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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.

Pieces of a Man

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.

Pieces of a Man

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

TV Review: Winning Time S1E4 “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?”

Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?

Showtime’s growing pains continue in Winning Time Season 1, Episode 4 “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?”. Training camp is about to start after last week’s murder of Vic Weiss, Jerry Tarkanian has decided to not take the Lakers job with Weiss’ wife smacking Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) at his funeral. So, per Jerry West’s (Jason Clarke) recommendation, Buss and the Lakers decide to go with Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), who might have the stage presence of an accountant, but has ideas that would go on to revolutionize the game of basketball. But, for now, they’re just scrawlings on resort napkins and clipboards, or slides loaded by his assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), a floppy-haired former English professor that is really a non-presence in this episode. Like he just mumbles and quotes Shakespeare and immediately fits in with this quite kooky set of characters

Along with the growing pains on the court, there is still the financial issues with team, and Buss’ accountant/mom Jessie Buss (Sally Field) finds a way out by saddling some of the liabilities with his ex-wife JoAnn Mueller (Kate Arrington). From an awkward opening scene where she and their children have lunch at the same Mexican restaurant as Buss and one of his girlfriends (And Jeanie Buss sees him fingering the woman at the table.) to walking in on him and another woman with the liability paper work, Arrington plays the part with scene-stealing contempt shattering the fantasy that Buss wants everyone to see about him. Writers Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes follow the thread of Jerry Buss’ true desires through the perspective of Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), who gets real depth in this episode walking the line between an intern and boss’ daughter.

From being quiet and meek in the first couple episodes, she speaks up in a meeting and even builds a connection with two of her co-workers over a shared bong. This episode shows how much Jeanie cares about her dad and the Lakers and also how she’s unhappy that he would rather hang out with random women than spend time and communicate with her going all the way back to the opening flashback. However, she does have some real vision in regards to setting apart the Lakers from a college basketball experience, and Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) packages her ideas in something that will sell to Jerry Buss. But it’s all just theory for now. There are no Laker girls or Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon sitting courtside just yet.

Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?

This theme of theory versus practice definitely is the driving engine of Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes’ training camp A-plot although there’s all kinds of squabbles and subplots going on from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) hazing Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), Michael Cooper (Delante Desouza) battling to get a guaranteed contract, and Jerry West not wanting to walk away from the team. Director Damian Marcano excels at shooting the basketball action at its best (Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, and Norm Nixon showing glimpses of real chemistry) and worst (Veteran Ron Boone getting hit by one of Magic Johnson’s no-look passes) while going the montage and voiceover narration route for McKinney’s ideas. With references to Buddhism that reminded me of a future Lakers coach, Tracy Letts nails Jack McKinney’s passion for basketball as well as the heartbreak and compromise he feels when West tells him that he needs to combine his system with some of his old sets. The practices and a verbal sniping show that doing things a new way is painful even as Magic Johnson and Nixon start to buy into system the system while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar simply doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t say a lot of words, but Hughes’ physical presence and taciturn looks show that he knows he’s the undisputed leader of the team and won’t be running suicides or “McKinney miles” with the rest of the Lakers.

I do have to applaud Marcano, Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes for showing viewers the building blocks of Showtime and fast break basketball with montages and film sessions showing how it sharply contrasts with the stagnant half court sets most NBA teams were running at the time. No wonder the league was struggling. There’s also a kind of cheeky animated sequence featuring Magic Johnson that connects his philosophy of basketball to McKinney’s with a focus on making his teammates and basically being good, giving, and game as the basketball court dissolves into Johnson giving oral sex. However, this whole being everyone’s friend is a little bit of facade as Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) reminds him that Magic Johnson basically stole her from one of his teammates. Their phone conversation doesn’t end well, and Isaiah shows a little bit of the darker, sadder side of Johnson, both on and off the court with Boone fighting him because he’s frustrated at his playing style and also that he has a guaranteed contract even though he hasn’t played a minute of professional basketball.

