The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most storied franchises in the history of sports. The story of their rise in the 1980s is the focus of the HBO series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Dr. Jerry Buss was already a rich man before he bought the team in 1979. In the following years, the Lakers went from attendance hemorrhaging contender to a dynasty. It all landed on the shoulders of Earvin “Magic” Johnson when the Lakers took him with the number one overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
That 1979-1980 season was filled with enough turmoil and tumult to fill an entire ten-episode season. The players, coaches, management, and others are all part of NBA history and lore. The show stars John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman, Tracy Letts as Jack McKinney, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead, Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss, Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, DeVaughn Nixon as Norm Nixon, and Sally Field as Jessie Buss.
There are plenty of other cameos and smaller parts from famous historical figures of the time like Red Auerback, Dr. J, Richard Pryor, David Stern, Phil Knight, Jack Nicholson, and more as well. But this show is mainly focused on the life and times of the Lakers. It hones in on the story of Dr. Buss, Jack McKinney/Paul Westhead, Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the most. Each of these characters gets a chance to shine when they need it the most. The biggest complaint against the show is its factual inaccuracies though.
People Can Check The 1979-1980 NBA Schedule, Right?
Watching through the series, there are several games that are highlighted including one between the Boston Celtics and the Lakers around the New Year in 1980. Except, that game never happened. It makes sense to manufacture drama and tension by massaging some of the events that happened, but the events of the show simply didn’t happen in real life. There was a game that went down to the last second between the Celtics and Lakers that year, but it was down to a pair of free throws. In addition to that, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both played like crap in the game.
The schedule of the year is bent to fit the narrative of the show, which just breaks the aura and otherwise appropriate stylings of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Something that could be seen as a negative is the depiction of the late Dr. Jerry Buss. However, in the context of the show and the era, it makes sense. People were wheeling, dealing, banging, hanging, and anything else that was excessive and over the top.
If there’s something to be said about the production, presentation, and performances, it’s over the top.
The Newcomers Highlight An Excellent Ensemble Cast
In a show like this where you’re having historical/popular figures played by actors, it runs the risk of being melodramatic or too silly. In Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, that’s not the case, especially with the players. These guys all look, feel, and act like basketball players from the era. In particular, newcomer Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes as Magic Johnson and Kareem, are the crux of the basketball portions of the show. Both actors put on performances that are eerie in their accuracy. Hughes as Kareem is cold, unemotional, and detached until he doesn’t need to be. Like the real thing, it took a while for Kareem to warm up to Magic Johnson and his brand of basketball and entertainment.
Quincy Isaiah latches on to the persona of Magic, and doesn’t let it go. Even when the cracks in the facade of Magic’s life are showing, Isaiah lives, breathes, and is, Magic. It’s a testament to the casting and writing of the series that gives these actors plenty to work with. Outside of those two, Reilly is obviously fantastic as Dr. Jerry Buss. All the bombastic behavior on display is right in his wheelhouse as a performer. He taps into a more tender side that shows off the wounds that Buss has regarding his family, especially his mother. Even in the most frenetic and frantic moments of desperation, Reilly reels in the character to where you’d expect the decadent leader of the Lakers to be.
Jason Clarke embodies Jerry West with all his faults as a player, coach, and talent evaluator. His role on the show gives some light moments when the Lakers are getting their asses kicked in Boston or when he’s forgetting who Paul Westhead is, but there are a lot of nuances here.
Adam McKay’s Directorial Style All Over The Place
For the first couple of episodes, if you’ve seen anything that Adam McKay has done recently, his prints are all over this. Characters turn and talk to the audience, the editing is choppy in a stream of conscious way, luckily, it doesn’t get bogged down in that. The show might be marketed as a more comedic look at this era of the Lakers, it does have its funny moments, but this is a dramatic retelling of the events. There’s even one section that’s quite horrific involving Jack McKinney’s accident at the beginning of the Lakers 1979 season.
Adding to that horrific scene, the sex, drugs, and basketball routinely take a backseat to the events unfolding around these people’s lives. Magic has people from Michigan pulling him one way, his friends in Los Angeles pulling him another, and then there’s the issue of corporate sponsorship. There’s plenty of commentary on the issues of race and how race fits into basketball and celebrity life. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets an entire episode devoted to his fight against racism, his reasonings behind changing his name from Lew Alcindor, and the reasons why he’s cold to the public.
Winning Time Isn’t Just For Sports Fans
The thread that connects Winning Time is basketball. However, even people that don’t love the beautiful game, can be ensnared by the stylings of Winning Time. The performances for most of the characters are exceptional, and the show really captures the era perfectly. Hopefully, there are some more stories to tell like this from sports, because Winning Time does it better than most.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty premieres on HBO and HBO Max on March 6th, 2022. New episodes air every Sunday.
For more on reviews, make sure to check back to That Hashtag Show.