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HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ Is Overstated, But Says What Other Sports Entertainment Won’t

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, as seen in the HBO series "Winning Time"
Screengrab via YouTube

“If there’s two things that make me believe in God, it’s sex and basketball.”

This is one of the first things we hear out of the mouth of Dr. Jerry Buss, the L.A. real estate mogul who is represented in this moment by a hairy, commanding John C. Reilly. It is 1979 and Buss is about to buy the Los Angeles Lakers and turn them into a dynastic franchise in a league that seemed at the time to be circling the drain. It’s a clumsy speech, honestly, but it works as somewhat of a mission statement for the show you’re about to watch, which is Winning Time: The Rise of The Lakers Dynasty. This series, which premiered on HBO on Sunday night, is a story about basketball, sex, and the (mostly) men who wish to touch God.  

Winning Time was created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht; it’s adapted from Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime, but given that it airs on HBO, a title change was inevitable. But when it comes to the show’s actual filmmaking style and comedic essence, the show is instantly identifiable for better and worse as the latest series produced by Adam McKay—the director of Anchorman, The Big Short, and Don’t Look Up, here following up on the success of his first production for HBO, Succession.

Where Succession is sophisticated in its writing and broader acid assessment of the New York corporate elite, Winning Time leans more on some great casting, trusting brand-name actors and charismatic personalities to carry notably weaker writing. There are plenty of interesting real-life stories when it comes to Hollywood’s glamor franchise of the 1980s, but the series itself often feels overstuffed and over-stylized. The quick-paced editing feels like an imitation Natural Born Killers-era Oliver Stone, and it’s full of easy nostalgia for obvious reasons, and tends to cross the line and become too crass and exploitative, also for obvious reasons. This isn’t to say that Winning Time is bad—it’s not, or not totally, but it’s much more of a broad, flashy comedy than it is anything else. For all its flaws, though, it is also damn entertaining and often a lot of fun; there’s something exciting about how unsentimental it is about this particular era in the NBA’s history and all the principals involved. 

Sports entertainment is both booming and stagnant at the moment. The market is currently flooded with documentaries and ten-part docuseries that are really just overlong commercials. There’s a lot of carefully orchestrated, brand-conscious targeted media promising to take you into the game from “the player’s POV,” which mainly serves the purpose of selling whichever athlete has lent their brand to the project. It’s a savvy method of making sure the official history is glossed over by the select few winners with enough equity to tell it. Magic Johnson himself already has a deal in place with Apple TV+ to do his a big docuseries on the order of Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance from 2020, Kareem has a similar deal with Hulu, and both players have already made splashy documentaries about their legacies that are interesting enough in their own ways, but which exist mostly to buff the shine on all their previous successes. This seems something like the point.

It’s not just the nonfiction entries that pander, movies as diverse as Draft Day, Moneyball, and the Academy Award nominated King Richard all essentially serve this same function—easy mythmaking and wholesome Americana, both for players and the sports themselves, with a heavy emphasis on the heroes. The contemporary sports film is an offshoot of the big Hollywood biopic, which is to say a flattened version of history that leans heavy on inspiration and the supposed value of being a “great” man. Even the new fucking Space Jam movie was about propping up LeBron James on equal footing as an icon with Michael Jordan more than anything else. All of them, whether documentary or feature, feel like and function as branding exercises.

For the real dirt, you still mostly have to read books. Whether it’s Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules book or Cameron Stauth’s book on the Bad Boy Pistons or even Chris Herring’s new Blood In The Garden about the ’90s Knicks, books are where the actual messy, flagrant history of a winning sports franchise generally gets told, and where the outsized egos at play are seen most clearly. Winning Time is based heavily on Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, an exhaustively researched cataloging of the rise and fall of these ’80s Lakers in all their glory and depravity. While some things are obviously exaggerated or subject to contention, Winning Time is to its credit pretty unsparing in its depictions of the people at the center. Jerry Buss (Reilly) is an absolute degenerate, if also a slick-talking visionary, Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) is a wolf hiding behind a big smile and big personality, a sex hound dedicated to fucking any woman not bolted down, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) is an over-it curmudgeon and utterly uninterested in “teamwork,” Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) is a washout has-been seeking any purpose, Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) a guileless puppy dog. The least charitable characterization may be the most fun of all—Jerry West (Jason Clarke) is depicted as a wildly volatile control freak, a true maniac who can never be happy. 

It’s certainly refreshing, but it’s not hard to guess why the NBA itself and the icons depicted in it are not fans of the show. As the money in play and opportunities for content-driven leverage have increased, the league and its stars have gone to great pains to micromanage what they will permit people to know about them. No one ever wants to see their dirty laundry become a matter of public record, and so it’s not hard to imagine why Magic might be upset at the way his infidelities against his wife are displayed in this series, or why Pat Riley and Paul Westhead might resent being portrayed as variously bumbling types of losers. Spencer Haywood has done a lot of good work speaking out about his abuse of cocaine and crack, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be happy reliving those years on a prestige HBO drama. This doesn’t mean that story shouldn’t be told, and while Winning Time lays out the ugly stuff in an ugly way, there is a kindness in that, too. It gives these characters—these people—a richer interiority that makes what they accomplished that much more impressive in light of those struggles. Overstated as Winning Time often is, it states things that the brand-managed docs and sanitized sports movies would simply leave out.

It’s a lot of fun seeing these legendary figures hauled off their pedestals and presented as much more complex personalities. The things that get sanded down, papered over, or recontextualized in hindsight become focal points, and so give these characters their interiority. The most obvious example is how heavily sex (as well as drugs) hangs over everything about Dr. Jerry Buss. The man really was an absolute visionary when it came to turning the Lakers into the biggest show in Hollywood, but he was also a sex addict and led a party lifestyle that, on more than a few occasions, proves uncomfortable to watch. That said, it is easy to see why he and Magic Johnson bonded as well as they did; each had their own addictions to both sex and ego, but their manias overlapped in some useful places.

But for all that hedonism, Winning Time is still a show about basketball. The show recreates various famous basketball moments, and even less famous ones like the team’s first game together, in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nails a buzzer beater and Magic hugs him. Even outside of that the basketball is unusually well choreographed and staged. The only real complaint there is that the show could use more of it. Quincy Isaiah does a great job emulating the way Magic played and how he ran the team’s high-speed offense. Where Winning Time really excels, though, is in documenting the work that goes into building a successful team. If this is easier to film than convincing basketball action, it is also not easy to turn it into enjoyable television. But the front office dynamics, the trades, and, in the case of this particular Lakers season, the debacle at the coaching position—which sees Jerry West, Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead, and Pat Riley all vying for influence. 

While Adam McKay only directed the first episode of the series, much of the show’s actual visual language takes its cues from his latter-day style. There are a lot of pop cultural references and inserts in the editing, enough breaking of the fourth wall to become annoying, and jokes stacked on top of each other. Throughout the season, the show will jump between film stock and video and back again. It’s excessive filmmaking for a team and a decade full of and defined by excess. Perhaps that was what appealed to McKay about making this show: an opportunity to capture a basketball team stuck in the middle of so many simultaneous social and cultural machinations that it can’t help but come to represent America as a whole in that very same period. The racism both within and towards the NBA, the sexual politics and dynamics, the money and fame and drug abuse all come together to make for a very rich text. There is enough there that the show is at its best reliving the things as they actually happened in that ‘79-’80 Lakers season, and not reaching for extra significance or symbolism. They were the Showtime Lakers, after all. They were built for primetime.