By STEVEN TRAVERS
As the author of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly Los Angeles Lakers (2007), I am fairly close to being an expert on Lakers basketball history. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I covered the Lakers when Kobe Bryant was breaking out as a star, and the team began playing at Staples Center. During that time, I personally knew and dealt with Jerry West, Bill Sharman, Tex Winter, and Phil Jackson. I also went to USC with Jeanie Buss.
West, Sharman and Jeanie are prominent figures in Winning Time, and I can state uncategorically that West was besmirched by the filmmakers. He has pursued legal action against them and I hope he achieves satisfaction. His depictions are nothing less than character assassination. West and Sharman were complete gentlemen to me, going out of their way to cooperate on stories I wrote about the team and their fabled history.
Magic Johnson refused to participate in the recent HBO series, which seems destined to last many years covering the team during their championship run of the 1980s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, despite his positive portrayal, criticized West’s depictions. Other key figures refused to be part of it, but since this is a Hollywood story in its DNA, the fact it is liberal with the truth is not a surprise.
That said, the rest of the program is outstanding and well worth watching. First a shout-out to Jeff Pearlman, a colleague whose slog through the world of sports journalism is one I know well. He is a pro, and well deserving as the author of the book this program is based on.
Next, some background. The program begins in 1979. At that time, college basketball was more popular than the NBA. UCLA was still a dynasty, players usually stayed three or four years, and the Final Four title match-up between Larry Bird of Indiana State and Earvin “Magic” Johnson remains to this day the most highly rated college hoops game ever.
Pro teams in the big markets of Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and New York were struggling. The networks were threatening to cut off their TV contract with the Association. The NBA had a reputation for black players with Afros and attitudes who played no defense and partied too much (cocaine). White girls throwing themselves at black athletes turned off white fans. The great white players like Jerry West, Rick Barry and John Havlicek were gone or going. They were replaced by weirdos with long hair and beards like Bill Walton. Attendance was way down.
This is where episode one begins. Created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht for HBO, it is directed by Adam McKay. The 10-episode series, which started in early March, is willing to make fun of itself with actors, namely John C. Reilly as Lakers owner Jerry Buss, breaking “the fourth wall” and speaking directly to the audience.
Episode one (“The Swan”) has Buss/Reilly telling an apocryphal story about swans, who appear beautiful as they glide along the top of lakes, but underneath they are kicking like crazy to stay afloat. Two plot points dominate the story. Buss is trying to buy the team from longtime owner Jack Kent Cooke, and they are trying to determine whether to draft Magic Johnson, who has led Michigan State to victory over Larry Bird and Indiana State for the NCAA championship, but he is a freak; a six-foot, nine inch guard instead of a forward. Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas appears the safer choice.
The program’s credits feature smoggy images of L.A. in the 1970s: discos, bikini girls on the beach, gay pride, and heavy freeway traffic. Then we see Buss lying in bed with a Playboy model. Speaking directly to the camera, Buss says, “There are two things that make me believe in God: sex and basketball, which go perfectly together.”
He then gets up and walks through the living room of the Playboy mansion, which is filled with sleeping, naked nymphos after a night of debauchery. He strides to his Rolls-Royce and we are off and running.
Buss is not your average multi-millionaire in the City of Angels. Born in Southern California, he was raised in poverty by a single mother (Sally Field), and after living for a time in Wyoming, where he worked on the rigs, he returned to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, eventually attaining his doctorate. At first he worked for the government, literally as a rocket scientist, but he has divorced, with three kids, and made mega-millions in real estate. As the Playboy scene demonstrates, he is a major playboy.
The Lakers are owned by Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O’Keefe). He has built the Fabulous Forum and turned the team into a champion in 1972, but now he is being divorced by his wife (known as “the bitch”) in what at the time was the Guinness Book of World Records for largest divorce settlement. Cooke is imperious, chauvinistic and nasty. Working for him is a nightmare. His number one assistant is Claire Rothman, played by Gaby Hoffman. If she looks familiar, that is because Gaby played the little girl in Field of Dreams. Claire is highly proficient but like many women of her era under-appreciated. She must suffer Cooke.
Cooke is selling the Lakers and the Forum in one of the most complicated transactions in business history, involving hundreds of lawyers and many moving parts. Buss is cash-poor; he owns properties but in converting those holdings into cash he faces huge tax implications. Every time they appear to have a deal Cooke asks for more, like purchase of the Chrysler Building in New York. At one point Buss has to borrow cash from his ex-wife to complete the deal, and in so doing she becomes the Lakers’ owner on paper. This will save the day when a huge loan comes due from Great Western Bank, who discover they cannot force the deal from Buss since his ex holds the paper. They settle for naming rights. Thus, the Great Western Forum.
