With March Madness coming to a close, HBO’s release of its series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty couldn’t be better timed — or more anticipated. Most films about sports fail for the same reason: They turn athletics into Lifetime redemption stories drenched in sentimentality. Instead of blood and guts, audiences get melodrama. Rather than complexity, we’re served bland, archetypal heroism. The best ones claw their way out of this trap without falling into the opposite one of obsessive brutality, such as Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull (1980). Ron Shelton’s pictures, for example, employ romantic comedy (Bull Durham1988), farce (The Best of Times1986), and black humor (Tin Cup, 1996) to win you over. In fact, Shelton succeeded where Scorcese flopped, making one of the darkest, most complex and neglected sports movies of all time with Cobb (1994) — a biopic starring Tommy Lee Jones (in his greatest performance) as the hateful, haunted baseball legend.
In a burst of creativity, Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, the writers behind Winning Time, land on a different genre: Working from a book by bestselling writer Jeff Pearlman, they turn the Lakers’ tale into a combination hard-boiled/backstage comedy. As Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) announces at the outset, playing and watching basketball should feel like making love. “If there’s anything in this world that makes me believe in God,” he declares to a bimbo in bed, “it’s sex and basketball.”
The series leads with Buss buying the Lakers in 1979 on a whim, blissed out on the idea of turning the team, and the NBA, into adult entertainment. Decamping from the Playboy Mansion to close the sale, this is the magnate as epicure and impresario. He intuits that the league, on the verge of bankruptcy, must transform itself into a spectacle to survive — turn staid Xs and Os into glitz and glamor. He sees sports as showbiz, with the emphasis on the show.
And in Earvin “Magic” Johnson, he sees his star. Having just led Michigan State University to the NCAA championship over Larry Bird, the dynamic point guard from Lansing intends to turn pro. Buss has set his sights on him as the sport’s scintillating savior and wants to pick Johnson in the draft. “I don’t care if you’re black, white, or polka dot,” he cries. “That kid makes you feel good!” When the owner shows the youth the town, it’s a meeting of the minds. Borenstein and Hecht present these overgrown boys as kindred spirits — they like fast cars and faster women. Johnson wants nothing more than to share the love, in basketball and bed. He’s drawn to the limelight, to nightlife, to pimps. And Buss is the biggest pimp of all.
The problems they face, however, are legion. Buss is broke, or nearly so, and has to hustle to squeeze the team’s current owner, Jack Cooke (Michael O’Keefe) into selling. When he succeeds, he faces resistance from old-dog executives habituated to losing, not to mention his volatile coach, Jerry West (Jason Clarke). West, haunted by his failures as a player — his Lakers succumbed to the Celtics innumerable times — has a streak of depressive self-sabotage. Moreover, he hates the Johnson plan, insisting that the team already has a point guard. Johnson is too tall, too showy, too green. And he doesn’t score as many points as other picks. West thinks in terms of sabermetrics: Buss is all about pizzazz.
In addition, the owner has to get the front office to reconceive the franchise as the razzle-dazzle repertoire he wants. He brings on his sprightly daughter Jeannie (Hadley Robinson), who gets his seedy vision and tries to earn his love (the flawed parent is a motif in the show). But she’s a kid herself, unproven and unaccepted by the staff, led by general manager Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann). Finally, Buss must contend with the big cats among the league owners, especially Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis), the imperious Boston mogul.
Meanwhile, Johnson confronts his own set of obstacles. Though almost everyone eats from the palm of his hand, his mother, Christine (LisaGay Hamilton), chides him for his wayward ways. A Seventh-day Adventist, she refuses to call her son by his nickname, labeling “magic” the devil’s work. (“Devil can’t hoop like me, though!” he quips.) She fears for his soul, scandalized by his sexual conquests. But though Johnson scores with any lady he wants, he faces a dame he can’t crack in Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly (Tamera Tomakili). Mature, smart, wise to his act, Cookie becomes the only person who will level with him.
Despite his winning charm, Johnson meets with few friends on the Lakers squad, who regard him as an upstart pup who must pay his dues. Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) feels as the current point guard and schools Johnson in a one-on-one session at a high-society party. The 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, introduced by Solomon Hughes as a morose, gassed introvert, won’t give the rookie the time of day. He makes Johnson bring him orange juice every morning at training camp, which Johnson only sees as another chance to convert a doubter. The series is astute to the tribal dynamics that infuse basketball: the machismo, the trash talk, the rituals of dominance. The hard-boiled style comes alive on court and in the boardroom. The executives, like the players, are profane professionals doing their jobs. But they’ve grown stale. The kick is that Buss and Johnson, the newbies, are even better. The thrill comes in seeing the Lakers transformed from hard-boiled to showtime.
