It can sometimes feel like a frenetic comic book, but the new HBO series on the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s encapsulates the entertainment value of the team itself. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The chutzpah of the Showtime Lakers
Much drama and hype has surrounded Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which began airing on Binge this month. The HBO series, which dramatises the origins of the successful “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, was not welcomed by the team’s owners. Nor by its legendary player and key subject of the series, Magic Johnson, who admitted he wasn’t “looking forward to it”. One can imagine the private angst when current Lakers star LeBron James tweeted “I can’t wait for this!” to his 50 million followers after the first trailer aired.
If there are leads in Winning Time’s giant cast of characters, it’s Magic and Jerry Buss. The son of a single mother and a former government chemist, Buss makes a mint in Los Angeles real estate and leverages it, often scurrilously, into the purchase of the Lakers and their stadium, The Forum, in 1979. As played by John C. Reilly, Buss is grasping, vulgar and philandering but canny, and almost always charming. Despite all the fun he’s having, he’s very serious about the narrative he’s writing about his life – a self-made boy who tasted the Depression and was abandoned by his father but rose to create an empire. He sees himself as America incarnate. And maybe he is. (By the time of Buss’s death, in 2013, the value of the Lakers had risen from $US20 million to $US1 billion. Today, it’s about $US5 billion.)
Perhaps in real life Buss was just as likeable as Reilly’s portrayal. But I doubt it. In my experience, this kind of super-heated ambition, hustle and indulgence doesn’t easily create the kind of relaxed charisma we see here. In Winning Time, famously pungent egos are often generously massaged into one dimension.
Then there’s Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), the great baller of dazzling skill and beatific smile who’s drafted by Buss in the first year of his ownership. Magic is good-hearted but self-absorbed and too desperate to be liked, his charm sometimes callowly ingratiating. His puppy-dog enthusiasm contrasts sharply with his famous teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps the league’s best player at the time – a devout Muslim, misanthrope and intellectual who, despite his captaincy, is sullenly detached from his team. He might be the only person unmoved by Magic’s smile, and while the rookie meets with sneaker executives, Kareem’s at home reading James Baldwin and the Koran.
There’s a fascinating scene later in the series when the Lakers team, having played the Pistons in Detroit, head to Magic’s family home in Lansing, Michigan, for Christmas dinner. Magic’s father slips away to join a typically solitary Abdul-Jabbar at the dining table. “Your son?” Abdul-Jabbar asks Earvin Johnson snr. “Has he always been so happy?”
“Junior? Only since his first breath.”
“I just can’t say I’m accustomed to it. Most men I know – black men – we laugh. Enjoy our lives. But America does things to a man’s mind and soul that aren’t happy. Pardon my saying it but your son seems unaffected by all that.”
Magic’s father shares Kareem’s bafflement.
One of the pleasures of Winning Time is watching the origins of at least two great reformations. The first is the tactical revolution of “Showtime” basketball, a semi-improvised, hyper-offensive style of basketball that its creator, coach Jack McKinney, would in 1979 compare to jazz. The run-and-gun style was defined by constant movement – “like flowing water” – but obliged a level of fitness not typical of the average player then.
Much of the team are alienated by it and by the demands McKinney makes on their bodies to fulfil it. But the coach is gruffly indifferent to their complaints and imposes his vision with unyielding and righteous conviction. His faith never falters, even when half the squad becomes bitterly mutinous.
The second reformation was of the league itself, from an existentially flailing competition to the global entertainment juggernaut we know today. Until at least the 1980s, the prevailing feeling among white Americans was that basketball was “too black” and strings of racial euphemisms were used by basketball writers and commentators to express their intolerance of an increasingly black league. White players were “hard-working and unselfish”. Black players were “showy”.
TV ratings were in the toilet. The 1979-80 NBA finals series, between Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers, was broadcast on delay late at night. While McKinney reinvented the game, Buss was busy reinventing its image – every game night, he wanted The Forum to become some heady mix of Disneyland, the Oscars and the Playboy Mansion. He courted Hollywood and gave season tickets to Jack Nicholson. He created the “Laker Girls”, a hyper-sexualised update on cheerleaders. He built an exclusive nightclub within the stadium and dedicated the place to unqualified decadence. Narcotics would become as costly to the players’ health as quad strains or rolled ankles, and in smoky booths rich with whisky and cocaine, we see Richard Pryor and banking executives mix giddily with star athletes and sex workers. There are some strong female characters here, but in keeping with the time it depicts, this is fundamentally a show about the creation, and fulfilment, of male fantasies.
As hungry as Buss was, and as significant as his shameless innovations were, the explosive popularisation of the NBA in the 1980s was also helped by some luck: the near-simultaneous drafting of two generational talents: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. (Michael Jordan wasn’t drafted until 1984.) Magic was the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick that year; Larry Bird would win rookie of the year. One was black; one white. One represented glitzy Los Angeles and the nouveau riche; the other white, working-class Boston. Black, white. East, west. Johnson and Bird were brilliant antagonists. So were the Lakers and Celtics. Between them, they’d win eight NBA titles in the 1980s.
Winning Time can be gratingly busy, stuffed with a huge cast, swarming subplots and Adam McKay’s distinctive, often tiresome techniques (McKay, director of Anchorman, The Big Short, Vice and Don’t Look Up, is executive producer and directed the pilot). Characters often break the fourth wall and address the camera, usually not to explain something otherwise undeclarable through dialogue but to gratuitously offer half-funny punchlines. It seems both dated and desperate, and other McKay-isms abound: kinetic editing, a distracting multitude of film stock, and the introduction of characters with irreverent chyrons superimposed over them (when Larry Bird first appears, we get: “You know my fucking name.”)
The show can sometimes feel like a comic book made by a clever but self-pleased kid, though perhaps the better comparison is with a modern NBA game itself. If you’ve been to one, you’ll have experienced the relentlessly obnoxious demands upon your attention. There’s no downtime. Every stoppage – and there are many – is filled with cheerleaders, explosive music, flashing screens, screaming MCs, T-shirt cannons and mascots abseiling down from the stadium rafters.
But geez, it’s an entertaining story. There’s the outlandish chutzpah of Buss, the unusual ascension of Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), and a fraught and surprisingly tragic search for a coach to replace Jerry West (Jason Clarke). Towards the end of the series – and I write with deliberate vagueness to avoid spoilers – there’s a fascinating struggle between coach McKinney and his Shakespeare-quoting assistant, and it involves almost as much doubt, compromise and ambition as Hamlet.
But some of those depicted have their doubts. “The story of the Showtime Lakers is best told by those who actually lived through it,” Abdul-Jabbar said in December.
But is it? The popular Netflix documentary series The Last Dance, about Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, was hijacked by its chief subject. The filmmakers preferred access to integrity, and the series became Jordan-led hagiography – one that gravely insulted more than one of his old teammates. I don’t know many athletes who aren’t in the business of feathering their own legends.
That said, I don’t think the Lakers – or its old stars – have that much to worry about. The makers of Winning Time are having their own fun feathering legends. We see plenty of coke, egotism and misogyny, but most of it is stylised caricature – at once revealing and exonerating. You don’t feel much of the “ugliness of greatness” as that other Laker star, the late Kobe Bryant, described his own maniacal will.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Winning formula".
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