In Defense of “Winning Time”

In Defense of Winning Time

Laker legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West are none too happy with the new HBO series. But there is much to be said for it.

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HBO’s Winning Time, a bawdy, untethered, stealthily political dramatization of the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, is a critical and audience success, but not everyone is taping up the purple-and-gold streamers. The series, based on Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime (a title that HBO, of course, was not going to use), is like Adult Swim for sports junkies. All our favorite “characters” are there: Magic, Kareem, Jerry West, Pat Riley, and—standing astride them all, armed with a toupee, a pair of plaid slacks, and a lecherous gleam—the franchise’s owner, Dr. Jerry Buss. This story, in the hands of filmmaker Adam McKay, just off the Oscar-nominated satire Don’t Look Up, is visually compelling, and amid the slam dunks, no-look passes, and adult situations, there is sly commentary about wealth, fame, and racism in the 1980s. (The recent episode about Magic and Larry Bird is particularly sharp. Using the Coup’s “My Favorite Mutiny” for the opening theme song is just icing on a surprisingly substantial cake.)

And yet Lakerland is decidedly unhappy with Winning Time. Jerry West is demanding an apology or retraction, his attorney, Skip Miller, releasing a letter that claims the “cruel” series portrays him as an “out-of-control, intoxicated rage-a-holic.” Miller goes on to write, “Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization.”

In particular, West is reportedly upset at the portrayals of him breaking office windows and drinking on the job, his lawyer’s statement including many testimonials that they never witnessed such behavior.

Yet it might be expected that a dramatic rendering of West would portray scenes of hot tempers and personal pain. West’s own memoir, the brilliant 2011 West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, written with Jonathan Coleman, tells the story of someone who had to carry his share of demons. West’s youth in an abusive West Virginia household led to severe depression, self-loathing, and what can be described as an ongoing inability to experience joy from his ostensibly blessed life. His journey away from anguish makes for compelling reading. Suffice it to say, the Jerry West in Winning Time was Jerry West before he calmed his torments. I reached out to Jon Coleman, who is, to put it mildly, not happy with the portrayal of West. His comments are, “I am not a purist. I understand it is a different medium. But that is not what this is. Nothing gets elevated here. This is a cartoon show, and it damages people who are still alive.… Jerry is one of the most complex and complicated people I have ever met in my life. I would never have agreed to do the book with him if I didn’t sense that.” (HBO is not commenting about West’s complaints against Winning Time.)

Then there is the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The basketball icon, author, and political opinionist wrote an entire column criticizing Winning Time, calling it less fact than fiction. Kareem is so upset by the show that he has been driven to alliteration, writing that it is “deliberately dishonest” and “drearily dull.” Kareem also writes that the show features “crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford.”

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion. (I obviously am not finding it dreary or dull.) But Winning Time is a dramatization, as it says at the start of every episode, and where the line gets drawn between verisimilitude and biopic will never be to everyone’s satisfaction. But I do believe Kareem hurts his own argument by calling the characters “one dimensional.” Like or dislike Winning Time, the performances by the incredible Quincy Isaiah as Magic or Solomon Hughes as Kareem or John C. Reilly as Buss or even the scenery-chewing Jason Clarke as West make for compelling viewing. In particular, Hughes portrays Kareem as thoughtful but aloof, brilliant but withdrawn, eclectic in interests but private in sharing them, and somewhat pulled out of his shell by that 19-year-old rookie who went by the name Earvin. These are all narratives I recall reading in Kareem’s tremendous memoir Giant Steps, written with Peter Knobler. He owned it then. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t own it now.

It is understandable that Winning Time is upsetting some of the people portrayed. It is a dramatic portrayal of their lives, and no one wants to surrender control of their own narrative. It is also understandable that their anger is confusing to those of us who think that the film’s producers make playing for the Lakers in the 1980s look like the greatest adventure in sports history. For the viewer in this “dramatization,” Magic and Kareem—these icons—become more relatable than they have ever been, and we are closer to the action—and politics—that went down off the court than we ever could have dreamed. Kareem said that he wasn’t going to watch the series because he “lived it” but only relented when he heard about some of the characterizations. Perhaps that’s what is causing so much dyspepsia in Lakerland: These were their memories, and now, through McKay’s funhouse mirror, they’re ours.

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