It’s at camp in the fourth episode when everything starts to come together. Buss brings in a new coach, Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), who has the theory to match the owner’s vision. He revolutionizes the team’s approach from routine pick-and-rolls into an explosive, exciting, seamless flow of action. Basketball baroque becomes basketball jazz. Though the veterans resist, Johnson and Buss love it. So does the audience — you begin to see how modern basketball works, the intelligent design behind the random chaos. As the team takes off, you feel like you’re launching to the roof: This is the real space jam.
Adam McKay is a smart director to helm this project’s pilot. With his patented approach of breaking the fourth wall, employing text and visual gags on screen, and getting the ensemble into a loose-limbed improvisatory mode, McKay provides the boisterous style that matches Buss’s showmanship. By reminding us at all times that we’re watching a show, McKay gives us the performing pleasure that Buss and Johnson exude. It’s like the actors are inviting us backstage. Subsequent directors, such as the actor Jonah Hill, fall into McKay’s grooves. The cinematography mimics the grainy look of 8 mm home movies and Betamax videotapes. It captures the vintage, bleached-out look of Los Angeles — the pornified, coke-orgy culture of Hollywood.
McKay brings along many former collaborators. Rob Morgan, coming over from Don’t Look Up, lends his gravitas and dignity to the part of Johnson’s father. Letts, as McKinney, infuses his accountant quality from The Big Short to his part, while Jason Segel steps in gamely as his awkward, self-deprecating assistant, Paul Westhead. Hoffmann gets in on the hard-boiled action as Rothman — she’s out of sync with the style at first, but that changes as her part evolves. Sally Field gives an arch turn as Buss’s mother, Jessie, and crafts deft line readings in her scenes with Robinson. As West, Clarke looks like a cross between fat Elvis and Billy Graham — and he turns in a nuanced performance. The veteran actors populating the locker room, boardroom, and league suites offer finely honed, dyed-in-the-wool performances.
But as Buss knew, a show rises and falls on its stars. With his superannuated adolescent quality, Reilly is right as this irrepressible Lothario. Dogged, disarming, a happy, hedonic warrior, Buss inevitably wins people over. Reilly has led the most varied of careers, from the sophisticated pictures of De Palma, Scorsese, and Polanksi to low-brow comedies such as Step Brothers. Here he’s more than an actor: He’s a star — he sells the series. Matching him measure for measure is Quincy Isaiah as Johnson. It’s smart to bring in a budding actor for this headliner role, and Isaiah has the charisma and athleticism to channel Johnson’s wattage.
The show drops the ball a few times. O’Keefe shares an unneeded scene with Hoffman in the first episode that involves a steak — it underscores the toxicity of Cooke, which we already get. And the third episode takes a distracting detour to Las Vegas as Buss searches for a coach. On the plus side, the show features a pumped-up theme song, “My Favorite Mutiny,” by the Marxist funk-rap group The Cupand a pulsating, hip score by Nicholas Britell.
With its sex and sequins, Winning Time harnesses both the raunch of the hockey film Slap Shot (1977) and the tawdry entertainment of All That Jazz (1979). Its writing is sharp and punchy, like Johnson’s play. In its depiction of how a visionary reinvents a dying game, it draws on the themes of 2011’s Moneyball. And in catching lighting in a bottle and using it to serve an off-court narrative through athletic contests, it encroaches on the territory of Friday Night Lights. Winning Time has a ways to go to achieve the intelligence and feeling of that great football series. But it’s going for a different effect, and it’s off to a promising start. The pilot opens in 1991 at a health clinic, where Johnson’s just learned of his AIDS diagnosis. He sits in the examination room, staring at a cover of Sports Illustrated. Michael Jordan, not Magic Johnson, gazes back. As he staggers out, wordless, you feel the foreshadowing of the end of the road. He and the Lakers were the greatest act in sports — then, like all stars, they saw themselves eclipsed. The show must go on.
Nick Coccoma is a Boston writer and critic who’s been published in New Politics, Critics at Largeand Full-Stop. Follow him on Substack at the Similitude and @NickCoccoma.