“Who the F**ck Is Jack McKinney” is set in a bikini-clad women-filled oasis in a harsh desert, and no one shot understands the facade that is Jerry Buss’ life and ownership of the Lakers than him mouthing “Fuck” under the pool when he realizes that the Lakers and Forum have no chance of turning a profit this year so he can pay off his creditors. Being together in an enclosed space (Even though McKinney closes practice to the ownership and front office) brings out temper and negative feelings with the Lakers continuing to have a long way to go both on and off the court. However, it’s not all downbeat as Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes position Jack McKinney as one of the true, unsung heroes of the game even if the players hate him for now. Plus there’s strong characterization for Jeanie Buss as Winning Time leans into its greatest strength and weakness: it has a huge cast so it’s hard to get to know all the players, but most of them are fascinating and opportunities for strong, nuanced performances.

Overall Verdict: 8.1

TV Review: Winning Time S1E2 “Is That All There Is?”

Is That All There Is?

Jerry West’s memoir is titled My Charmed, Tormented Life, and from the outside, it doesn’t make sense that a man who is literally the logo of the NBA, one of its greatest players, and also found success as an executive discovering two of the greatest players of my life time (Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry) would describe his life that way. But basketball was an escape for him from a tough life in rural West Virginia until it wasn’t. The second episode, “Is That All There Is?“, of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty delves into West’s (Jason Clarke) love and loathing for the game of basketball, and how it controlled everything in his life, including his mental health and his relationship with his wife Karen (Lola Kirke). Scenes with West bookend the Jonah Hill-directed episode, but writers Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein continue to dig into Magic Johnson’s (Quincy Isaiah) relationship with his family and on-and-off again girlfriend Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) as well as the business side of the Lakers with Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) facing off against Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) and trying to succeed at this business side of things.

The pre-credits sequence of “Is That All There Is” is basically a short film of Jerry West’s life as he bounces the basketball to drown out the sounds of his father abusing his mother as well as the grief over his brother’s death in the Korean War. Hill and editor Hank Corwin dissolve from the snows of West Virginia to confetti in Los Angeles when West won his only championship as a player in 1972. Until Buss tells him that he can play Johnson at power forward, this is the only time he smiles in the episode. The raucous environment of the Forum leads to Jerry West drinking alone at a bar that’s hosting a wake for a guy he doesn’t know, and he ends up having a one night stand with the attendees with confetti still in his air from the championship celebration. (Yes, Jerry West fucks in this episode.)

Basically, like the lyrics of the song and the episode of the title, West is unhappy with his life despite his great successes. He doesn’t like coaching the Lakers as evidenced by his antagonistic encounters with Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) in flashbacks, and general manager Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen) has a good point when he says that Buss giving him free reign to sign players will also hinder him from making excuses why the Lakers keep losing. In contrast with Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson, he doesn’t seem to be having a good time, has no effect on laconic star player Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar (An imposing Solomon Hughes) even after passionately monologuing about how he’ll get a power forward to help him out in the post so maybe it’s time for him to get off this train.

Is That All There Is?

I love the parallels that Barnes and Borenstein draw between Jerry West and Red Auerbach throughout the episode. Auerbach isn’t in the episode a lot, but Chiklis steals every scene with a puff of smoke beginning with a freeze frame, black and white introduction with future NBA commissioner David Stern calling him the pope. Buss and Auerbach are on two planes of reality with the Celtics GM not falling for the Lakers new owner’s offers of a night out and beautiful women even if they do end up sharing a brief dinner. Red Auerbach brings out a darker, less playful side of Jerry Buss with John C. Reilly taking the sunglasses off and saying that he will eat Auerbach’s heart on the Forum floor. It definitely feels like a kid putting on his father’s clothes, especially with all the behind the scenes financial shenanigans like Buss’ mom/accountant Jessie (Sally Field) saying that the Lakers are a money pit or his business associate Frank Mariani stealing the past ten years of records so no nonsense Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) can put together a budget for next year. With talks of big concerts at the Forum or the Lakers being one piece away from a championship, there’s a slight bit of hope in the air, but they could also go bankrupt like Rothman’s last job in Philadelphia.

