On the brink of total disaster and collapse in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, the National Basketball Association, NBA for short, needed a spark to reignite the leagues passion and the fans as well. Its literally just 10 taller than average athletes dribbling a round orange ball back and forth shooting said ball into a circular net for 2 and 3 points. Attendance was at an all-time low – the NBA got the missing ingredient, exactly what it was longing for to keep the wheels turning and enter into a new era. Three rookies – 2 players at the forefront of the sport and one eccentric new owner looking to make a splash of his own. Two of those three men would go one to revive basketball with their bitter rivalry that started in college in the NCAA leading the charge in fan engagement.
Saving the Los Angeles Laker franchise is new rookie owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) who envisioned the Lakers headlining a new dynamic era of the NBA. Buying the team from owner Jack Kent Cooke looking to pay off a divorce settlement. One word, eight letters – Showtime. With the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft, the Lakers and Buss draft Ervin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isiah) to lead the team that also included All-Star and Airplane actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and head coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke). The player behind the logo of the NBA to this day.
Based on Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s by Jeff Pearlman, it’s evident from the opening tipoff that many narrative liberties would be taken for dramatic effect. Some controversial from the real-life counterparts of their fictionalized selves. Understandable in their outrage and frustration. The front office is portrayed as a zoo, a smoke-filled animal house where Buss waltzes in with daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) and rearranges how business is done by the organization. Pure chaos from West not agreeing on the draft choice of Johnson with Stormin’ Norman Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) leading the way at point guard while Johnson was too tall for the position.
Who better to play Norman Nixon than his son? From the slick confidence to the composure in learning about a possible shared responsibility with Magic joining the team, to the body language, DeVaughn is the only choice here.
I can understand why the legendary Jerry West (among others depicted) would take Umbridge with how he’s written – foul mouthed, drunk, and throwing a tantrum in every scene but Jason Clarke almost unrecognizable (at first) is electrifying in the role – giving way more dimension to the character than whats presented on the surface.
Leading the offense is John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss. Taking over after the very public split between Will Farrell and executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay, Reilly soaks in the Los Angeles spotlight. With every scene, he commands the screen and the viewers’ attention – proving he was the right choice for the role. Without Buss there is no Showtime Lakers dynasty, and the league may not have been as beneficial. Surrounding Reilly is a who’s who of big name after big name. Every episode is full of supporting roles from heavy hitters that hold their own on screen. Whether its Michael Chiklis as Boston Celtics owner Red Auerbach or Rob Morgan as Ervin Johnson Sr or Sally Field as Jessie Buss, the talent of this ensemble cast is limitless with Tracy Letts as coach Jack McKinney, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, and Jason Segel as Paul Westhead. All give authentic performances while not letting the satire of the writing take control.
Setting the tone for Winning Time is Adam McKay directing the pilot episode. Coming off a divisive Don’t Look Up, much of the same stylistic choices are present here but with Winning Time, the choppy, chaotic editing, fourth wall breaking and vintage aesthetic work in the shows favor. Possibly due to the content being easier to consume than the heavy handedness of Don’t Look Up. Every cigarette burn or sepia infused scene captures the glamourous atmosphere of the decade. It’s not all sex and basketball for 10-hour long episodes – in between all that is heart, social awareness, passion, and a desire to leave a legacy behind.
Earlier this year, the DC Comics adapted series Peacemaker by James Gunn came out on the very same streaming service that Winning Time was made for – HBO Max. Not once was the opening credits that had the “skip credits” option selected as John Cena and cast dance along to Wig Wam’s “Do You Wanna Taste It”. Winning Time’s credits should not be skipped either. Featuring a montage of images and videos set to “My Favorite Mutiny” by The Coup – the song paired with the visuals will be enough to hype anyone up for whats to come – whether it’s the political landscape or where we are at as a country during this time. In an era of content we’re all quick to skip the opening credits on, these two series prove that it’s not the case for every series created. Both proving to be catchy earworms well after the season finale ends.
While John C. Reilly is the face of the series, Quincy Isiah is the foundation, the heart and soul belong to the women who represent a change in the corporate structure. The era is more misogynistic as one assistant fixes her hair to make a better impression serving drinks but its Gaby Hoffman and Hadley Robinson who take charge of their positions in the organization. First portrayed as foes, the two recognize the environment they work in has the potential to be more inclusive and accepting to change. We all know what Jeanie goes on to become in the league as an executive, but it’s her beginning that makes more of an impact while the character of Claire is an amalgamation of the employees at the time.
A fan of the Lakers or not, Winning Time is full of magic and flare that often leans heavy on the style to push through the plot, but the substance is equal in its impact. Though divisive among the real-life counterparts including Magic Johnson for the exaggerated sequence of events, the story is just getting started to what significant moment kicks off the series. There is a lot of story left to be told in the genesis of the “Showtime” Lakers dynasty. Additionally, there is more of the Magic vs Bird (Sean Patrick Small) rivalry to come. Trusting the creative team and understanding the liberties taken will determine the longevity this series has the potential of.
Whoever discovered Sean Patrick Small to be a fit for Larry “The Legend” Bird deserves some type of award – Sean is a perfect fit for the role – stealing the thunder from Quincy Isiah.
Created By: Max Borenstein & Jim Hecht
Episodes Directed By: Adam McKay, Jonah Hill, Damian Marcano, Tanya Hamilton, Payman Benz & Salli Richardson-Whitfield
Music By: Nicholas Britell & Robert Glasper
Cinematography: Todd Banhazl & Mihai Malaimare Jr
Starring: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Sally Field, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffmann, Jason Segel, Hadley Robinson, DeVaughn Nixon, Tracy Letts, Solomon Highes, Tamera Tomakili, Rob Morgan
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: March 6, 2022
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
Based On: Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s by Jeff Pearlman