How Winning Time Bottled the Magic of Showtime Lakers Basketball

Photo: HBO

We’re talking about practice — specifically, a basketball practice in episode four of HBO’s Winning Time. Filmed on location at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs, it’s the moment when the Lakers’ new head coach, Tracy Letts’s Jack McKinney, convinces the players to use his fast-break offense, which would form the foundation of one of the most successful runs in sports history. It’s a complex scene that involves intricate actor and camera choreography, and the guy tasked with committing it to film (and tape and digital video), the director Damian Marcano, wasn’t even much of a basketball fan. (Marcano, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, spent more time on set talking cricket with Jason Clarke, the Australian actor who plays outgoing Lakers coach Jerry West). But by marrying Marcano’s vision with a hired-gun “hoops whisperer” and a camera team that included an operator on in-line skates, the show was able to approximate for us mortals what it might have felt like to see the court in the singular way of Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. It’s just the latest example of the lengths to which the show goes to hit the story’s basketball beats.

Historically, there are a couple of approaches for producing hoop fiction. There’s the Juwanna Mann model: cast a good actor with questionable handles and keep the lens tight. Alternatively, there’s the He Got Game approach: cast an actual basketball superstar, like Hall of Famer Ray Allen, but keep the camera on an acting dynamo like Denzel Washington. In almost every case, compromises are made, disbelief suspended. Marcano studied none of it. Instead, the director, hired by Winning Time executive producer Adam McKay on the strength of one of his short films, Chee$e — which, like the HBO show, features a playful use of subtitles and vintage film stock — worked with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. to focus on breaking the viewer’s static frame of reference.

Recreating the speed and skill of professional basketball onscreen is a difficult proposition. In much of the grainy 1980s game footage available on YouTube, you can feel the frazzled operators always a beat behind Magic’s misdirections, whipping the lens a split second too late to capture the ball as it reached its target, lulled by Johnson’s eyebrows popping on a no-look pass (which actor Quincy Isaiah nails), startled by the knee-padded leg kicking out on a half-court bounce pass off the parquet (which Isaiah also nails) — dramatic convulsions that made crowds erupt.

Considering the way TV camera crews have typically documented NBA games, Marcano says, “Basketball always had that wide camera way up in the rafters somewhere, and then they’d have a guy that was kind of center court.” One day, watching his children play video games, Marcano says he was struck by how their controllers could manipulate camera angles and capture action on multiple visual axes. “I’m like, Hmmm, now here’s a way basketball wasn’t captured way back then.”

In addition to running the usual five cameras that help give Winning Time its neo-retro feel (three 35-mm. cameras, a vintage Ikagami broadcast camera, and a Super 8), Marcano enlisted the help of a crucial sixth man: a young 16-mm. camera operator on Rollerblades who would weave around Isaiah as he evoked Johnson’s game-changing court vision, moving in a semi-circle around the straight line of a pass. “Looking back at our roller camera operator, John Lyke, I mean, he was always dripping sweat, just as much as the guys were on the court. So that has to tell you the labor that he had to put down there.”

Those touches are crucial: It is here that the series tries to make its convincing case that this practice is not only a turning point for the narrative — but also for history. The training-camp workout is supposed to mark the franchise’s transition from slower, fundamental-heavy basketball to a more improvisational, fast-paced style of play.

“We wanted to dramatize the basic difference between what McKinney was proposing and what had come before and why that new style would be both challenging and uncomfortable for great players,” says showrunner Max Borenstein, a lifelong Lakers fan. Finding actors who resemble professional basketball players was invariably difficult (close viewers will notice that Isaiah, who is six inches shorter than Johnson, is rarely filmed in group shots); preparing those actors to move like the Showtime Lakers proved to be an additional challenge.

To get that aspect right, Borenstein and the other writers turned to Idan Ravin, basketball’s self-proclaimed “Hoops Whisperer” and an acclaimed skills trainer who has helped everyone from Steph Curry to Maya Moore. It was former Lakers forward Rick Fox, a longtime friend of Winning Time co-creator Jim Hecht, who connected the production team with Ravin. As a consultant for the show, Fox was able to offer the writers a glimpse of the life — “to have individuals that understand what it means to be an NBA player, to have played in L.A., to play for the Lakers, I checked all those boxes,” Fox says. But when it came to teaching the actors how to literally embody the mechanics of their roles, Fox suggested bringing in Ravin, whose unorthodox training techniques have been part of the public basketball imagination as far back as a Nike ad he did with Carmelo Anthony in the aughts.