The love triangle between Magic Johnson, Cookie Kelly, and Brian, a devout church goer and shoe store manager seems contrived while setting up Johnson’s reputation as a womanizer and showing that he’s not a nice guy as he utterly humiliates Brian on a Lansing playground. Isaiah continues to be a believable Johnson on and off the court as he dazzles with his passing and moves and charms everyone at the fish fry. Except for his mother, Christine (LisaGay Hamilton), who is not amused by his gift of a hot tub even though Johnson knows she’s wanted it for years by her reactions to the commercial during her soap operas. She smiles and talks about the gift in an animated way when she’s with her friends, but is all business around her son. Her husband Earvin Sr. (Rob Morgan) finds a middle ground when he basically tells her that Magic is grown up and has to find his own way in L.A., and that his free spirit came from her, who used to play point guard and dance before she joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church. By spending an entire episode showing Magic Johnson’s life and relationships in his hometown, Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein ground him as a character and show that there is an entire town (Ok, maybe not Brian.) rooting for him even as Jerry West plots to minimize role from what Jerry Buss promised.

Jonah Hill cuts down on the sugar rush fourth wall breaking in “Is That All There Is?” and uses more natural storytelling techniques to show the current state of the NBA, the Lakers, and this episode’s key players. Jerry West cowering in a dark room in his underwear or sitting alone at a bar tells more about his mental state than talking to the camera or motormouth voiceovers. This episode also sets up Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics as the key antagonists in the series with the racial implications of them having a white star player in Larry Bird showing up during the owners meeting. But the real conflict in Winning Time is internal with Jerry West butting heads with Jerry Buss, Bill Sharman, and as implied from his interactions with Nixon and Abdul-Jabbar, the players too so he decides to leave as coach right before the season. Him undercutting Buss’ big speech with a glance and a resignation letter creates a sense of uncertainty for future episodes, and boy, am I looking forward to Adrien Brody’s Pat Riley in upcoming weeks. All in all, Winning Time continues to strike a good balance between individual character arcs and the drama of running an NBA franchise in an era when golf, tennis, and bowling were more popular sports.

TV Review: Winning Time S1E1 “The Swan”

Winning Time

HBO Max’s new limited series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty transports you to a time when one of the biggest sports/entertainment franchises in the world was struggling and being used as a bargaining chip in a divorce settlement, the NBA was going bankrupt, and one of its greatest players of all time was just a kid from Lansing, Michigan struggling with if he wanted to go pro or stay in school for a year. Director Adam McKay and writers Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht cast the perennial champion Los Angeles Lakers as underdogs in this fast-paced, faster talking, and exposition-filled pilot episode. The plot revolves around Jerry Buss (A wheeling and dealing John C. Reilly) trying to buy the Lakers from the racist, sexist, and generally unpleasant Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O’Keefe) while also trying to convince Lakers coach/literally the NBA logo Jerry West (Jason Clarke) to draft 6’9″ point guard/phenom Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah).

Besides being a Lakers fan who was too young to experience this era of basketball, what initially drew me to Winning Time is the rumblings about the show not being afraid to show the foibles of such legends of the game like Johnson, West, and Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar (A hilarious and unbothered Solomon Hughes). And the rumors are true with the show opening with a soberingly shot, drab introductory sequence of the worst day in Magic Johnson’s life, which was when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. This scene demonstrates Isaiah’s talent and range as he’s barely holding a smile together while his agent/chauffeur weeps in the car. However, the pace picks up after that, and John C. Reilly truly establishes himself as the star of the show as new Lakers owner Buss even though he doesn’t officially own the team until the episode’s closing moments. Reilly and McKay play up Jerry Buss’ playboy image by having him wake up with naked, uninterested blonde while he’s monologuing about the brilliance of basketball and its potential as entertainment. The fourth wall is broken early and often with Buss acting as the episode’s de-facto narrator and doing a variety of things like monologuing about the NBA’s unpopularity, the state of his finances, and how Jerry West still hates his life because he could never beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

Borenstein and Hecht don’t shy away from discussing the NBA’s main issue at the time, which was marketing a league mainly featured Black athletes to a white audience. The role of race is a main thread in “The Swan” with graphics saying “Black” and White” popping up when pundits and men like Cooke compare Magic Johnson to Larry Bird, the other big 1979 draft pick. Johnson and his father Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) share frank conversations about how they both code switch to make white people in places of power like them, but Johnson Sr. says that being deferential to them hasn’t gotten him anywhere in life as he gently tries to be realistic with his son.

