The iconic Lakers/Celtics rivalry takes center stage in “Invisible Man” with a rematch between college enemies Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (A hick-ish Sean Patrick Small) being the talk of the country and also serving as commentary on race in the United States. However, on an immediate level, “substitute” coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) has to win the game, or he loses both his job and his old boss Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) to former Laker Elgin Baylor (Orlando Jones in a bad wig), who accidentally calls Pat Riley’s (Adrien Brody) hotel room instead of a scheming Jerry West (Jason Clarke), who is doing the opposite of retiring.
Director Payman Benz frames the episode like a game of Monopoly, which is Jerry Buss’ (John C. Reilly) favorite board game because it relies on both chance and strategy, and it connects well to the plot of the episode. If Michael Cooper’s layup at the end of the Lakers/Celtics bounced another way (And the editing shows how desperate it is.), Westhead would have lost his job, and who knows if the Lakers would have won a championship under Baylor. So, it’s safe to say that Westhead is under a lot of stress this episode especially as the losses pile up. He gets talked over in the locker room and hides behind Riley, who shows a real talent for coaching and motivation, complete with shots of him slicking back his hair that hint at the legend he would become. There’s a great scene where Riley gets into it with Westhead and soaks him with cold water basically showing him the harsh reality of what will happen if they don’t win a game on this road trip. They’ve been buddy buddy up to this point, but coaching (Especially against the Celtics.) brings out an angry side of Pat Riley and lets Adrien Brody cut loose a bit with his acting culminating with getting thrown out of the Boston game.
While the coaching situation of the Lakers continues to be unresolved, writers Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes thread the needle and show how the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson (And by extension, Lakers/Celtics) rivalry connects to race and white privilege in the United States. In demeanor, Bird is the complete opposite of Johnson with his one word answers to the press, Bud Light, and spit cup while Magic Johnson is all smiles and gives the journalists something to work with for better or worse. However, despite this and Johnson outperforming Bird on the court in the 1979 national championship game, the media treats him like God’s gift to basketball. Bird makes him feel invisible, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) uses this feeling to have a serious conversation with Magic Johnson about race in the United States, and how since Johnson was bused to an all-white school in Lansing, he’s been trying to stand out with his smile, charisma, and basketball game. However, Abdul-Jabbar tells him that the media will continue to chase Bird even if Johnson dominates him tonight or has a better season overall.
This conversation between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson flows out of a very frank one that the Lakers captain had with Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) at the Christmas dinner that he and his wife host for the team after they’re upset by the last place Detroit Pistons. They start by making small talk about Abdul-Jabbar’s appetite, and how much Johnson Sr. respects Abdul-Jabbar and is glad that his son gets to play with one of the greatest centers of all time. However, the chat turns into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking Earvin Johnson Sr. why Johnson doesn’t seem to harbor any anger about race relations in the United States and, on a lighter note, if he’s always smiled all the time. Johnson Sr. says that he has been puzzled by this too, especially since he grew up in Mississippi when lynchings were common. Benz, Borenstein, and Barnes also use this scene to frame two men who genuinely care about Magic Johnson and don’t want him to be overwhelmed by folks who would take advantage of him with Abdul-Jabbar starting to take on a kind of surrogate father role for Johnson. This is in contrast with his agent Dr. Day (Steve Harris), who urges him to immediately take a deal with Buick focusing on the money that Magic Johnson would make while Earvin Johnson Sr. warns him that the cars are less dependable than they used to be according to his friends who work at their factory.
The complicated relationship between Magic Johnson and Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) continues in “Invisible Man” as she doesn’t use his tickets to the Lakers/Pistons game, but buys her own nosebleeds ticket. However, Isaiah and Tomakili demonstrate great chemistry with Johnson almost missing the team bus to Boston and calls her family hinting at an actual future for their relationship. But then Payman Benz does a quick cut to Kelly’s friend Rhonda getting dressed in the bathroom after their conversation. Yes, Johnson slept with the supposed love of his life’s best friend, and the rumors about him picking out women in the crowd at different games to sleep with makes sense. Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes continue to show that Magic Johnson cares about Cookie Kelly deeply, but he also wants to enjoy his life as a young NBA star and not settle down just yet. (This is probably why the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t sign off on the show!)
The climax of “Invisible Man” is the Lakers vs. Celtics game, and there’s a lot on the line including Westhead and McKinney’s jobs, Johnson’s place in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and West’s sanity as he says that one loss to Boston is what led to the Lakers’ inability to beat them in the playoffs. Director Payman Benz shoots the Boston Garden like a haunted house complete with a racist, animated leprechaun, and both Pat Riley and Norm Nixon talk about the arena in the same hushed tones as a ghost story. And the ghost stories are true with the referees giving the Celtics every call to the soundtrack of Johnny Most’s (G. Larry Butler) incredibly biased/homer commentary while cutting to Buss and Bill Sharman sitting in the nosebleeds, and West getting taunted by his driver while listening to the game in the car because he doesn’t want to set foot in the Boston Garden again. Most and Chick Hearn’s (Spencer Garrett) makes the scene incredibly entertaining and also is a contrast between the old and new NBA.
Somehow, the Lakers win the game after Riley is ejected for saying he slept with the referee’s mother, and a fight breaks out after Larry Bird throws a ball at former All-Star/current ring-chasing enforcer/power forward Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris), who is finally getting some playing time from Westhead after benching him because of a misunderstanding that’s nagged at him the past two episodes. Like in the game at the beginning of the episode, the team is pretty much self-coaching, and the only reason Buss doesn’t fire Paul Westhead is because that would lose him McKinney too. However, Jason Segel taps into some rage and finally shows a little backbone with a “Fuck Boston” chant in the huddle and also giving the referees a piece of his mind down the stretch. He also has a good defensive game plan for Larry Bird, but Bird is that good telling his defender how and when he’ll make shots.
In the game sequences and through the reactions of the crowd in Boston plus animated and documentary-style elements like racist Boston fans putting human excrement in Bill Russell’s bed even after he won them 11 titles, Payman Benz shows how exciting the Lakers/Celtics rivalry was and also how it’s a microcosm of race relations in the United States through well-acted scenes with Quincy Isaiah, Solomon Hughes, and Rob Morgan as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin Johnson Sr. Segel also brings a lot of fear and anxiety to the role of Westhead while Adrien Brody adds a little more confidence and charisma to his portrayal of Pat Riley with the ejection sequence showing that he makes a great head coach.
As someone who has said “Fuck Boston” many times (Including today when they beat the Brooklyn Nets on a last minute shot in the first game of the NBA Playoffs), I’m definitely biased, but “Invisible Man” is one of the stronger episodes of Winning Time with a compelling visual style (Sunny LA vs the Crypt Keeper’s Lair aka the Boston Garden), strong characterization for Johnson, Riley, Westhead, and a demon-facing West, and sociopolitical commentary about being Black in the United States using the ultimate NBA rivalry as the lens.
Overall Verdict: 9.0