It was 1979. The NBA was at the cusp of a crucial period where Black players appealed for labor protection and the basketball league faced backlash due to alleged drug problems among its players.
College basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson was announced as the latest rookie to join the Los Angeles Lakers, while his rival Larry Bird was appointed to the Bolton Celtics at the same time. Businessman Dr. Jerry Buss bought the Lakers at a hefty deal and turned the team into a powerhouse, eventually revolutionizing the sports industry as the spectacle we consume today.
For such a pivotal era, it's shocking to learn that mainstream film and television studios have rarely touched on the late ‘70s to early ‘80s NBA—with well-known facts spending the most spotlight in documentaries and notes on historical articles. It's even more surprising to see how HBO has only realized to adapt it as a series just recently with Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which is now showing its second season.
Winning Time has the recipe needed to create a great HBO show. If the sex and drugs-crazed nature of ‘80s basketball isn’t any indication to make it fit to stand alongside the network’s other flagship programs like Game of Thrones, The White Lotus, and Succession, the show also banks on great character studies.
The characters of Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson were not explored as figures of royalty, but as men who choose chaos in their lives in favor of success, even if it means losing the respect of people around them. Their eccentricities and cringy antics within the Lakers team, particularly during practices before official plays, make up the show’s best moments.
It’s also worth noting that the series is not necessarily a blow-by-blow account of Magic Johnson and the Lakers’ climb to success, but a peak into what it's like living through it. Historical purists might not be into the show’s overreliance on comedy and its fictionalized depiction of iconic events and sports matches—even Johnson and fellow Lakers player Kareem Abdul-Jabar previously opened up to Vanity Fair about how the series was "deliberately dishonest." Those coming in and willing to sit through its creative liberties, however, could have a good time with it.
Winning Time is created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, who used Jeff Pearlman’s Lakers novel Showtime as a reference point to explore more complex themes of power and royalty. The two—known for their screenwriting credits of family fares (the Ice Age franchise for Hecht) and action blockbusters (Kong: Skull Island for Borenstein)—had been lobbying the project for years, even to the point of initially pitching their show as a Friday Night Lights-esque melodrama.
“No one has taken a dynasty sports team and given it the treatment of an ongoing drama,” Borenstein shared with the Crew Call Podcast as he talked about the need to finally tell the story of Lakers as a multi-season show on TV.
“This was an opportunity to take this particular lens of professional sports and basketball and use it to view a real epic story and an epic American story of cultural transformation and economic transformation,” he added.
To tell the larger-than-life story of Winning Time, Borenstein and Hecht assembled a roster of creative powerhouses to helm various episodes. Adam McKay directed the pilot, laying the ground for the nostalgic look of the entire series by constantly shifting from grainy film to old TV camera shots, as well as a documentary-like atmosphere akin to his The Big Short and Vice. At different points of the show, The Big Short’s breaking-the-fourth-wall motif becomes the entry point for its breather for exposition-heavy moments, with Buss and Johnson occasionally winking and smiling to the audience. Salli Richardson-Whitfield also directed a handful of episodes and has been an instrumental person who kept the heart of the show running—especially in ensuring that the female characters are well-integrated into the male-dominated ensemble.
Viewers might think that portions of it were edited post-production to make it seem like it was really filmed during the 1970s and the 1980s, but cinematographer Todd Banhazl told Screen Rant that they made use of vintage cameras to achieve its overall aesthetic. "The aesthetics of the show, all the different formats of the show were always based on the dominant looks of advertising and television at that time. So that's where we pulled from for the '80s. We looked to if people in the '60s and '70s were using eight-millimeter to film their home videos, what were they using in the late '70s, in the mid-'80s? And it was VHS and VHS-C. So that's why we transitioned over," he said, noting that it's "all the real formats" and that "there's no faking any of it."
Winning Time boasts a strong ensemble of actors playing well-known real-life individuals: John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead, and Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s convenient to make them portray such roles, but the show went as far as giving them their respective moments to shine throughout.
All were great, but newcomer Quincy Isaiah, who brought warmth and recklessness as Magic Johnson, is a revelation worthy of a bigger noise. Isaiah has been carrying most of Winning Time since the first episode of its first installment, and he’s doing just as well, if not better, in the ongoing second season. He shines best when Johnson is pitted against his Laker comrades, and his tense scenes with Abdul-Jabbar are glorious on-screen. Johnson's regular feud with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a thing you only associate with historical texts, so to see it realized is likewise a treat for the fans.
Winning Time's chances for awards and a third season are currently at stake with the second season seeing a hefty drop in viewership. Its creators even admitted that the poor numbers are putting its future in the balance, so it could be difficult to see Winning Time abruptly end the current season, leaving no room for the show’s big promise to further explore Magic Johnson and the Lakers. Perhaps it could end up as another cult show that randomly trends on HBO’s streaming platforms, but where it stands now, and with more people watching, it has the potential to become HBO’s next flagship title.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is streaming on HBO Go. Watch the trailer below.