The turmoil surrounding the 1979-1980 season of the Los Angeles Lakers was one that would eventually be made into a movie or series. There were so many incidents that happened on the court and especially off that one would think they came from the mind of a writer.
Winning Time: The Rise of Lakers Dynasty recently completed its 10-series run on HBO and unfortunately, theres a better strategy to tell this story. Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), a businessman and chemist, thought he had the keys to a moneymaker when he became majority investor in 1979. But that’s where the problems started. First off, head coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) quit causing Buss to search around for a replacement eventually finding Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) with Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) as an assistant.
McKinney and Westhead didn’t get the most respect from the Lakers including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and Norm Nixon (played by his own son DeVaughn Nixon) who didn’t care for the change up they were doing. The Lakers had just drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) who wasn’t as heavily favored as was Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). Bird got better press and attention, mainly because he was a white boy from small-town Indiana opposed to Johnson who was from Lansing, Mich. Despite this, others still considered Johnson a country bumpkin. The series touches on the racism associated with basketball a little but ever does fully address it
The Lakers went through many problems as Buss tried to find funding, eventually coercing his ex-wife into investing. Buss also had to contend with his own mother, Jessie (Sally Fields) as treasurer she deals with health problems that could jeopardize the franchise. Buss’ daughter, Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) also came into the office to work, initially drawing the ire of Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman), a manager who kept the business afloat so Buss and the rest of the Laker boys could have fun.
The series does linger at times introducing so many characters many of them disappear for several episodes at a time or never seen again. Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) returns from retirement to beg Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) for an assistant as a commentator. This causes him to turn to his wife, Chris (Gillian Jacobs) for support. But Jacobs hardly appears in much of the other series. I think Michael Chikliss as Boston Celtics owner Red Auerbach has three short scenes in three episodes. And for some reason, Mike Epps appears as Richard Pryor to invite players to a party where there’s going to be drugs, white women and 7Up. Way, 7Up, the man knew how to party.
Buss was wanting to make the Laker games more interesting than watching people play basketball. He wanted to make every game an event not to be missed and to encourage other events to be booked at the Forum. This was the Showtime Lakers era where a young high school-aged girl named Paula Abdul (Carina Conti) was able to choreograph dance moves to drive all the men wild.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of problems. McKinney suffered a head injury while riding his bicycle in early April of 1979 leading the inexperienced and unprepared Westhead to take over as Buss and others scrambled to see what could be done. Riley, upset with playing second fiddle to Hearn who comes off as a racist, sexist bully, assisted Westhead as they were able to pull ahead. Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris) was eventually kicked off the team after his cocaine drug use got out of control.
Eventually, Kareem would suffer a leg injury that would sideline him for the sixth game of the championship leading Johnson and the rest of the team to step up to win. It’s the story of legends. And anyone who’s seen a sports movie has seen this story before.
But the problem with Winning Time is its smarmy arrogant attitude toward everything. It’s nice to see Reilly in a role like Buss but I just wished he took charge of it better. While Buss may never met a woman not related to him that he didn’t want to have sex with, there’s too much attention to this. Yes, he was a horn dog. But so much attention is given that he’s eventually trying to mack on the Latinx nurse taking care of his mother.
The portrayals of Kareem and Magic are the most difficult because the series never knows what to do with them. Kareem starts off as a one-dimensional prima donna before the series allows Hughes to add some depth to him. But Isaiah as Magic never does really find his footing. He seems to switch between a young hotshot you also wants to have sex with every woman not related to him and a young man just amazed that he’s playing for the Lakers. When you’re thinking you’re getting sympathy for him, he screws up and screws someone’s brains out.
Hoffman seems to have a permanent scowl on her face through the whole series the less we see her during later episode the more we realize we don’t miss her. Robinson come off more as the boss’ daughter who got in over her head. I was surprised to realize she had also appeared in Moxie and I hope there’s a bright future for her as an actress. Riley and Segel do what they can with their roles. I’m not sure if Westhead was really that sheepish in his coaching.
The real West has spoken out against his portrayal and for good reason. The way West is portrayed he is the meme of the old man screaming at the clouds but with enough profanity to make a sailor blush. Abdul-Jabarr and Johnson have also said they don’t care for the series as it has some inaccuracies. Part of the criticisms I stated in an earlier post was there was too much of breaking the fourth wall. This seemed to stop as the series went on.
But if you’re telling a story based on a true story, sometimes it needs a narrator. And while that was mostly regulated to Buss, it shifted to other people. There is also the constant change in tone from comedy to drama. While I don’t doubt the Lakers got a cold reception at Boston, they go overboard throwing in every Boston cliche in the book. I’m not fan of Boston myself but I felt like it was a bad comedy skit.
Also, Haywood’s drug addiction is never really handled well. There’s a moving scene between Haywood and Kareem after Haywood has been voted out by the team in which the troubled basketball player recounts his youth in rural Mississippi that is heartbreaking. Haywood was born into a family of sharecroppers and he wasn’t ever expected to do anything more than pick cotton.
But then in the next episode, his role is played more goofy as he tries to acquire a gun to kill the rest of the team. The series never does have much of a consistency. Regardless the scenes that do work are very good. Yet the scenes that don’t work strip away from a more coherent structure.
While the series has been renewed for a second season, who knows what will happen? This might explain why Kareem seems all non-chalant about Magic being named a MVP even though he thought he would be named. Whatever happens, I hope they tone things down a bit and find a better gameplan to get through the second season.
What do you think? Please comment.