Winning Time' Fact Check: Did Magic Johnson Really Almost Reject the  Lakers' Offer?

Using tracking shots and home video style footage, Adam McKay and cinematographer Todd Banzahl portray Johnson’s family as close-knit, warm, and full of love with his devout Seventh Day Adventist mother Christine (LisaGay Hamilton) calling out his “Magic” nickname every time it’s brought up. It’s a world away from night clubs, champagne and cocaine-filled white parties, and fox coats and combined with 35 mm shots of Johnson Sr. training Magic Johnson in basketball between his garbage collection shifts, the sequences show Johnson’s clear passion for basketball even if he is overwhelmed and starstruck in this first episode. One of the episode’s most powerful scenes shows Johnson hiding on the couch in his very dark hotel room after being humiliated by the Lakers’ current starting point guard Norm Nixon (Played by his son DeVaughn Nixon.) The million watt smile is turned off, and he’s a twenty year old who misses home and might want to play another year of college ball. You can see the condescending things that Nixon and Jack Kent Cooke said to him in-person in Isaiah’s face as he explores a darker, sadder side of an icon. Maybe, he wasn’t quick enough to play point guard in the NBA, and the Lakers would be better off listening to Jerry West and taking Sidney Moncrief, who was more of a scorer.

Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss definitely take center stage in “The Swan” with the episode’s title being a metaphor for how Buss talks a big game about running the Lakers, but is really paddling for dear life. He has to take a loan from his ex-wife to cover the cash part of the deal while the rest of the purchase is in property, which is almost vetoed by Jack Kent Cooke, who is resentful of Buss’ dressed down demeanor and popularity among his female employees. And speaking of female employees, Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht give a substantial subplot to Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), the future president of the Forum. She is harassed by Cooke and his cronies throughout the episode and is surprised that contrary to his reputation, Jerry Buss values her business acumen more than her looks mentioning that she put on the first rock concert in a sports arena. In this and a night club sequence, you can definitely see the entertainment side of the “Showtime” era take flight, and Rothman also ends up taking Buss’ daughter, Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) under her wing. In an almost sweet moment, Jeanie Buss already being employed by the Lakers is a key reason why Jerry Buss ends up playing a financial game of chicken with Jack Kent Cooke so they can continue to have a good relationship. She only has a couple scenes, but has faith in Magic Johnson from watching him play in the college national championship and would rather work for the Lakers than finish college.

Winning Time' Fact Check: Did Magic Johnson Really Almost Reject the  Lakers' Offer?

Acting-wise, John C. Reilly and Quincy Silas carry this episode stepping in the roles of iconic sports figure while imbuing them with quirks and vulnerabilities. However, Jason Clarke’s Jerry West almost steals the show from the broad comedy of a West Virginia gentleman breaking golf clubs and dropping F-bombs when Buss and Lakers GM Bill Sharman mention drafting Magic Johnson to real sadness when he talks to Buss about how Cooke cared more about selling tickets and making money than winning basketball games. Black and white footage of the Celtics beating the Lakers six times in the 1960s flood over his profanity-filled monologue, and his description of the NBA Finals MVP trophy he got when the Lakers lost is darkly hilarious. It’s almost like Jerry West is reliving a war he fought in with the flashbacks like news reels. Clarke and Reilly are rage and serenity in every scene they share and shows that the front office action will be just as compelling as the on-court action in Winning Time.

After dozens of fourth wall breaks in the first 20 minutes or so, this part of Adam McKay’s directing style can get annoying, but he, Borenstein, and Hecht find a rhythm by focusing on the flaws and outsized personalities of Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, and Jerry West. There’s a real seat of his pants energy to any scene that John C. Reilly is in, and it’s fitting he gets the final shot to himself drinking a bottle of bourbon while laughing about how he bought the Lakers. The scenes he shares with Silas are much more wholesome than the wheeling and dealing ones, and their relationship is one to look forward to in upcoming episodes. Reilly brings a Dionysian physicality and California chill to the role of Jerry Buss, and Winning Time is worth checking out for his performance alone.

Overall Verdict: 8.3

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