Showtime/Winning Time: A Combination Book/HBO Series Review

Out of conflict, strife, and sheer determination, if we’re fortunate, comes greatness.  Amongst our finest collections of art, music, and film, we often witness unparalleled beauty emerge from uncompromised will and pressure, like a diamond out of coal or a dynasty out of thin air. 

This happens in sports as well, for what is sport if not entertainment.  Nowhere, and at no time, was this more evident than in Los Angeles back in the early 1980s.

At long last, HBO has released its limited series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” directed by Adam McKay.  As of right now, four episodes have been released.  It is unclear how long the series will run but this fan says, the more the merrier! 

The series is based upon the 2014 publication entitled “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” written by Jeff Pearlman.  It traces the bizarre and unlikely circumstances that led to the creation of one of the greatest teams in sports history, one that not only changed the NBA but professional sports as we know them.

Aware the series was greenlighted, I waited months for its release.  I now count down the days to Sunday when each next episode is aired.  After hearing the book was even more captivating, I chose to read it while viewing the series.  I can confirm that both the series, and the book, are unputdownable.

The series traces the determination of one man, the late Dr. Jerry Buss, as he is set upon buying the Los Angeles Lakers and turning them into a championship franchise, using his own personal flair and vision.  Buss was unlike any character in a town full of them, a fresh, rebellious face amongst NBA owners.  Philandering yet not misogynistic, egotistical yet generous to a fault, Buss put the pieces in place and became the financial force behind the Lakers dynasty.  He bought the team at a time when the league went unwatched, yet he saw something others didn’t: potential.  Buss is played brilliantly by John C. Reilly.  So brilliantly, in fact, that it led to a rift between director Adam McKay and comedian/actor Will Ferrell, who desperately wanted the role.  Reilly, however, was the man for the job.  His performance is so strong, he convinces you he’s Buss, with the all too familiar combover, the buttoned-down shirts and the win-at-any-cost attitude.

Buss came along at the ideal time for another man, about to turn pro, would change the sport as we know it.  As you’ll find out by watching the series, reading the book (or as I recommend, both), Buss was dead set on drafting Magic Johnson, even though the Lakers already had a point guard in Norm Nixon.  Both book and series elaborate on the strife between Johnson and Nixon as they battled for the same position, until the choice became clear, even to Nixon. 

McKay (and Pearlman) develop other unforgettable, integral characters, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley (played by Adrien Brody), Paul Westhead (played by Jason Segel), Buss’ daughter Jeanie (who now owns the team), I could go on but no spoilers here.

Okay, a few.  You’ll watch (or read) stories previously untold of dead bodies found in trunks of cars, life-threatening bicycle accidents, Fonzarelli-like polaroid albums of scantily clad women and copious amounts of career-threatening cocaine. 

Pearlman (and the series) uncover details even this self-professed basketball historian didn’t know: Jerry West’s erratic temper, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sour attitude for all things he didn’t trust and Pat Riley’s deep-rooted depression as he looked to psychologically rebound from a lackluster NBA career and being the most famous guy on an all-white Kentucky team that lost to Texas Western, the first college team to ever start five black players.  The book is beautifully written, as it’s a beautiful story to tell.  Similarly, the series is beautifully acted and directed.

The forgotten man in all this, who perhaps inspired Pearlman to write the book, and McKay to recreate it in series form, was Jack McKinney, who Pearlman points out most basketball outsiders had never heard of.  McKinney was the mastermind behind the fastbreak offense.  Although he wasn’t flashy (Buss initially opposed the McKinney hire), his offense was.  No isolation, constant movement, no winding down of the shot clock, basketball in one fluid motion.  The team would be better conditioned than any other and their offense would dare you to stop it.  Magic Johnson, portrayed eerily and just as charismatically by Quincy Isaiah, was the man designed to run the point and play the part, despite the irony of his last name.  After this role, it will be hard to see Isaiah in anything else and not think Magic Johnson. 

Thanks to Buss, Magic, and several other real-life characters in both the book and series, the franchise, and the NBA, was forever changed.  Sports became entertainment and the league went prime time.  Thanks in large part to Magic, and his forever-linked rival Larry Bird, the NBA salvaged its image and became must-see TV.  They became household names and the most recognizable athletes in the world.

I am smack dab in the middle of both the series and the book and thoroughly enjoying both.  Even the most ardent basketball purist will enjoy the series, renamed from Showtime (the book’s name and team’s persona) to Winning Time (as Showtime is the name of HBO’s long-time rival).

McKay, as usual, is brilliant. The series is gritty, sexy, edgy, informative, and filmed in a way that takes you back in time to unravel one of the greatest sports stories we never knew.  Watch Winning Time.  Read Showtime.  And if you have the inclination, do so simultaneously in surround sound for full effect.  Its Magic is infectious.

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4 Replies to “Showtime/Winning Time: A Combination Book/HBO Series Review”

  1. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining…the series itself or watching YOU watching the series…both are equally dramatic and exciting to see lol

  2. Yes it’s really great. We’re enjoying it. I’ll have to get PJD the book, as you suggest. Vey well done & I’m loving some of the surprise cameos. Good casting & great fun to watch… thx for the recommendation and good review SC.

  3. BCole…

    I’m geeking out to it, that’s for sure. Love spending those Sunday nights with ya’ and the anticipation leading up to each episode.

    Remember when the Adam McKay/Will Ferrell spat was the most heated one in Hollywood?

  4. M…

    I’m learning lots. Who knew?

    Lots of details I’d recently discovered. I honestly don’t think I’d ever heard the name Jack McKinney yet he was the forgotten one who really started it all.

    No spoilers but I wonder how things would have turned out differently had he not taken that bicycle ride.

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