All at the same time, the Lakers face an internal squabble over who to pick in the draft. This is where Jerry West (Jason Clarke) comes in. Right from the get-go we get a disgraceful depiction of “the logo,” one of the greatest legends in the history of sports. Flashbacks show West’s childhood in West Virginia; a demanding, hateful father blaming Jerry over the death of his sainted older brother in the Korean War, the outdoor hoop his only consolation. West finally won an NBA title in 1972 but he could never be happy, not after losing NCAA and pro titles year after year. After retirement he became the team’s coach, but despite the acquisition of the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles struggled.
The first of many, many outbursts by the West character comes on the golf course, when Buss approaches West and Sharman on the links about the possibility of picking Magic Johnson. West breaks his clubs and stalks off, at least according to this show, like a petulant child. This continues on throughout all the episodes of season one. He will be shown cheating on his wife in a bar; curled up in the fetal position in his underwear at home, unable to function; disrespected by the club, thrown out of practices and kept off the team plane. Eventually, West decides he is not the right man to coach the Lakers, causing a major disruption shortly before training camp in 1979.
Buss makes an executive decision. Magic will be their first pick. We meet him, played brilliantly by Quincy Isaiah, the first of several marvelous African-American actors who fulfill a seemingly impossible job description, which is that they must have thespian talents, they must be tall, physically imposing athletic specimens who possess absolute basketball skills.
Johnson is a complicated case. He is at least seven inches taller than any guard in basketball at that time. A man his size would normally be a power forward, even a center, but he is something never seen before. He can bring the ball up the floor, and his passing skills are out of this world. He is one of a large brood of kids from a tight-knit family in Lansing, Michigan. His father (Rob Morgan) is a hard-working garbage man, his mother (LisaGay Hamilton) a devout Christian who is beside herself over the fact that her son is having sex with every girl who throws herself in his path. She hates his nickname, Magic, since it alludes to the dark arts of the devil. L.A. is a land of sin and she is convinced her boy will fall for every temptation there is.
That is seemingly what happens. First Buss himself shows him his world, of night clubs, parties, girls and cocaine. Then teammate Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) introduces him to the Hollywood side of playing for the Lakers. When Magic meets Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), it is oil and water. Abdul-Jabbar is a devout Muslim, quiet, reserved, highly intelligent. The rookie Johnson tries to appease “Cap,” as he is known, but Kareem is puzzled because Johnson constantly smiles. At a party at Johnson’s parents’ house during a road trip to Detroit, Abdul-Jabbar questions Mr. Johnson on how a young black man can smile and be so happy in a world filled with so much racism. Obviously Magic represents a changing new world.
Magic’s girlfriend is Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakill), a Michigan State student who is number one in his heart, but must suffer through his endless womanizing. This relationship is quickly boring and could have been done without. We know she did stick with him and even married Magic after his HIV announcement in 1991.
We meet Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), a beauty pageant winner and USC student who interns for the Lakers. At first Jeanie is viewed with suspicion by her co-workers as a privileged rich chick, but her hard work and smarts allows her to rise in the organization, especially in the eyes of Claire Rothman, but seemingly not so with her dad. After all her efforts, season one ends with Jerry suggesting her brothers be placed ahead of her in the club’s pecking order. We know eventually she will attain control of the team and needed to fire her sibling.
Adrien Brody practically steals the show playing Pat Riley, at first with long 1970s hair and a mustache. He is a man in search of a mission, an ex-Lakers player and member of their 1972 champions who previously played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. He lives near the beach and spends his days wandering along the strand, getting into pick-up basketball games. His wife used to meet him after games wearing Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie, but now is trying to establish an at-home counseling business. Riley is given a second-rate job as the team’s traveling secretary, but talks legendary announcer Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) into letting him be his color man on broadcasts. Hearn drinks out of a flask and if his hand is in a fist, that signals Riley is to shut up.
Before the season starts Buss is given the cold shoulder by the other team owners. He arranges to meet Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis), who has led the Celtics to numerous victories over Los Angeles and is the reason for West’s neuroses. Auerbach disrespects Buss, saying he is just in it for the fun and the girls, that championships “aren’t won, they’re taken!”
During the same pre-season festivities, Johnson meets two of his future nemeses, Julius Erving (James Lesure) and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). Erving is a smooth, veteran pro, and very welcoming of a young African-American star into the NBA. Johnson idolizes Dr. J, whose poster adorns his room back in Michigan, but when they first meet in league play, Erving over-powers Magic and leads his great 76ers team to victory. We first meet Bird working a dip of Copenhagen, which he spits into an empty Budweiser can, leaving little specks of black drool on his lip. As with the West characterization, the real Larry Bird should find a problem with his. He has bad acne, a bad haircut, is dumb as the day is long, and has a foul mouth. He like Buss “breaks the fourth wall” and speaks to Magic through the TV screen, telling him how he will have his way with him in revenge for the NCAA title loss. There is not-so-subtle reverse-racism in the show, with the African-Americans often shown to be upright and smooth, the whites like West and Bird country hicks out of their element.
Young Jeanie earns her spurs by suggesting the team’s cheerleaders be more like dancers (“the Playboy Club meets the Hollywood Bowl”), and after a choreographer fails to see her vision, young Paula Abdul (Carina Conti) is hired right off a high school campus to pep the girls up with sexiness and flair. Parties at the Forum Club feature gorgeous women and is the in place to be.
With West out as head coach, Buss is up against it. Despite his sunny disposition and happy-go-lucky ways, which include new girls in every other scene (one apparently brought in to “close” negotiations with sex), he realizes and even eventually admits, “I’m in over my head.” He decides he wants UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane), but his negotiations with Tark’s “money guy” Vic Weiss (Danny Burstein) seem overshadowed by Vegas mobsters. Buss’s worst fears are confirmed when the day the deal is to be signed, Weiss’s body is found in the trunk of his car.
West has never really quit, apparently staying on in the front office even though not asked to. He discovers that Portland assistant coach Jack McKinney is the real reason the Trailblazers won the 1978 NBA title, and believes his “weave” offense could allow Johnson the freedom to pass the floor and open up the offense, taking some of the pressure off of Abdul-Jabbar.
McKinney is played to perfection by one of the great, unsung talents of the thespian world, Tracy Letts. Letts began as a playwright and penned Killer Joe at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City under the auspices of my good USC friend Darren Lee Cole in 1999-2000. It starred Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer and was a hit. Hollywood eventually discovered Letts’ acting skills, usually as a man of authority (a Senator-turned-CIA Director in Homeland, Henry Ford II in Ford v Ferrari). Now he plays the cerebral Coach McKinney, who has paid his dues for years as an assistant and finally has his dream shot.
McKinney is the conductor of a basketball orchestra, which is in tune with the original way Jerry Buss in his first scene at the Playboy Mansion sees the game, as a kind of sexual jazz ensemble. He brings his team together for training camp in the heat of Palm Springs. The boys all gather around the pool happy to sample the bikini maidens at their beck and call (Buss certainly does), but never get the chance. McKinney has the team running in the desert at night, training relentlessly in the gym by day. Abdul-Jabbar resists and sits himself down instead of adhering to the regimen, but McKinney explains to Cap that he must be a leader, and he will benefit from the new offense being installed.
All his career Abdul-Jabbar has had to “carry Walton and Lanier up and down the court,” as he says in his spoofed role in Airplane. The ball comes into him, then he must wrestle with alligators until he can finally get a shot off. McKinney’s new style is to run a constant fast break, similar to the way John Wooden ran the old UCLA offense, not to mention Auerbach’s Boston champions and Bill Sharman’s 1972 Lakers champs (allowing some of the pressure to come off Wilt Chamberlain). The difference is McKinney wants the in-bound pass made before the defense can set up. Abdul-Jabbar’s famed sky hook “will always be there,” but the rest of the offense will be allowed to get into the flow of things.
At first there is resistance, mainly from veterans like Adrian Dantley (Terence Davis), a longtime star out of Notre Dame. He organizes a team walk-out, but Abdul-Jabbar refuses and that is that. The team opens the season at San Diego and wins on a last-minute Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. Johnson jumps all over the place and Cap tells him to calm down, there are still “81 games to go.” The team starts out strong, but disaster strikes when McKinney has a brutal bicycling accident and goes into a coma. The whole team gathers in the hospital except for Johnson, who sends one of his girlfriends with flowers. This does not go down well.
Now they must rely on assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel). Westhead is rescued from a no where job teaching Shakespeare at a small college, but he has always been McKinney’s right-hand man. He is, at least in the way Segel plays him, totally in over his head. He quotes Shakespeare, which goes over his player’s heads. He is also completely torn between trying to lead the Los Angeles Lakers, and hoping his friend and mentor McKinney recovers in time to take over the helm. Westhead knows basketball and understands what McKinney tried to do with the Lakers’ roster, although there is considerable kickback.
In those days NBA teams usually had a head coach and one assistant, as compared to today where there might be five coaches on the bench. Westhead asks Riley to be his number two man. Riley asks for an assurance that he will be kept on once McKinney comes back, since he left a good announcing job to be an assistant.
There are a number of scenes in which Riley demonstrates greater leadership skills than Westhead, mostly because he was a champion player himself, whereas Westhead was not. At one point he backs Westhead into the shower, telling him he has to take charge of the team. His hair gets wet and he looks in the mirror, slicking his long hair back, and we get a glimpse of what is to come.
At first Westhead’s methods do not produce and the fans are irritated, including Jack Nicholson (Max Williams) screaming, “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” But over time Westhead and Riley develop chemistry, to the point where a debate comes up over whether McKinney should be brought back when he can.
Johnson struggles, showing flashes of brilliance, but all the attention is focused on Larry Bird, first at the All-Star Game, and later when he is named Rookie of the Year. There is a subtle sense of racism in this, which Johnson uses to his advantage, fueling his desire to prove himself. The Lakers beat Boston in a key December game amid much hateful shouting and gamesmanship at the old Boston Garden.
Eventually McKinney recovers, and the question of his return creates lots of issues, between Riley and Westhead, between Westhead and McKinney, and in the front office. When Riley is interviewed on TV in Philadelphia, he is reluctant to advocate McKinney’s return, which sends McKinney into a rage.
The decision ultimately comes down to Jerry Buss. He goes to visit McKinney at his home, but the coach does not recognize him. He is still below his best self, and this decides it for the owner. Westhead will coach the team in the play-offs.
With a successful season, the Lakers finally begin to show enough profit to justify Buss’s investment. They advance through the Western Conference play-offs but do not face Boston and Bird in the finals. Dr. J and the 76ers have beaten Boston. We see a scene of Bird with his hick friends back in French Lick, drinking beer and dippin’ snuff, but when they put down Magic Johnson Bird tells them to shut up; Magic has proven how good he is and is in the Finals, but he isn’t, although as he walks off the court after the loss to Philadelphia Magic is stunned to see Bird look straight into the camera and speak to him personally, warning that next year he would get him.
As mentioned, this was the tail end of an era of cocaine use in the NBA, and star forward Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris, who played Julius Campbell in Remember the Titans, gives an Emmy-award quality performance) learns that he is trade bait screaming at Riley, who he feels betrays him.
Haywood is married to the supermodel Imam (Mariama Diallo) and has a beautiful daughter, but despite this he cannot kick his coke habit, which is exacerbated by the possibility of a trade. As the play-offs begin, Abdul-Jabbar counsels him. They are the same age, having come into the Association together, and have faced racism. Abdul-Jabbar gets him to commit to staying clean, a condition he must maintain if Haywood wishes to stay on the team throughout the post-season. But just before taking on Philadelphia, Haywood has a relapse. Westhead is reluctant to take responsibility for whether Haywood should remain, so puts it to a vote. It is 6-6, but Abdul-Jabbar as captain is the deciding vote; Haywood is let go.
In a great scene, Abdul-Jabbar tells Haywood this and Haywood recalls his brutal childhood in the South. His family were sharecroppers, which he recalls “was not considered slavery, but best as I can tell there’s no difference.” He storms out on Abdul-Jabbar and finds his drug dealer, who gives him a gun. Episode nine (“Acceptable Loss”) ends with a distraught, coked-out Haywood threatening to murder the whole Lakers team. As with the West depictions, this seems questionable and libelous of Haywood, but who knows how it went down?
In the finals, Abdul-Jabbar dominates against the tall Philadelphia front line, but in game five badly injures himself. The team heads to Philly hoping to close out the victory in game six, but absent their captain. Without a big man (or the six-foot, eight inch Haywood), Johnson must handle the post. Before the team departs for the East Coast McKinney, resigned to the fact he will not return, gives Westhead his notes, which include an alternate game plan in case his front line is unavailable.
This plan is to out-run and out-gun the tall 76ers, not unlike the way John Wooden’s small Bruins defeated Cazzie Russell and Michigan State in the NCAA Finals years earlier. Westhead finally makes use of his Shakespeare knowledge to the benefit of his team when he fires them up with the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“ye band of brothers”) from Henry V. With the spotlight on him, Magic steps up and has the game of his life, scoring 42 and dominating his idol Dr. J to lead the Lakers to the World Championship. Buss is in the money at last, his big gamble having paid off.
We see Abdul-Jabbar seething with some jealousy, watching on TV, but nobody can deny Magic’s greatness. In a stirring scene which, if it happened shows Abdul-Jabbar’s humanity, instead of partying it up after the victory, Cap goes to Haywood’s house and talks him down from a suicidal ledge, telling him despite how he was treated growing up, despite his drug addiction, he is a “beautiful black man” who has a lot to live for (wife, kid). They hug.
Season one ends and no doubt will pick up with the 1980-81 campaign and the transition from Westhead to Riley as head coach, which will come to be known as “Showtime.”
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.