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.
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.
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