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NBA

The Absurdity Of The Righteous Fury Over ‘Winning Time’

Jerry West, seen here not being angry at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons why someone watching HBO’s Winning Time might have found themselves wondering whether they wanted to continue watching HBO’s Winning Time. In (loosely) telling the story of the ’79-’80 Los Angeles Lakers season over 10 episodes, the show is aesthetically overbearing at a level that recalls terminal-stage Oliver Stone. Tonally, it often vibrates at a very high and very uncanny frequency, and it is filled with moments and scenes that are joke-shaped without actually ever quite resolving into something funny in the same way that Ryan Reynolds line readings often do. The acting is remarkably good and the casting even better. Squirrelly-guy character actor Rory Cochrane is delightful as Jerry Tarkanian in some early episodes, and all of his scenes appear to have been shot not just on the same sets, but with the same equipment that John Cassavetes used in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. I liked it pretty well, overall.

Still, Winning Time was, in all the ways that contemporary big-ticket television usually is, both an absolute full-spectrum triumph of production value and technical virtuosity and filmmaking craft that would have been unimaginable for television even a decade ago, and somehow also Just Fine despite all that. It was highly watchable, generally enjoyable, and improved as it went on, but it was also distended and over-telegraphed in the ways that sprawling prestige television adaptations often wind up being—and not just because the outcome is already a matter of historical record and few stories truly require 10 hours to tell. You know this kind of show. It’s pretty good, and about two hours overlong, and, when it is over, you will not think about it very often or very much. There are a lot of this kind of show.

As Israel Daramola wrote here when Winning Time premiered, the most interesting and admirable thing about the show is how resolutely irreverent it is toward the story it tells. In a Hollywood Reporter feature on the show’s long and moderately fraught industry origin story, the screenwriter Jim Hecht said that he persuaded Jeff Pearlman to let him shop his book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty as a television property by saying that he “wanted to make Friday Night Lights about the 1980s Lakers.” Eight years later, Hecht and co-creator Max Borenstein succeeded in making something like the exact opposite. Where Friday Night Lights is respectful and occasionally sentimental in dealing with the consequential stuff in the smallish lives at the center of its story, Winning Time‘s most commendable and distinctive attribute is its unwillingness to take any of the extremely famous people who fill out the story as seriously as they are accustomed to being taken. Their various individual struggles are mostly treated with some storytelling respect but, in contrast to the recent proliferation of star-driven documentaries, treating the show’s various legends with respect was quite clearly not the purpose, or the point.

As a result, a show made by extremely hardcore Lakers fans managed to piss off basically all of the most prominent living Lakers franchise icons, and the organization itself. There has been something grimly funny about the ways in which their complaints about the show conformed to the caricatures drawn of them in Winning Time. Jerry West, portrayed as a relentlessly hyper-competitive maniac, proceeded to marshal 80-odd pages attesting to the fact that he is actually not at all like that and pledged to take that angry letter written by his lawyers to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom the show portrays as principled and intelligent but also chilly and self-important, concluded a thoughtful criticism of the show by ruing how a cheap character-establishing gag in the show’s first episode might result in underprivileged children being deprived of necessary STEM education. The show’s Magic Johnson is blithe and masterful and maybe half a sociopath; the actual Magic joined West and Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism of the show before acknowledging that he hadn’t actually seen any of it.

“The series made us all look like cartoon characters,” West told former Los Angeles Times journalist Bill Dwyre, in the same podcast appearance in which he threatened to send his letter to the Supreme Court, as if the Supreme Court were a home owners association for people who had been made to look unreasonable on premium cable. “They belittled something good.”

If there’s a question about whether Winning Time needed to be as cartoonish as it was—and the show could have done about half as much of every single thing it did and still comfortably qualified as “maximalist”—that question is very pointedly not the one that was rankling West. It’s the belittling part, although, again, that’s not the right word; Winning Time doesn’t mock its protagonists, it just doesn’t draw them as the sort of caricatures that they have become accustomed to seeing reflected back at them.

“We’re coming at this with good intentions, but these guys don’t know that,” producer Adam McKay told The Hollywood Reporter. “They’re used to a certain degree of media that’s always going after them, and if I could talk to them, I’d say, ‘No, no, don’t worry, we’re going to paint the whole picture,’ but I get it, they don’t know me or Max Borenstein, and it’s their right to really not like it.”

That so many of the most recognizable characters in the show seem to Really Not Like It seems to have less to do with becoming the subject of glib spoofage, or even routine storytelling caricature, than it does some bigger principle; anyway, over the course of the series, as the story gained momentum, all of them become a bit more humanesque. In no way did the show shortchange the team’s travails or achievements. If anything, just given the demands of filling out all those hours of television, it addressed everything from regular-season games to the moment-to-moment financial situation of owner Jerry Buss with exhaustive, exaggerated care.

The challenge the show presented for people like West and Abdul-Jabbar, I suspect, has more to do with the basic strangeness of seeing their actual lives—the things you did, the person you were when you did them—not just become a story, but become this type of story. This is hardly the first time that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West, of all people, have seen their significant professional careers and accomplishments and equally resonant personal and political identities instrumentalized by people with an interest in using them to tell one type of story or another. While the many wildly disparate ways in which just those two identities have been put to use as signifiers and symbols is a testament to their status as cultural figures, it also probably isn’t much fun to be used like that. If it’s possible to sympathize with West when he threatens endless litigation to prove that he is not and has never been mad, it is on these grounds.

But the West who consented to literally become the logo for the league in which he used to play, or to accept a Presidential Medal of Honor from Donald Trump, was also making a choice about how he would allow his story to be told, and what he would allow his highly public self to mean. At a certain level of notoriety, over a sufficiently long period of time, this is just what fame is—not just a loss of self, or the gradual subsuming of it into something more like a brand and less like a self, but becoming a symbol without any anchoring significance, and that is recognizable mostly for how recognizable it is. This can be something like a logo, or just like a tweet announcing what a wonderful time you had speaking to a gathering of Bonefish Grill franchisees at their annual meeting that ends with an exclamation point.

As it happens, the most aggrieved parties to Winning Time get off relatively easy in the end. They’re all winners, of course; the title tells you that. Jerry West spends most of the last episode wandering the halls of The Spectrum during Game 6 of the NBA Finals, fuming and cursing and entirely beyond any sort of human engagement—and then he gets promoted to GM. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar heroically resolves his empathetic but conflicted relationship with the bottomed-out and hopelessly addicted Spencer Haywood. That relationship is one of the most compelling and humane parts of the series; the show’s creators invented it out of whole cloth.

Whether all or even any of it is true is almost beside the point; all of the actual people involved in this story have been famous enough for long enough to get used to this sort of thing. The more challenging part, for the viewers and the viewed, is seeing all this recognizable reality come out the other end of the culture so much more unreal than it went in. Winning Time is sort of about this, too, about fame and money and how the two can make people strange and unreal, and then allow them to stay that way for longer than is good for them. At another level, the show’s very existence is an example of that process continuing.

Those who have won enough in our culture are accustomed to being able to tell their own stories, as they want them told; the right to tell the story of your success in your way, and without interruption or contradiction, is a sort of appurtenance of that kind of success. Of course they don’t like to see themselves portrayed as something sillier and more unsettled than their preferred projection. Most people are not seen at all; a person looked at this closely, for this long, becomes absurd and is made more absurd for all that scrutiny; what is valuable enough to be assimilated and packaged and sold will, in time, be assimilated and packaged and sold. It is easy to see what the offended legends are offended about, but that doesn’t and can’t change how this all works. Win enough, in a memorable enough way, and this is what you lose, and how you are forgotten.