Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker Dynasty (Season 2 x 01) 2023

In all of sports history, only a few teams (probably can be counted on 2 hands) come with the recognizable reputation that can define the legacy of the respective sport. For example, baseball has the New York Yankees (my favorite team), American Football has the putrid New England Patriots, Hockey and their many Canadian teams and so on. But for the sport of Basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers comes with decades of standard excellence that has catapulted the franchise above and beyond the rest of the teams that play in the same league. The only rival is the Boston Celtics (If we’re strictly talking championships won).

All dynasties have to begin somewhere and for the ‘Showtime’ Lakers, the dynasty began when Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) purchased the team in 1979 and drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). And in doing so, sparked a heated and historic rivalry with the Boston Celtics who went on to draft Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). In his first year with the team, Magic dazzled the league with his namesake skills and fast paced play, propelling the older teammates including captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) to take special interest in Magic’s motives within the team.

Season 2 picks up right where the first left off. The champs have arrived and they’re back to defend their earned title. Led by head coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and assistant coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), the 1980-81 season gets off to a slow start. Centered around the point guard Magic, the second year player suffers a leg injury that sidelines him for 12 weeks. The best hope for the defending champs is to get him back before the playoffs start. Off the court, on the personal side of the coin, Magic is facing some legal issues – his sex addiction has gotten a woman pregnant, and his advisors are suggesting a payoff.

Throughout the episode titled One Ring Don’t Make a Dynasty, Magic juggles the options presented to him – be a father to this child or focus on himself and his talent on the court. On one shoulder, Magic’s most trusted advisors are telling him to be the superstar point guard and on the other his parents, Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) and Christie Johnson (LisaGay Hamilton), pleading for Magic to grow up and take responsibility for his actions. Written by co-creator Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes, the script focuses heavily on responsibility and power from the point of view of an athlete who has the means.

From what we’ve already learned about Earvin Johnson Jr. over the course of this series’ heavily  dramatized retelling of events, being a responsible adult is not his forte. Hailing from Lansing, Michigan and transitioning into the bright lights of Los Angeles is nothing short of demanding – suddenly Magic is being pulled in different directions and all a young man fresh out of college wants to do is party. But it all comes back to respect and responsibility – something that cannot be half-assed, just look at Kareem; he has the respect of his team and coaches as a veteran of this league.

Opening in 1984 during game 1 of the NBA Finals, season 2 promises to span the 4 years leading up to the eventual showdown between the Lakers and Celtics. Going back four years, the 1980-81 season lays the foundation for whats to come. But for the present, the center of gravity is a power grab between the two stars Magic and Kareem. In one corner is the levelheaded veteran Kareem slowly coming to the realization that his time is rapidly passing and in the other is the fresh legged Magic set to cause a disruption to the NBA, starting in the locker room.

Loyalties among teammates are tested within every scene and its Quincy and Solomon as the respective superstars that build the tension through their interactions. The team dynamic is once again put in the foreground. Both actors have big shoes to fill bringing these larger than life personalities back down to earth, giving them a sense of unseen intimacy and they do it well. Quincy Isaiah has all the charisma in the world – exuding the confidence to play Magic Johnson believably with an award winning smile. Solomon is stoic and methodical, radiating cool – the two together when in agreement can conquer the world but when there’s a difference of opinion, the mixture is like water and oil.

Picking right up after the events of season 1, episode 1 starts hot and only heats up further. With a lot of time to encapsulate, the on the court action comes second to what plays out off the court. On several fronts, the subplots begin to take shape. Jerry Buss is as confident as ever and no one other than John C. Reilly can fill the role. Going back to the Yankees, no one other than the Boss, George Steinbrenner wanted to win more – that’s Jerry. But Jerry doesn’t want to just win, he wants to beat his business rival Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis).

In sports, there is nothing sweeter than defeating a rival, proving that you’re better than them.

From the top down, Winning Time features a truly spectacular ensemble cast. Performances all around from leads like John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah to supporting roles like Hadley Robinson (Jeanie Buss),  Jason Clarke as the explosive Jerry West (current NBA logo) and Gaby Hoffman as the ambitious Claire Rothman are electric and full of energy. Whatever liberties were taken in the retelling of this generational dynasty story works to the shows advantage offering spectacle driven entertainment value. Intimate moments between characters builds tension that spills over to the next scene that only elevates it further to an eventual eruption.

One scene in particular that exemplifies that happens during a game of monopoly at the Buss mansion (the game that ends relationships). Both Johnny and Jimmy Buss (Thomas Mann, McCabe Slye) work out a compromise for a few properties that both can build monopolies out of. In a moment of rage, John C. Reilly becomes a force of nature in his portrayal.

Even amidst all of the tension built up around several fronts, the atmosphere remains high-strung yet relaxed. The music from Jeff Beal hits every beat and dribble, transporting us back to the early 80’s and the aesthetic still has the grainy feel to it. “My Favorite Mutiny” starts the vibe, alley-ooping it to the fast paced editing and stylistic vintage production design. Season 2 continues the trip down memory lane, dribbling the ball from half court, down into the paint. But the question is, will the points come by way of an easy layup or a posterizing slam dunk.

Created By: Max Borenstein & Jim Hecht

Episode Directed By: Salli Richardson-Whitfield

Music By: Jeff Beal

Cinematography: Todd Banhazl & Mihai Mălaimare Jr.

Starring: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffman, Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, Hadley Robinson, DeVaughn Nixon, Solomon Hughes, Tamera Tomakili, Rob Morgan

Where to Watch: Max

Air Date: August 6, 2023

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

Based On: Showtime Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: