‘Winning Time’ TV drama of Magic’s Lakers veers off factual course

This is a review, of sorts, of the first episode of the HBO series, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” The series tells the story of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 1979-80 season, when rookie Magic Johnson leads the team to an NBA title.

The series is based on the 2014 book, “Showtime,” by noted sports author Jeff Pearlman.

Why sour grapes? This should be my show. Our show. In 1986 I co-wrote (with sportswriter Steve Springer) a book on the exact same topic, the Magic-era Lakers. A few years ago, a Hollywood producer unearthed our book and set out to turn it into a TV series.

Then another Hollywood group launched a similar project with Pearlman’s book. Dueling projects! They won. Jeff’s group out-hustled our group, beat us to the punch. There are talkers, and there are doers. Pearlman is reaping the fruits of his worthy labor.

C’est la vie. We got beat, fair and square. Still, it stung when they changed their title from “Showtime.” I don’t know how many highly-paid Hollywood writers it took to come up with “Winning Time,” but I like to think they drew at least some inspiration from the title of the book Springer and I wrote: “Winnin’ Times. ”

Sulkily, I planned to ignore the HBO series, but it is receiving glowing reviews. Besides, it docudramas part of my life. As a rookie NBA beat writer covering those Lakers, I was at every game and every practice that season, knew well all the players and everyone involved (see: “Winnin’ Times”). I would put aside my peeve and watch the show, have some fun re-living what was a truly crazy, wild, exciting time.

Apparently, it wasn’t crazy, wild or exciting enough for the producers and writers, because they decided to spice it up. Oh down. An on-screen disclaimer says that some events and characters were changed. And it is. Yes they were.

For instance, in a heavy and meaningful scene, Johnson has cold feet. He tells team owner Jerry Buss that he (Johnson) doesn’t feel he’s ready for the NBA, that he’s going back to college.

That’s a profound moment in the history of the Lakers and the NBA. Or it would have been, had it actually happened.

The book that inspired a TV title.

Scott Osler

For one thing, Magic had an agent, so he was ineligible to go back to college ball. For another thing, although he was just 19, Johnson exuded confidence. He knew he could play NBA ball. Shortly after signing, he told the LA media to inform bored Lakers’ fans that he was going to make the team exciting.

Johnson was a teenage force of nature who, from the first day of training camp, seized leadership of a veteran team that had two established superstars. This is a kid who was afraid of the NBA?

In the scene, Johnson finds the courage to stay in LA when he falls for a cheesy ploy by Buss. Buss leaves the youngster alone in the deserted Lakers’ lockerroom, where he falls under the magical specter of his soon-to-be teammates.

Right. Looking at empty lockers convinces a frightened kid he can play in the NBA.

Fortunately for real-life Johnson, played capably by Quincy Isaiah, he comes off as likeable in the series. Not so fortunate: Jerry West, who was a top adviser to Buss that season. You may remember West from his tour of duty as an adviser to the Warriors and team owner Joe Lacob from 2011 to ’17. If so, you will not recognize the monster on the HBO screen.

That West (Jason Clarke) is a raging, creepy sourpuss with zero redeeming qualities. In a scene that re-creates West as a player, he storms off the court, violently shoving several fans.

It’s no secret that West is quirky, and he freely admits to his personal demons. As an executive, he has clashed with team owners and coaches. But West doesn’t trash offices in anger, nor does he assault fans. In fact, he prides himself on his warm interactions with the public.

It is true, as the HBO series shows, that West advised the Lakers to draft Sidney Moncrief instead of Johnson. At least that’s what previous team owner Jack Kent Cooke, who drafted Johnson before selling the team, told me personally when I was researching the book. But West’s stance from him was justifiable. Johnson knew he would be an NBA star, but many experts had legitimate qualms.

Maybe West gets kinder treatment later in the series. Maybe they’ll eventually show the other West, who can be incredibly charming and interesting, and who in ’79 was in the early stages of carving out a brilliant career as an NBA team architect. But the cartoonish executive in Episode 1 will require a Grinch-like turnaround to become anything but a clownish churl.

Speaking of West, apparently, Hollywood is experiencing a shortage of good-looking actors. Jason Clarke is no West lookalike, though he would come closer if he dropped 20 pounds, hedge-trimmed the poufy wig, and upgraded his wardrobe so it didn’t scream “K-Mart sale.” Love West or hate him, the man could (still can) dress.

Jeanie Buss, Jerry’s daughter, is played by Hadley Richardson. The real-life Jeanie was not mousey. No big deal, but if the point of the series is to bring to life what might be the most glamorous era in sports history, why de-glamorize glamorous characters?

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