In the commercial, Ravin is seen flashing fingers in Anthony’s periphery during ball-handling drills while tossing tennis balls to make Anthony switch hands. “My entire process has always been about creating lots of confusion and disguising the purpose of what you’re doing. Then, eventually, when you end up having to do the task, it feels much simpler.” (“Idan killed it,” Fox says.)

Initially, Ravin’s role was specifically in training the players. He started out working with Isaiah to get the specifics of Johnson’s unmistakable movements down. Then he was assigned to DeVaughn Nixon, who plays his father, Norm Nixon. After that came turning Delante Desouza into Michael Cooper and Solomon Hughes into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before long, he was training the whole team. “The responsibilities continued to grow,” Ravin says. “And then I was responsible for all basketball-related casting, and then it was all the choreography and the script interpretation. There’s something very, very specific about what they wanted to get from every particular scene to be able to really convey the emotional beat of the story.”

There were easier projects, such as having Nixon move like his father — “DeVaughn Nixon is an extraordinary athlete; he runs like the wind” — and far more complicated ones, such as teaching Desouza, who is left-handed, to play with his right hand like Cooper. “It’s the smallest things,” says Ravin. “Like, ‘Delante, you have to use the fork right-handed. You have to pick up the water bottle with your right hand.’”

When he heard the show wanted him to transform Isaiah, who had played college football, into the culture-shifting point forward, he thought, Gosh, there’s 400 people in the NBA who can’t be Magic Johnson. Ravin, who has “probably trained over a hundred NBA and WNBA players” since Houston Rockets legend Steve Francis discovered him in a Maryland gym, began training the show’s cast over Zoom during the first year of lockdown, building what he calls “the basketball baseline,” so that the actors, many of whom were college athletes like Isaiah, could improvise.

“If you were watching a movie about karate and the actor that you cast could only do one kick, well, they would be very limited in how elevated the scene could be,” Ravin says. “So there were three phases of development: better athlete, better basketball, better silhouette.” Meanwhile, the lawyer turned trainer put himself through a cinematic training as rigorous as the physical regimen he asked of the actors, poring over hours of vintage Lakers footage, reading film scripts, and obsessively rewatching the 1986 film Hoosiers, eventually making himself indispensable to the writers. “I spent a lot of time reading between the lines to figure out what action or choreography would really capture what they wanted out of a scene.”

Ravin’s fingerprints aren’t strictly on the show’s basketball gameplay. In a scene from episode three, which Marcano directed, prospective Lakers coach Jerry Tarkanian is shown bribing a college player with an illicit roll of bills, diagramming a pick-and-roll play at the high-school prospect’s humble kitchen table. “There’s ya pick,” he says, using a glass bottle of sugar to block a defending pepper shaker. “And there’s ya roll,” he continues, moving a salt shaker around the pepper shaker with a secreted roll of cash. The sleight-of-hand was Ravin’s idea. “He’s just brilliant when it comes to anything moving,” Marcano says. “Whether it’s inanimate objects or human beings, the guy just has an insane knack for it.”

All that expertise came to the fore in episode four’s practice scene. The camera on skates “was almost like it was your defender and your teammate at the same time,” Ravin says. In developing the cast as actor-athletes, “the camera was essentially the extension of what we had been working on. We rehearsed everything — every step, every breath, every cut. It was just so precise. We knew where the camera was, very mindful of what the camera was trying to capture, because it wasn’t just a person running with you. It was an image running with you.”

That attention to detail elevates a show that relies on movement to push the narrative along. “You almost build a character of the practice sessions,” Marcano says. “You’re trying to build this character arc through showing the basketball, showing everything, while still keeping the human threads in it.” It says something that Fox, arguably the toughest critic on set, said the practice sequence gave him chills. “I just thought it was some of the best basketball I’ve seen shot and captured in a show, and I’ve been in a lot of basketball movies and TV shows,” he says. “When I saw it, I just thought, Man, we got that right.”

The show attributes this change to McKinney, though it dates further back, to James Naismith’s most important understudy: Black college-coaching legend John McLendon, widely regarded as the innovator of the fast break. It was under the racial apartheid of the 1940s NCAA at the North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University, that McLendon’s quick-tempo offenses and demanding conditioning regiment first took hold before being widely copied.
How Winning Time Bottled the Magic of the Showtime Lakers