‘Winning Time’: Fun HBO series on ’80s Lakers as flashy as the team
Talented cast embodies the flawed but fascinating stars of the era, from Pat Riley and Jerry Buss to Kareem to Magic.
It was Showtime, folks.
The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s were the most glamorous organization in the history of American sports, from the immensely talented lineups led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin “Magic” Johnson that produced five NBA titles to the Hollywood stars in the stands (hello, Jack!) to the Paula Abdul-led “Laker Girls” dance squad to their notoriously hedonistic owner Dr. Jerry Buss. Even their head coach for most of the journey, Pat Riley, cut such a dashing figure he was offered — and turned down — a lead role opposite Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer in the sexy noir thriller “Tequila Sunrise.”
Episodes air at 8 p.m. Sundays on HBO and stream on HBO Max.
The obvious title for a limited series about those 1980s Lakers would be “Showtime,” but HBO isn’t going to title a show “Showtime,” right? Instead, we get the blandly titled but wildly entertaining “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which is based on Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers.”
It will have you nodding and chuckling with knowing delight as a steady parade of talented actors embody a richly drawn variety of real-life characters, from Magic and Kareem to Pat Riley and Jerry Buss, from Red Auerbach to Norm Nixon to Larry Bird to Spencer Haywood, and hey, there’s Mike Epps as Richard Pryor and Sally Field as Jerry Buss’ dear old mom! (The cameos never stop.)
Episode One is helmed by Adam McKay of “Don’t Look Up,” “Vice” and “The Big Short,” and while other directors (including Jonah Hill) take the reins for subsequent chapters, “Winning” retains McKay’s trademark stylistic moves: quick-cut editing, cheeky graphics, alternating film stocks and speeds, characters occasionally breaking the fourth wall to talk to us directly. It’s borderline camp and it’s about as subtle as a rim-rattling slam dunk, but it’s also big fun.
After a prologue set in 1991 at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, with Magic Johnson processing some devastating medical news, we’re plunged back to 1979, and it’s time to meet Dr. Jerry Buss, the hustler/businessman/playboy who is scheming to buy the Lakers, a moribund franchise in a troubled league on the verge of irrelevance. John C. Reilly (taking over after Michael Shannon exited) sinks his teeth into the role of this bloviating but wickedly charming narcissist, as Buss turns to the camera and exclaims: “Basketball! I mean, look at it. It’s like great sex. It’s always moving, it’s rhythmic … There’s no pads or helmets for protection, it’s just you … trying to get the ball into the hoop. … It’s sexy, come on!”
Oh, and Buss delivers this soliloquy while cuddling with a naked blonde in the Playboy Mansion. The future owner of the Los Angeles Lakers then adjusts his complicated blond hairdo, buttons his shirt halfway up, exits the Mansion and climbs into his Rolls-Royce convertible, and off we go. Once Buss stretches his finances to the breaking point (a recurring theme) to acquire the Lakers, he invites Michigan State star Magic Johnson to Hollywood to wine, dine and sign him, over the protestations of Lakers coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke). A 6-foot-9 point guard who’s all flash and improv? That’ll never fly in the deadly serious NBA, where it’s all about methodical play and setting up the big men in the post.
Newcomer Quincy Isaiah does a remarkable job of capturing Magic’s winning personality, but the series doesn’t shy away from showing Johnson’s manipulations, especially when it comes to his frequent dalliances outside of his on-again, off-again relationship with hometown girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili).
In rapid succession, “Winning Time” introduces us to a dizzying array of equally flawed but fascinating players (on and off court), including:
- Solomon Hughes as the aloof Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is appalled at Magic’s constant grinning, hugging and showboating.
- Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman, the pioneering GM and vice-president of the Forum, who was tasked with presiding over the books and the re-invention of the Forum as a hip Hollywood hotspot.
- DeVaughn Nixon as Norm Nixon, the stylish point guard for the Lakers, who resents Magic and initially schemes to bring him down. (DeVaughn is the real-life son of Norm Nixon and Debbie Allen.)
- Sean Patrick Small as Larry Bird, the surly hick who despises Magic and the Lakers.
- Hadley Robinson as young Jeanie Buss, who adores her father but is painfully aware of his foibles and follies and yet is determined to become a valuable contributor to the organization.
- From the coaching ranks: Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead — and while they’re all excellent, the most impressive performance comes from Steppenwolf all-time great Tracy Letts as Jack McKinney, the basketball outlier who essentially invented the Showtime style of play.
To say the series goes deep with the casting is an understatement. They’ve even got a guy (Austin Aaron) playing Mark Landsberger, remember Mark Landsberger? And even for the briefest of appearances, “Winning Time” goes for the razzle-dazzle approach, e.g., when Iman appears, the graphics identify her as “Current Mrs. Haywood, Future Mrs. Bowie,” as we hear the opening strains of “Ziggy Stardust.” The tone of the series matches the flashy legacy of the era.
For all the off-the-court shenanigans, “Winning Time” is primarily about the basketball, and the writers display a keen knowledge of the game whenever McKinney, West, Westhead, Riley, et al., are strategizing. As for practice and game sequences, the actors are convincing enough, with considerable assists from camera angles that make them appear NBA-sized and slick editing that no doubt compensated for shortcomings.
When the Bulls defeated the Lakers four games to one in the 1991 NBA Finals, they closed the curtain on Showtime and carved out their own dynasty on the way to The Last Dance. “Winning Time” is a reminder that before Michael took over, Magic and the Lakers elevated the NBA to unprecedented heights, as a sport and as big-time entertainment.