TV Review: Winning Time S1E5 “Pieces of a Man”
At the halfway point of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, some basketball is actually played, and writers Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes and director Tanya Hamilton zero in on the life and faith of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) opening “Pieces of a Man” with his conversion to Islam and name change from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The grainy quality of these cut-up montages of Abdul-Jabbar’s life as wide-eyed, earnest young man speaking out against police brutality and American imperialism and praying five times a day contrasts with the dark glamour of Jerry Buss’ (John C. Reilly) Forum Club as he runs ragged trying to have everything perfect for the first game of the season. Barnes and Borenstein dig into Buss’ micromanaging side where he nitpicks at everything from the first Laker Girls to the make of the bar until his put-upon business partner Frank Mariani (Stephen Adly Guirgis) tells him to enjoy the ride.
Hughes has brought misanthropy and presence to the role of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but up to this point, he’s been in the background of Winning Time‘s narrative as the jazz-listening, aging star of the Lakers, who is skeptical about coach Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) new system and the easy smile of teammate Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). “Pieces of a Man” dig into why Abdul-Jabbar is this way, and how he wants to change the world and not just be a great basketball player. Hamilton peers into his relationship with his Harlem transit police officer father Al Alcindor that is strained when he speaks out against a New York policeman killing a Black teenager. She shows him keeping his eyes open during his Christian family’s prayers showing that he doesn’t feel comfortable or welcome with this belief system.
Islam gives Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a way to be a part of something bigger than himself, and the episode draws attention to his prayers and includes an extended conversation with an imam at a mosque that recenters him and gives him a warmer connection to Johnson, McKinney, and the game of basketball. Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein’s writing sings in that sequences and combined with the jazz needle drops add the portrayal of a spiritual, aloof, and sometimes inspirational man. It’s wild to see the 180 from the first game against the San Diego Clippers (Featuring a cameo from baby Kobe Bryant whose dad Joe played for the Clippers.) and the second one against the Bulls where he goes from droning his stat line to Jack McKinney and telling Magic Johnson to fuck off after he hits the game winning sky hook to smiling and enjoying basketball again.
Barnes and Borenstein give Abdul-Jabbar a full arc in this episode, and it runs parallel to Johnson taking more of a leadership role on the team even though he’s a rookie. Although he goofs off with jokes about newcomer Spencer Haywood’s (Wood Harris) home-circumcision and blasts the boombox in the locker room, Magic Johnson shows a real work ethic showing up first to practice and buying into McKinney’s fast break system, but he’s afraid of having a conversation with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and defers to him as he lumbers down the court and doesn’t really participate in practice. Finally, Abdul-Jabbar pulls Johnson aside for a lesson in “comporting himself” (The real Abdul-Jabbar still doing the same thing today with LeBron James.), and it turns into a fight when the younger player critiques his lack of effort and that his bad attitude is dragging down the team. However, it’s a real growth moment for Magic Johnson, who demonstrates he can smile and be goofy as well as be serious about the team’s performance. Isaiah brings a high-wire energy to his performance as Johnson this episode teetering between enthusiastic and annoying. This culminates in a brightly lit, quick cut montage sequence from Tanya Hamilton showing the fusion between basketball and entertainment that is the Showtime Lakers with Chick Hearn’s (A velvety smooth Spencer Garrett) commentary acting as the back beat.
And the other major plot in “Pieces of a Man” follows Jerry Buss trying to get everything right about the Lakers, the game day experience, and the Forum while radio pundits blast his inexperience. (At least, until the first winning streak.) Except when he’s enjoying the Laker Girls or watching the game courtside, John C. Reilly mostly plays Jerry Buss as angry yelling at choreographers and punching bars while Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman) looks like she’s constantly in need of a cigarette. As evidenced by the portfolios of buildings he’s bought and sold and the scrapbook of women he’s slept with, Buss likes the chase more than sitting with something for a while. Even as the Lakers succeed on the court, there’s an edginess to his behavior with his mom/accountant Jessie Buss (Sally Field) thinking he’ll fail and deciding not to go to the first game. Also, his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) mirrors his behavior running around all town trying to find a dance troupe and ends up recruiting a teenage Paula Abdul to be head choreographer and dancer and also punching a vending machine until her hand almost bleeds. She looks in pain when Buss is ogling the Laker Girls though.
However, the two steps forward, one step back through-line of Winning Time continues in the episode’s closing scene. Jack McKinney’s wife Cranny (Julianne Nicholson) encourages him to take a day off and play tennis with his bestie/assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), who is the one person he can really be comfortable around. Tanya Hamilton turns the camera on McKinney’s binder full of plays and schemes before cutting to a sunny L.A. day with a “Good Vibrations” needle drop. During the whole bike ride, it feels like the other shoe is about to drop from a driver almost running a stop sign and fiddling with the radio to the popping of the frame and finally an utterly tragic slow pan. The architect of Showtime is down just as his ideas were becoming reality.
“Pieces of a Man” continues Winning Time‘s structure of focusing on one key figure from the Showtime Lakers and connecting his (Yes, they’ve all been men up to this point.) journey to the franchise’s. This time it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Rodney Barnes, Max Borenstein, and Tanya Hamilton explore the sky-hook master’s faith, activism, and overall prickliness as he doesn’t buy into Showtime for now even though it would be easier on his body than the way he’s played for decades. (There are many sequences of Abdul-Jabbar getting massages and his back cracked, and he’s very much ready to retire.) Documentary-style grittiness and flashy disco for the basketball/dancing sequence collide in an episode that’s truly a feast for the eyes and mind with a dark cliffhanger ending.
Overall Verdict: 8.7