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Why The Lakers, Magic, And Kareem Don’t Want You To Watch HBO’s ‘Winning Time’

John C. Reilly on the left in a gray suit (as Dr. Jerry Buss) points to the actor portraying Magic Johnson in the middle in front of a podium with mics on it, holding up a yellow and purple Lakers jersey that reads "JOHNSON - 32." Another man in a gray suit stands on the right. They are in front of a Forum backdrop with logos for the Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings.
John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, and Jason Clarke as Jerry West in HBO's Winning Time.
(Warrick Page
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The first episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty opens with Magic Johnson walking out of Cedars-Sinai, an allusion to the moment that marked a major turning point for his career, for basketball, and beyond: Magic’s 1991 HIV-positive diagnosis. It moves to the Playboy Mansion in 1979, resetting as it lays out the story that ultimately gets us to that hospital.

But the show’s more than salaciousness. Especially for Angelenos, it’s a love letter to the period and the city. When you watch, just know that grainy picture isn’t your HBO Max streaming service buffering — the visuals are all given an old-school video filter. As the series opens up, you get loving shots of L.A. streets and icons that aren’t always highlighted on screen, like the Lakers' former home of the Forum in Inglewood treated as a temple to basketball’s greatness.

A Black man with headphones and a green African-styled outfit lays on an orange couch, black and white photos on the brown paneled wall next to him, including a photo of Bruce Lee. Behind him is a character played by actress Sarah Ramos on another chair, a record player in between them.
Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Winning Time, with a character played by actress Sarah Ramos behind him.
(Warrick Page

The show is based on the 2014 bestseller Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty, the title referring both to the exciting style of play and presentation that the '80s Lakers brought to the game and to the wild behind-the-scenes drama that the series brings to life. The gossipy nature of sports writer Jeff Pearlman’s book has kept the Lakers from getting on board with the TV version — both the Lakers and the NBA have declined to comment on the series. Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have both taken their own shots at the show. Meanwhile, both are participating in a forthcoming Lakers-approved Hulu docuseries likely more focused on what happens on the court than in back rooms and bedrooms.

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“While I respect other artists' rights to choose their subjects, I think the story of the Showtime Lakers is best told by those who actually lived through it,” Kareem told Puck. “Because we know exactly what happened.”

“We’re coming at this with good intentions, but these guys don’t know that,” McKay told the Hollywood Reporter.

One Lakers alum has taken his frustrations to lawyers. Jerry West is demanding a retraction from the companies behind the show, as well as from producer/director Adam McKay, over how they’ve portrayed West. The letter from his legal team was dated April 19, and they’ve demanded a retraction within two weeks, which gives them a May 3 deadline — days before the show’s May 8 season finale.

West attorney Skip Miller said in a statement that the show’s portrayal of West “is fiction pretending to be fact — a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family. Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history.”

In the opening to the 10-page legal letter sent by West’s lawyers, Miller writes, “You have perpetrated an egregious wrong on a good and decent man and have harmed him in the process.”

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West’s lawyer cited support from a large number of fellow Lakers players, executives, and others who knew West at the time. These include Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote a harsh critique the same day as West’s legal letter. He argued that Winning Time’s characters are bland, “crude stick-figure characterizations,” reducing everyone to one bold trait. He notes that West in particular is portrayed as “Crazed Coach” while Abdul-Jabbar himself gets portrayed as “Pompous Prick.”

“It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window.”

Solomon Hughes, playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a navy pilot's jacket on the left and holding an intercom mic. On the right is a small redhead child in a suit jacket. They are on an airplane set.
Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, recreating his famous appearance in the film Airplane.
(Warrick Page

Abdul-Jabbar takes issue with a number of other ways the show takes liberties with history. As far as his own portrayal, he writes that it doesn’t affect him personally, but that he worries some aspects of his portrayal could have a negative effect on his charity, the Skyhook Foundation.

“I never said ‘F—k off’ to the child actor (Ross Harris) in Airplane!, nor have I ever said that to any child,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “I realize this was a shorthand way of showing my perceived aloofness during that time, even though I have often spoken about my intense, almost debilitating shyness.”

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But, he added, that portrayal could lead to people coming away with the idea that Abdul-Jabbar is verbally abusive to children, making them less likely to support the foundation. You can read more of Abdul-Jabbar’s thoughts on the show here.

