How A Pivotal Moment In NBA History Became HBO’s Hit ‘Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty’

Who could have imagined that the dramatization of the Los Angeles Lakers’ ’79-’80 NBA Championship season known as ‘Showtime’ would interest anyone other than die-hard hoop fans?

Basing the narrative on Jeff Pearlman’s book, and every news report and book written by members of the Lakers, and taking more than a few creative liberties, Adam McKay, Max Borenstein and their creative cohorts took basketball’s perfect storm pivotal moment when the NBA transformed from a regional sport into a global juggernaut—and made it into broadly appealing television with Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.

There’s poker player/chemist Jerry Buss putting all his real estate chips on the table to buy the team and choosing Michigan State star Magic Johnson as his first draft pick, despite already having a gifted point guard in Norm Nixon. Then there’s incoming genius commissioner David Stern seizing on the rivalry between Magic and Boston Celtics rookie Larry Bird. And then Buss injecting sex appeal into the sport in the advent of the wild ’80s—Winning Time’s hit HBO 10-part series took full advantage of many storytelling lanes. In fact, there was so much material left over, they’re already working on a second season and maybe beyond, and the next season won’t get to the second wind of the Lakers dynasty, the Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson portion of the program.

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“We came at this as fans of the team and everything that this era represented,” EP and showrunner Borenstein says. “These players and coaches achieved so much, but what was also important for me and my collaborators was this not just be a show made for basketball or sports fans; the conception was more ambitious. We wanted to use this as a prism of the story of the 1980s, with the Showtime-era Lakers as a window onto a moment of cultural transformation from economics and race relations, to gender.”

Borenstein relished the story that comprised such a rich cross-section of characters, one that would reflect “a comprehensive group of Americans, people from all walks of life, hardscrabble people making their own way and writing their own ticket.”

The idea wasn’t to just tell the ‘Wikipedia’ point-by-point history, he says. “This was an attempt to get inside the heads of these people, get to know these people we only knew for their basketball accomplishments on a human level, with complexity you can relate to on a level that’s beyond their superhuman accomplishments.”

The scripts were good enough to attract strong actors who turned in standout performances, starting with John C. Reilly as Buss. He and his mother (played by Sally Field) were dirt poor, and although he became a self-made real estate titan, Buss traded that in to own a team and often could barely make payroll. Reilly connected to Buss’ outsider status, as the Chicago-born actor had himself slowly worked his way up to the A-list in comedies and dramas, despite not having classical leading man looks.

Jason Clarke brings to life the Lakers great and team consultant Jerry West as a tightly-coiled competitor who couldn’t enjoy looking at his championship ring because it reminded him of all the times his Lakers lost to the Celtics during Boston’s dynasty years. While known as the model-handsome Armani-clad head coach who won nine NBA titles—five with the Lakers—Adrien Brody’s Pat Riley is a mustache-wearing, shaggy-haired gym rat desperate to hang onto some part of a life in basketball.

There are tragic figures, too: Jack McKinney (played by Tracy Letts), a lifer assistant who finally got a head coaching job with the Lakers and architected the ‘Showtime’ Lakers offensive attack, was on the way to becoming a coaching champ, until a freak fall from a bicycle nearly killed him and did kill his dream, leaving Riley and McKinney’s longtime assistant and Shakespeare professor Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) to pick up the pieces.

And Spencer Haywood, touchingly played by Wood Harris. A journeyman ostracized for his legal challenge to the rule that shackled young players to play free for colleges instead of turning pro, Haywood finally had his chance at championship glory, but could not overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. He was cut by Westhead going into the playoffs and in his addicted state, set up the coach to be murdered. Add actors Hadley Robinson and Gaby Hoffmann, whose Jeanie Buss and Claire Rothman fought against rampant sexism to become franchise leaders. Though teeming with good ideas, Buss (who now runs the team) was overlooked by her father, who favored his sons as his heirs apparent though they had no role with the team. It was one of many contradictions of Jerry Buss, who walked around with a preposterous comb-over, shirt unbuttoned to his naval, and a barely legal woman on his arm. And yet it was also Buss who recognized the talents of Claire Rothman—who’d served as a punching bag for previous owner Jack Kent Cooke—and made her treasurer of the team.

Then there are the Laker players, and the young actors who play them. They are led by Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but especially Quincy Isaiah. The series is anchored by his portrayal of a young Magic Johnson, who arrives in Los Angeles as a handsome generational talent blessed with charisma, turned loose and taking full advantage of the womanizing and decadence his teammates indulged in. But also transforming his team’s play with deft ball handling and no-look passes. His charisma motivated sulky star Abdul-Jabbar to raise his Hall of Fame game and Johnson transformed from a rookie and into the leader of the Showtime Lakers by season’s end.

Filling Johnson’s Converse shoes was no small task, and producers undertook many auditions to find just the right actor. Hailing from Michigan like Johnson, Isaiah’s path to LA lacked the fanfare that surrounded the player. Isaiah spent two years of futility auditioning close to 2,000 times for roles while holding down jobs that included bartending. Slowly dying of discouragement over roles that went to others, he mulled a detour into the military to get himself some seasoning and life experience, then the ‘yes’ he got for Winning Time, his first starring role, made his dream come true.

“I am in London right now and just got recognized, which is insane to me, because I’m just a kid from a small city in Michigan,” he says. “One of the people in our crew told me about his mom and how she was going through a rough patch and had watched the show and my performance. I don’t know how or why, but she said watching every Sunday helped her out a lot. I am new, so I have a hard time understanding that my work could do stuff like that. But it changed my perception of how this work can touch people. It meant a lot to me.”

The writers got creative with the facts in some places. For example, Borenstein was especially touched by ex-Laker Spencer Haywood, who has now turned his life around and motivates others to not give in to the despair of terrible childhood memories and drug addiction. In the book, it’s Haywood’s mother who spoke to her son on the phone, understood he was in a desperate place, and threatened to send police if he didn’t stop what he was planning. In the show, Borenstein and cohorts had Abdul-Jabbar confront his ex-teammate and friend, in a most touching encounter.

“It is a good example of how we’d take a little bit of creative license, to get at an emotional truth,” Borenstein says. “Spencer Haywood has been just so vocal and so supportive of the show, and it is incredibly heartening because he’s depicted when he was going through a really dark time in his life. He has been a big fan of the show.”

“They had watched the show and it made them aware how instrumental he was, with the Haywood rule in the fight that allowed these guys to make the jump directly from high school or without finishing the two years of college,” Borenstein says. “It was impactful for him, which is wonderful and deserved that he now has a profile he hadn’t for years. And I think he appreciates the way his story was told, not to exploit, but rather to reveal the way that his addiction was tied to the trauma of his childhood. It was a moment in his life, and nowadays he speaks about recovery, and he has become an incredibly inspiring figure to a lot of people. You can’t tell that story of inspiration without also showing where it came from.”

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