buss’s daughter, current Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss admitted to Variety that she thought Reilly should win an Emmy for his work.
Aside from the scenery-chewing performances, though, it’s the show’s granular nature that really hit in season one, allowing the characters’ journeys to be deeper and more nuanced, while opening up space for real-life plots that have long-since been forgotten but were headline news at the time. Last year creator Max Borenstein likened the show to Netflix’s The Crown and I must admit I was surprised by its luxurious pacing, having initially expected a one-season decade-spanning romp instead of the season-by-season focus that we’re getting.
It’s perhaps due to the eyebrow-raising nature of some of the show’s plot points that season two reportedly features an onscreen caption that says, “YEP, THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED,” during a scene involving Buss and Riley. Similarly, in a pre-emptive move to head off questions of accuracy and creative license, the show’s production team has shared episode companion guides that provide details on real-life incidents that have been mined for entertainment.
It all points to this being another rollicking season. Here’s everything you need to know.
What was Winning Time: Season 1 About?
The show covers the rise of the 1980s LA Lakers, a team that won five NBA championships. Season one focused on Dr Jerry Buss’s acquisition of the team at the beginning of the 1979 season and their path to the NBA title thanks to the recruitment of star rookie Magic Johnson. The beauty of the show was that it was about so much more than that.
What is Winning Time: Season 2 About?
This season looks at the fallout of success, as fame, hubris, egos and power beset the team. As Borenstein told The Ringer, “We’re trying to tell the story of a dynasty and one season, one win doesn’t do it. So when we looked at what comes next in the story, it became clear to us that this had to be The Empire Strikes Back. This is where you’re going to face your enemy for the first time: your rival, your greatest rival. And you’re going to face every internal obstacle along the way.”
Which actors play real-life characters in Winning Time: Season 2?
John C. Reilly – Jerry Buss
Jason Clarke – Jerry West
Quincy Isaiah – Magic Johnson
Solomon Hughes – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Jason Segel – Paul Westhead
Adrian Brody – Pat Riley
Gillian Jacobs – Chris Riley
Michael Chiklis – Red Auerbach
Hadley Robison – Jeanie Buss
Sean Patrick Small – Larry Bird
Where can I watch Winning Time: Season 2?
Season 2 premieres this Monday August 7 on BINGE and runs for seven episodes.