In ‘Winning Time,’ We Finally Get to See Some Basketball in the Basketball Show (Review)

Five episodes in and we’re finally on the court! Episodes 4 and 5 of Winning Time depict eccentric owner Jerry Buss’s (played by John C. Reilly)  vision for the Lakers’ franchise success. While there’s no denying the impact of the changes that his front office made to the franchise – which ultimately contributed to the Lakers’ meteoric rise to stardom and success – at the end of the day, it leaves us with a lot to unpack. 

Starting off strong: I don’t know if it’s the eighties atmosphere or what, but something’s in the air, and, (surprise!) it’s sexism. Given Jerry Buss’s relationships with the women in his life – his mother, his ex-wife, his daughter, his lovers – it’s unsurprising that some of those same principles would spill over into his work. To start with the Laker Girls, run by Paula Abdul (Carina Conti) after the (second!) choreographer quit, Dr. Buss’s vision for what the dancers should look like is bolstered by his own sex drive, his own visions of what sexy women look and act like. In Episode 5 especially, we begin to see how his sexual interactions with women have affected his relationship with his ex-wife and his daughter. In Dr. Buss’s mind, there is a distinction made between the Laker Girls (and literally every other woman) and the women that he’s related to. It’s a powerful example of the seamless objectification of women that is seeped into the backbone of the Lakers’ franchise. 

Carina Conti as Paula Abdul (COURTESY: Warrick Page/HBO)

Despite the fact that his ex-wife owns the franchise (on paper, as he was quick to tell his business partner), and ignoring that it was an idea that his mother presented, his daughter assisted, and that his ex-wife executed, Dr. Buss remains stubborn in his vision for what the Lakers should be. Episode 4 begins to unpack the complicated psychodrama that is Jeanie Buss’s (Hadley Robinson) relationship with her father, from the flashback of her watching him have sex in public to serve as the go-between for her father with the rest of the front office staff. Ignoring Claire (Gaby Hoffmann), his business partner, and virtually any other person who dares to question the logic of his vision for the Lakers’ success (which would never be Jeanie, by the way), Dr. Buss becomes the embodiment of the eighties sexism that ran rampant in the workplace. It’s his way or the highway – even if the way that he’s going will lead the Lakers into bankruptcy. 

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Episode 5 presents another look at how the NBA, and other national sports leagues, become so intertwined with social issues in the United States. With an in-depth look into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s (Dr. Solomon Hughes) character, we see his connection to Islam, his separation from his family, and his views on being a basketball player. His relationship with Earvin (Quincy Isaiah) highlights the difference between a seasoned athlete and a new player, yes, but also the difference between one generation and the next. Spencer Haywood (played by Wood Harris), a recent addition to the Lakers, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were pivotal players in shaping the NBA enough that players like Magic Johnson could enjoy their careers. Johnson’s draft was a direct result of Haywood’s lawsuit against the NBA. Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson go head-to-head in these two episodes as the team struggles to adjust to new head coach Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) ‘new’ way of playing, and this philosophical divide between the two widens immeasurably. 

Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson (COURTESY: Warrick Page/HBO)

It speaks to the choices of the writers and producers of Winning Time that the women are reduced to caricatures, dependent on a man’s perspective of their motivations and actions. Prior to these two episodes, the series didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, let alone give any woman more than ten minutes worth of screen time without a man talking, ignoring, or having sex with her. And while some among us might be tempted to explain this phenomenon away by the fact that there are no female writers or producers listed in the show’s credits, it is too easy of an ‘out’ for all-male produced shows. Women are not the arbiters of determining what is and what isn’t sexist – anyone should have the capacity to know whether or not sexism is a leading element of the show. From the characters’ interpersonal interactions, it’s impossible to separate the misogyny from the plot of the show. The show makes it clear that the characters consider being feminine to be an insult: from the dismissal of the advice of female characters to the use of a slur to describe Pat Riley’s (Adrien Brody) ‘effeminate’ voice, femininity is exploited for sexual objectification and nothing further. 

I have to question what it means to have an all-male writers’ room: is this really the best that they could do? Giving a couple of female characters screen time as someone’s daughter, wife, mother, employee, or girlfriend? The first female character who is completely independent of being attached to a man in the show is Paula Abdul, but even she bends to the vision of Dr. Buss. 

At a time when the Lakers are first starting to establish a connection between racism and its pervasive hold on every institution in the United States, it’s disappointing that the same connection couldn’t be extended to sexism. If indeed, the amount of sexism is intentional on the part of the show, I have to admit that its purpose is going over my head. Are we meant to compare sexism in the eighties to sexism now? Or rather, is it something that just adds authenticity to the Lakers’ franchise? Either way, I’m looking forward to the next couple of episodes in the hopes that the show addresses some of my not-so rhetorical questions. 

Rating: 6.5/10

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