Not that everyone’s a Winning Time hater. Former Lakers and Celtics player Rick Fox served as a consultant, and former Lakers guard Norm Nixon gave notes. Nixon himself appears as a character in the show, portrayed by his actor son DeVaughn. Lakers star LeBron James shared his personal excitement when the project’s trailer first dropped:

Don’t get the wrong impression — the show features glitz and glamor, but the basketball shines just as much as the personalities. And while a hedonistic lifestyle may pull viewers in, that’s far less of the focus than the opening moments may lead you to believe.

A man holding a basketball on the left, portraying player Magic Johnson, with another actor to the right, playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Other men in Lakers pre-game uniforms are behind them. They each wear yellow button-up Lakers shirts as they walk out of a Forum tunnel.
Magic and Kareem go to the court in Winning Time.
( Warrick Page
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The show, directed by SNL writer-turned-director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Don’t Look Up, Succession), features McKay’s trademark brash style. You’ll feel his voice in the show, which uses a Big Short-esque approach to larger social issues including:

  • The coded racial language used to describe white and Black NBA players
  • Era-appropriate but completely inappropriate sexism (both behind the scenes and via the Laker Girls)
  • The role of spiritual faith to Magic and Kareem

The series' original fourth-wall-breaking lead was set to be Michael Shannon as team owner Dr. Jerry Buss. When Shannon didn’t take to the conceit of guiding the audience through this tale with regular extended asides, as McKay told the Hollywood Reporter, the director went back to the drawing board and cast a frequent collaborator, John C. Reilly. Comedian Bo Burnham also dropped out, citing scheduling conflicts, being replaced in the role of Magic rival and Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird.

Despite the fast-paced approach, it’s also a show with room to breathe. While initially envisioned as a limited series covering the decade-plus era described in the book, it will instead be ongoing, with this first season focused on the first year of Dr. Jerry Buss owning the team and Magic Johnson playing for it — along with his rivalry against Kareem. Whether we get the full '80s Lakers story will depend on how many seasons the show gets, and later seasons may need to pick up the pace to fit everything in.

Over the first season, you’ll get to see Winning Time’s takes on other famous and infamous icons of L.A. sports history, including Pat Riley, Jeanie Buss, Donald Sterling, and more. It features an all-star cast with everyone from Adrien Brody and Jason Segel to Sally Field — all under a title that pivots from the book to help downplay the name of HBO’s premium cable rival.

The play is fast but Winning Time took nearly a decade to bring to the screen, with the book optioned in 2014 by an animation writer whose biggest credit to date was writing Ice Age 2. When McKay came on board as a producer and eventual director, though, the possibilities began to open up, according to interviews in the Hollywood Reporter. Casting took place in 2019, with the show finally being shot in 2021.

A group of people all in white outfits, men largely in suits, women in dresses. On the left is the actor portraying Dr. Jerry Buss with a drink in his hand. Next is the actor portraying Magic Johnson, who shakes hands with the actor portraying Donald Sterling. A blonde woman is seen from behind on the far right, with other people on the other side of glass in the center around a pool outside.
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, and Kirk Bovill as Donald Sterling in a scene taking place at a white party at an exclusive Hollywood mansion.
(Warrick Page

Will it ultimately be worth the price McKay paid — the severing of his decades-long friendship and collaboration with actor Will Ferrell after McKay went with John C. Reilly as the recast lead instead of his Lakers-loving pal Ferrell? McKay talked about that personal toll with Vanity Fair, explaining, “Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss.” But when McKay proceeded without running the decision past Ferrell first, it was another nail in the coffin for their already rocky relationship.

You can judge for yourself whether McKay made the right call, with episodes of Winning Time dropping Sundays on HBO and HBO Max. And if you want a sneak peek, you can read Pearlman’s book, or skip ahead to what could be Season 30 and read his followup, Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty.

See highlights from the show and short interviews with the cast, crew, and more in this behind-the-scenes video:

Watch the trailer for Winning Time here:

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Updated April 21, 2022 at 4:20 PM PDT
This story has been updated with information about Jerry West's demand for a retraction of his portrayal in the show, plus more of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's thoughts on the series.