In ‘Winning Time,’ the Lakers May Be Winning, but This Audience is Losing (Review)

Well, Lakers fans. We made it through weeks six and seven, and I have to confess that I am interminably bored. There were some highlights in the episodes, but for the most part, it was staler than week-old bread. With only three episodes left in the season, I can’t even begin to imagine what will hold my attention.

Where we last left them, the Lakers franchise was at its highest peak – with brilliant, but eccentric head coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) with his partner-in-crime, Paul Westhead (Jason Segel). Everything was going great! Everyone could see that, clearly, the Lakers were on the rise and poised to win the championship. That is, until McKinney’s untimely bike accident, which took him out of action for all of these last two episodes. He leaves behind Paul Westhead as his puppet, and where once he was waxing poetic about being the apprentice who becomes the master, soon finds out that it’s not easy being the head coach of the Lakers. He soon enlists Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) as his professional fluffer: someone to help his ego when it needs lifting, to put the plays in his head. Pat Riley, by the way, eventually becomes head coach of the Lakers (presumably something we’ll see in Season 2).  The tension between Westhead and Riley comes to a head when Westhead reveals that Dr. Buss (John C. Reilly) only gave them the road trip to set the team back on track to win the championship. Considering they lost to the worst team in the league, it wasn’t looking so good.

Adrien Brody as Pat Riley and Jason Segel as Paul Westhead (COURTESY: HBO Max)

One of the more exciting bits of Episode 7 was the game (showing actual basketball!) between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. All throughout the road trip, there was some discussion about the Garden – Norman Nixon claimed that it was haunted by leprechauns, while Jerry West (Jason Clarke) insisted that losing once made the Lakers forever cursed to lose to the Celtics. Even the match-up between Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) left me feeling shaken. What was that thing with the spitting and the can anyways? Positively creepy. Not to mention unhygienic. Next to Bird, Johnson looked positively charismatic – not that anyone noticed.

Up until now, it seemed that Johnson was almost entirely unaware of the pervasiveness of racism. After all, he benefited from the sacrifices of his father, to harness his talent and get to play basketball for the NBA. With his shoe endorsement (skipping over Nike) with Converse and his very own lawyer-businessman, Johnson stands tall against those who would say that racism prevents black people from achieving greatness. His happiness, and lack of care, give both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Dr. Solomon Hughes) and Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) a moment of pause. Their discussion in the kitchen during dinner just barely scratches the surface of the complexity of their character interactions. And yet, it is the context for the locker room scene where Johnson reveals his motivation.

Whereas Jabbar experiences racism and Islamaphobia while playing for the Lakers, it seemed like Johnson had not. As Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) put it in Episode 6, he and Johnson were ‘white people famous.’ But what Jabbar understands, and what Johnson did not, is that racism is systemic, not individualized. What worked for Johnson in a primarily white institution at college would not work while he was in the NBA; he could no longer just coast by being charming and ‘easy to get along with.’ Larry Bird was, after all, the “All-American” athlete that reporters were intent on interviewing. No matter how charming or friendly or nice Johnson was during that press conference, and indeed, during his career, there would be no escaping the racial prejudice that seeps into the NBA.

During the game, it’s clear that the referees are calling plays and fouls in favor of the Celtics. Nevertheless, the Lakers pull out a very exciting, buzzer-beating win over their esteemed rivals. We don’t yet know if this win will keep Paul Westhead and Pat Riley in as coaches – all we know for sure is that Jack McKinney isn’t coming back. The front-office politics certainly took up the majority of screen time during these two episodes.

And you can forget about passing the Bechdel test. Barely any women graced these last two episodes, barely for ten minutes alone, and always discussed a man. All the work done in the past for nothing. There was, however, an interesting framing of the characters. All the close camera shots were done in what I would call the ‘female gaze’: focusing on the intimacy of character relationships. It’s ironic, isn’t it? To have the episodes shot in a female gaze while almost entirely ignoring the women? If we’re not laughing, we’re crying.

Sally Field as Jessie Buss (COURTESY: HBO Max)

But even the focus on interpersonal relationships wasn’t new. It was the same old thing. Magic pushes and pulls the women in his life towards him, always wanting their love and rejecting them when they do. In Episode 7, he’s seen encouraging Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) to take a step in getting back together, and when she finally comes over and professes her love, we discover that he’s already slept with her roommate and friend, Rhonda (Chelsea M. Davis). Similarly, Dr. Buss discovers that his mother forgot to file the papers (which would give his ex-wife ownership and therefore allow him to dodge creditors) because she was having several mini-strokes as a symptom of her cancer. Does this make him realize how precious his relationship is with the women in his life? It’s a resounding no. After dealing with his mother and instructing his daughter to take care of her grandmother, Dr. Buss decides to instead engage with the creditors from the bank and the basketball team. We barely hear anything else about his mother other than to explain his presence in the hospital that allowed him to be beaten by McKinney in Monopoly.

What is interesting, however, is the waves that it’s making out and about in the real world. Both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West have, directly or indirectly, spoken out about their characterizations on the show. It seems that the warning of fictional and dramatized depiction at the end of the show didn’t quite do the job that HBO thought it would. Abdul-Jabbar, in his blog post, defends Head Coach Jerry West against HBO’s colorful depiction; Jerry West’s lawyers also called on HBO to retract their “baseless and defamatory portrayal of him” in addition to a public apology. 

The more that the show goes on, it seems like I was overestimating the content of the basketball show. Yes, we saw that nail-biting, blood-boiling scene where the Lakers finally go head to head with their rivals, the Celtics. But it was one spark of excitement in an otherwise dreary depiction of the Lakers. Will we ever escape these men (and their egos) long enough to see the Lakers obtain their superstar status?  

Rating: 6/10

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