After watching the first three episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, I can declare definitively that the Lakers are in their Fleabag era. The series debuted at the beginning of March and follows the Lakers’ meteoric rise from the biggest losers of the league to a dynasty of powerhouse players. Winning Time incorporates a gritty vintage style, last seen on nineties television, against the crispness of modern TV. Its cinematography is extremely precise, combining different film styles with characters who address the camera just as Fleabag talked to the audience on her eponymous show.
The show focuses on a few key characters: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. (Quincy Isaiah), Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), Norman Nixon (played by his son, DeVaughn Nixon), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Dr. Solomon Hughes). While first drafted in the point guard position, Magic Johnson later became a power forward to assist Abdul-Jabbar, something the Lakers replicated a few years ago when they paired Anthony Davis with LeBron James (for all my basketball fans out there). Like other sports biographies, Winning Time introduces us to the team by explaining the many conflicting personalities and motivations that fueled the Lakers’ dynasty. Their issues vary from Jerry West (Jason Clarke)’s failure to win the championship to a first-round draft pick attempting to live up to his potential and hype. (His nickname was Magic for a reason.)
The Lakers’ longstanding rivalry with the Celtics also plays out during this series, especially the personal rivalry between Magic and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). The rivalry is both incredibly personal and inherently racist. Before entering the NBA, the two went head-to-head for the 1979 NCAA title, which came down to Indiana State (Bird’s team) and Michigan State (Magic’s). Larry Bird is described as the hard-working, disciplined, “all-American boy,” while Magic Johnson is called show-stopping, naturally gifted, and a physical specimen. The characteristics chosen to describe each player are dog-whistle racism masquerading as the picture of equality. The rivalry between the teams comes more from the front office politics than the players themselves, but the difference between Bird and Magic’s images is front and center.
However, of the many key characters, only Magic and Dr. Buss speak to the audience, indicating their agency and autonomy in Winning Time. Some other characters make significant eye contact with the camera, General Manager Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) being one of them. As the first and only female manager of any major market sports arena, making eye contact with Claire feels charged with gendered frustration. Dr. Buss’s presence as an extremely hands-on owner starts with Jerry West and continues to irritate Claire throughout the season after his resignation. After taking the books from her (which he promptly transfers to his mother, Jessie Buss, played by Sally Field), Dr. Buss instructs Claire to find a way to make the Forum profitable every day of the year. Along with the help of Jeannie Buss (Hadly Robinson), Dr. Buss’s daughter, they come up with an idea that later becomes the standard for stadiums around the country: hosting Billboard artists at the stadium as a concert venue on the days when the stadium would have been empty. Her glances at the camera involve some form of commiseration as Dr. Buss’s activities seem almost comical to those unaware of the Lakers’ rise to the top of the league. At this point in the show, he looks like a madman. The franchise is up to its eyeballs in debt, with no head coach, no funding, and no idea on how to fix it. And yet, here’s Dr. Buss, off on a trip to Las Vegas to recruit a coach that he’s sure will help the Lakers win the Championship.
At this point in the show, it’s difficult to see the women’s perspective on everything – probably because there are so few named female characters. The two most significant women in Magic Johnson’s life are his mother (LisaGay Hamilton) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) who both try to give him advice – which he promptly ignores. Dr. Buss is in a similar position: a man who seems to have many women around him, and yet none that he cares to take the advice of. For both Magic Johnson and Dr. Buss, their mothers play an important role in determining their motivation in life. In Magic’s case, he strives to make his mother happy while ignoring the truth behind her critique of his life. Throughout the first three episodes, Magic attempts to make his mother happy: in his negotiations for a salary and a place on the Lakers, Magic makes it clear that he plans to continue his studies at college, which we later discover is at the urging of his mother. However, his mother doubts his commitment to college, a fact that she makes quite clear in her rejection of the bathtub that Magic buys for her. Dr. Buss, meanwhile, places his mother in charge of the accounting for the Lakers, and in their conversations, more about Dr. Buss’s motivation for buying the Lakers becomes clear.
HBO is exceedingly careful to say that the series is a dramatized version of real-life events, which is what Netflix was forced to do after many on Twitter apparently discovered for the first time that The Crown was not an accurate documentary-style retelling of the history of the British monarchy. While the series has yet to show an actual game, these first three episodes makes me question how, in fact, the Lakers actually pulled together all these dynamic personalities and people in order to become a highly profitable successful team.
Dir: Adam McKay
Prod: Adam McKay, Kevin Messick, Max Borenstein, Jim Hect, Jason Shuman, Scott Stephens, Rodney Barnes
Cast: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clark, Sally Fields
Release Date: March 1, 2022
Available on: HBO, HBO Max