The real-life subjects of HBO’s Lakers show, Winning Time, are unhappy with it. Fair enough. I can understand why it might be painful to relive the 1989 Finals series, a sweep at the hands of the Detroit Pistons. (Haven’t seen the show, so I assume that’s what it’s about.)
Vivid, devastating reminders of being locked up by Joe Dumars are not the sole point of contention: Jeff Pearlman’s book on the Showtime Lakers provides Winning Time with its source material, but the show takes creative liberties. Each episode includes the disclaimer, “This series is a dramatization of certain facts and events. Some of the names have been changed and some of the events and characters have been fictionalized, modified or composited for dramatic purposes.” Of course, this is probably unsatisfying if said characters are you and the people you know. The Athletic ran a story last month about a former team athletic trainer who quit advising the show because of its “total mischaracterization” of executive Jerry West. Other former Lakers employees told The Athletic they knew West to be far more subdued and professional than the heavy-drinking hothead he is on screen.
Among those coming to West’s defense was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote a little review of Winning Time in his newsletter on Tuesday. He’s sympathetic to the Hollywood writer’s task and knows a celebrity’s image is largely out of their hands. “There’s very little that anyone can say about me—whether it’s true or false—that will affect my life,” he writes. The Lakers legend comes out as a fan of The Great, in which Catherine the Great gets the gonzo Elle Fanning treatment, and cites it as one example of TV shows taking “dramatic license in order to convey a deeper truth.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s chief objection to Winning Time, he says, is that it’s boring. He finds the characters one-dimensional, the jokes not very funny, and the “fourth wall” breaking—a signature of producer Adam McKay’s—too expository. By the end of the post, though, he’s strayed a little from cool-headed cultural criticism into some griping about accuracy. The West scenes “reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.” There’s another scene that really annoys him, one where Abdul-Jabbar’s character tells the child actor from Airplane! to fuck off:
For years, I have been visiting schools to promote STEM education. But when people see this show and come away with an impression that I’m verbally abusive to children, they are less likely to support my foundation. That means fewer kids will be able to partake in the program. So Adam McKay is giving those kids a great big “F—k off!” that lasts a lot longer than the easy laugh he got out of a dishonest joke.
A bit of a stretch? At the very least, it overstates the number of people who watch HBO. But Kareem’s “I’m not mad! I’m not mad!” approach has nothing on Jerry West’s “I am mad!” approach. Yesterday, West’s attorneys sent a letter to HBO demanding an apology for and a retraction of the show’s “false and defamatory portrayal.” A selection of tweets calling West “a drunk ass hater who didn’t want Magic” and “seems like a nutcase” serves as evidence of his suffering reputation.
Attached to the letter are kind words from a bunch of people insisting that West is an upstanding gentleman. The widow of a former Lakers executive writes that “it has been extremely upsetting to see how Jerry has been portrayed in this vulgar and disgusting series.” Michael Cooper “never even saw Jerry wear jeans or sweatpants on the job nor did I ever see him in fishing gear on the job.”
The best letter comes from Buck Martin, who worked in security and event planning roles for the Lakers. Most of the letter-writers just stick to the prompt and say they never saw West intoxicated at work or angrily throwing stuff. But Martin takes the opportunity to share some good stories instead:
I first met Jerry back in 1976 working a concert ticket sale as a security guard one morning in the parking lot of the Fabulous Forum. Jerry was coming to work and said hello to me and asked how I was doing. I was 18 years old. After walking into the double doors leading into the Forum offices, I said to my co-worker, that was Jerry West! Just a nice man.
We used to draw names for exchanging Christmas presents. I got Jerry’s name one year. What do you give Jerry West? I got an idea and borrowed James Worthy’s jersey and had Len, the Forum photographer take a picture of me slamming a basketball, standing on a ladder of course. You couldn’t see the ladder in the picture. I autographed the photo with a personal message saying I was there if he needed me. I framed it, wrapped it and gave it to him. Jerry got a real kick out of it and had it on his desk until he left the Forum. Shaq one time commented to me, you’re the guy in the photo on Jerry West’s desk. Jerry is a gentleman and will always be my hero. He is a winner through and through. Please give him a hug for me and the rest of your family. All the best to you and yours from Wendy and I and our clan.
Thank you, Buck. That sounds very nice.