‘Winning Time’ gives 110% in Season 2 of Lakers antics

Entertaining HBO series gets even better at dramatizing the ’80s adventures of Magic, Kareem, Jerry Buss, Pat Riley and even Larry Bird.

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With Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small, left) leading the charge, the Celtics threaten the dominance of Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and the Lakers in Season 2 of “Winning Time.”

With Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small, left) leading the charge, the Celtics threaten the dominance of Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and the Lakers in Season 2 of “Winning Time.”


We often talk about how feature films and streaming series based on true stories will engage in poetic license, ranging from imagined conversations to compressed timelines to composite characters to rearranging events for dramatic purposes. This is how it works.

While Season 2 of the vibrant HBO series “Winning Time” is faithful to the well-documented history of the legendary 1980s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, it’s no exception to the poetic license rule — and it actually responds to some of the criticism from real-life Lakers figures of Season 1 with some of the most comprehensive and entertaining press notes I’ve ever encountered.

To wit: The Season 2 premiere opens with a scene of dozens of apoplectic Boston Celtics fans chasing the Lakers out of Boston Garden and rocking the team bus after the Lakers defeated the Celtics in Game 1. From the companion guide: “Did Boston fans really rock the bus? Yah huh … though in reality this happened after Game 7, not Game 1.”

‘Winning Time’ Season 2


Premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO and available for streaming on Max.

These copious notes are indicative of the cheeky yet respectful and essentially accurate nature of “Winning Time,” with Season 2 even more creative and even more entertaining than its predecessor. (A note from the producers states, “With our information ecosystem becoming the wild west in the last five years because of social media, we felt it important to show our work out of respect for the many living characters we depict.”)

Of course, the viewing experience will be more enriching if you’re a huge sports and pop culture geek (ahem), so you’ll immediately get the reference when we see Lakers point guard Norm Nixon and his wife Debbie Allen on the studio lot where “Fame” is being filmed. And how about this: Nixon is portrayed (and quite well) by none other than DeVaughn Nixon, son of the real-life Norm Nixon and Debbie Allen. Too great.

Whereas the 10-episode Season 1 of “Winning Time” covered the 1979-80 season, the seven-episode Season 2 spans four full seasons, yet still expertly juggles an astonishing array of storylines and an almost overwhelming number of characters who take turns in the spotlight, from the aging but still dominant and taciturn legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) to the charismatic but immature whiz kid Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) to the mercurial playboy owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and his ambitious but overshadowed daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) to the old-school front office execs Jerry West (Jason Clarke) and Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen) to coaches Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and Pat Riley (Adrien Brody).

We also get the origins story, if you will, of one Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), who plays with such dead-eyed ruthlessness he reminds you of the T-1000 in “Terminator 2.” (Even the smallest bit of casting is perfect, as when we catch glimpses of “Jack Nicholson” and “Dyan Cannon” at Lakers games.)

With a glorious visual style achieved by utilizing 8mm and 35mm film and old Ikegami tube cameras that were used in the 1980s, and graphics perfectly reproducing the look of TV broadcasts from the era, “Winning Time” expertly chronicles the circus-like atmosphere permeating Lakers culture over the four seasons in question.

That era saw the team win two NBA championships but also endure controversies ranging from the power struggle between Kareem and Magic to the devastating knee injury that Magic suffered and his problems fitting in with his teammates upon his return; the basketball version of “Succession,” with Buss’ two sons and daughter forever vying for Daddy’s approval; the transition from the egotistical, Shakespeare-quoting Westhead to the increasingly stylish (nice Armani plug!) Riley as head coach; and the owner’s tumultuous personal life.

From the period-piece wardrobe and sets to the plausible basketball scenes — which are helped greatly by tight editing — to the musical cues, “Winning Time” never misses a beat. (It doesn’t hurt when the budget allows for the use of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the title theme from “Grease,” Bowie’s “Last Dance,” The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be,” among other powerhouse selections.)

John C. Reilly is a tragicomic tour de force as Buss, who actually lived in the iconic PickFair estate, never met a button on his shirt that should be buttoned and was constantly reminding everyone this was HIS team, not Magic’s or Kareem’s or Westhead’s or anyone else’s.

Quincy Isaiah gives arguably the most impressive performance in the series, capturing Magic Johnson’s on-court greatness and his world-class charm but also his selfish and duplicitous side.

Jason Segel does a remarkable job of conveying Westhead’s hubris, while Adrien Brody gets to lean into Riley’s style and toughness and runs with it to great effect.

Season 2 of “Winning Time” ends with the Lakers suffering a crushing defeat to the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, a perfect spot to leave us wanting more.

Here’s hoping for a Season 3 — no doubt with some events fictionalized for dramatic purposes.

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