The word “showtime” evokes two images: first, a rising curtain, and second, a 12-year era (1979-1991) of entertaining Los Angeles Lakers basketball. “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is a gritty HBO sports drama with Hollywood appeal beyond the Lakers fan base. Based on Jeff Pearlman’s nonfiction book, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” “Winning Time” is a fictionalization of sports’ biggest stars with a cast of excellent pros and rookies. Just remember — it’s all for show.
Andrew D. Bernstein, the showtime-era team photographer, said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily that the Forum arena spotlight lighting and stunning Lakers play made games feel “kind of like a stage show.” “I really felt my job was to kind of show people what was going on behind the curtain,” Bernstein said. “Winning Time” captures the audience just as Bernstein did: by providing a look behind the glittery curtain (in color film). Unlike Bernstein’s photographs, however, the show’s “inside look” is fictional.
In the late 1970s, the Lakers had an aversion to playoff basketball, and the NBA was one of the least popular leagues in America. The team needed the shakeup of new ownership from late sports and real estate mogul, Jerry Buss. John C. Reilly (“Step Brothers”) portrays the playboy with nearly frightening sleaziness, making him equally loveable and hateable. The actor hits every emotion as he battles his never-ending money- and sex-hungry dissatisfaction from him. The real Buss was a different man, a more soft-spoken womanizer with a passionate love for basketball.
When Buss drafts the scrappy young Earvin (Magic) Johnson, played by Muskegon Michigan’s Quincy Isaiah, the team climbs to the top. Isaiah, much like Magic himself, is a breakout star from Michigan and is guaranteed a bright future in Hollywood. Magic has not watched Isaiah’s portrayal but said that “nothing can duplicate” showtime basketball. “Winning Time” producers prove that Magic’s words are true, for better or worse — the show is not a duplication, but a Hollywood drama.
Though the players are fictionalized, their on-screen chemistry or friction is palpable and true-to-life. Kareem Abdul Jabar (debut star Solomon Hughes) is a quiet team leader. He clashes with the smiling, irresistible Magic. They contrast the fearless Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris, “Remember the Titans”) who struggles with ongoing addiction. And much drama surrounds Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon, Norm’s real son), the first challenge to Magic’s (and Isaiah’s) charisma. The show has no stunt doubles, and each actor trained to achieve their character’s signature style of play.
The core philosophy of showtime-era basketball—winning—appears through each character’s representation. In the fight for a ring, there are no supporting actors. Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) plays an obsessive Jerry West, the model for the NBA logo and basketball legend/Lakers coach until 1979. The real West is an outspoken mental health advocate who faced depression throughout his career and demands that the show retracts its misrepresentation. Nonetheless, the show further dramatizes the real, shocking events of the 1979 sidelines saga. Outsider coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts, “Ford v. Ferrari”) brings run-and-gun basketball to the team before having a near-fatal bike accident. He reluctantly leaves the team to rambling literature professor, Paul Westhead (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother”) and assistant Pat Riley (Adrien Brody, “The Pianist”). Each star rises and falls in an emotional battle for control of what comes to be the most legendary team in the league.
The portrayal of the Lakers men and women, some of whom are no longer with us, forces us to ask what the role of a sports drama is: to entertain or to tell the truth. In the ongoing battle between West and HBO, HBO defended the show as “compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes.” The only thing differentiating fiction from reality, apart from the actors, is a disclaimer with each episode. The producers had primary source material available, including West’s tell-all autobiography. Yet, they still fictionalized real-life legends beyond recognition to those closest to them, causing heavy backlash from the Lakers family.
In Bernstein’s “Legends of Sport” podcast, showtime Forum manager Claire Rothman discussed how “Winning Time” misrepresented people whom she knows and loves. Rothman was especially uncomfortable with the portrayal of the late Dr. Buss, ensuring she was “always respected.” Nonetheless, she found value in Gaby Hoffmann’s performance of her of herself. Hoffmann is a perfectly stoic version of Rothman, a complete foil for the chaos of (fictional) Buss and the coaching staff. The real Rothman is just as much a model for hard work in a male-dominated industry.
Kareem Abdul Jabar, in a blog post criticizing “Winning Time,” called the show’s portrayal of workplace inequality “virtue signaling” and artificially recognizing a social issue (referencing the fictional Rothman unbuttoning her blouse for a meeting). Even though the show errs in character representation, the women of “Winning Time” are shown to be the true stars of the Forum, hidden in the shadows of sleazy executives and showstopping athletes. The women, including intern wunderkind and future team owner, Jeannie Buss (Hadley Robinson, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), use their lack of respect by men and presupposed gender roles to uplift the team behind the scenes. They bring showtime to the Forum, fashioning the famed Forum Club and revolutionizing the modern Laker Girls dance team (run by a young Paula Abdul). Though hypersexualization may obscure the message, the women’s roles are not “virtue signaling” — they are bringing historically underrepresented perspectives to light.
With over one million viewers per episode and widespread mass media hype, many “Winning Time” viewers were likely not alive for the 1980s and can take away a largely incorrect impression of basketball’s biggest legends. Bernstein said that directors seemed to take “half of (the Lakers’ story) to be true and accurate and the other half to be just completely blown out and satirical.” The show seems to elevate the drama of the era to unnecessary, if not offensive, highs. But if the show intends to deliver the pure entertainment and fantasy of the showtime era, it succeeds.
The stylistic choices, led by director Adam McKay (“Succession”), scream “Hollywood.” Reilly and Isaiah stare into the camera, breaking the fourth wall with shining smiles and smirks. The color scheme is bright and sunny, and filmmakers shot nearly every scene in grainy 35 mm color film, which Bernstein said added to the show’s “false” reality. “Winning Time” is somewhat rooted, if not in reality, in its era, with a hopping soundtrack and vibrant fashion. Yet the deeper substance—highly gendered, racialized and toxic expectations—ties the story to the harsh lives of professional sports. In gutting and beautifully written dialogue, Haywood’s character relays his never-ending struggle against a white supremacist society using him for talent, Jabar’s character reflects on his role as an activist and Magic’s character clashes with parents and girlfriends as he indulges in fame.
Jabar acknowledges the value and impact of the showtime era stories. “Yeah, there’s an amazing, compelling, culturally insightful story in there,” Jabar wrote in his blog post. “Winning Time just ain’t that story.” Similarly, Bernstein saw that the Lakers had a great story without any campy exaggeration. “We all live and work in Hollywood,” Bernstein said. “(So) you almost have to accept the fact that things are going to be sensationalized and dramatized and exaggerated. It’s really a shame because I think they didn’t have to do that.” For now, “Winning Time” is all the historical fiction we have from this era. And while imperfect, the Hollywood showtime style may never get old.
Today, through “Winning Time,” we can see the magic of showtime basketball created all over again. One can only hope that HBO works things out and respects legendary legacies before releasing season two because there’s more story to tell: The Lakers are ready for the 1981 playoffs.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at email@example.com.