history lessons

How Winning Time’s Characters Compare to Their Real-Life Counterparts

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by HBO and Getty Images

“My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same,” Jerry Buss said to ESPN in 2010. “When you think New York, you think Yankees. I wanted that to be the case here as well. That when you think L.A., you think Lakers. I believe I’ve accomplished that.” It’s no exaggeration to say basketball games were revolutionized by late Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who envisioned an immersive, commercialized experience for the sport. Adam McKay’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a.k.a. the final straw in his longtime business partnership with Will Ferrell, follows Buss’s journey creating the Lakers’ Showtime dynasty of the 1980s. The series embodies McKay’s theatrical style and Buss’s showmanship through cheeky (and arguably excessive) fourth-wall breaks, freeze frames, and grainy filters. The series is based on Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Even after Pearlman sold his book rights to screenwriter Jim Hecht in 2014, he didn’t believe the show would actually come to fruition. But like most things involving Jerry Buss, it’s here, and it’s ready to entertain.

Because there are so many people and players involved — 15 main and 34 recurring cast members, to be exact — keeping track of it can feel like [looks at camera] a lot. Luckily, we’ve narrowed down the team with side-by-side comparisons of Winning Time’s key players and their real-life counterparts. It’s showtime!

This article contains spoilers for Winning Time.

Jerry Buss (Played by John C. Reilly)

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Dr. Jerry Buss was the majority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers during the Lakers’ Showtime era of the 1980s. After creating a Los Angeles real-estate empire in the 1970s, including New York City’s Chrysler Building, Buss purchased the Lakers, NHL Kings, the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, and a 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there, he revolutionized the sports industry, creating the concept of “sports entertainment.” He added elements of live entertainment by creating the Laker Girls cheerleaders, hiring a house band, and scheduling music performances at every game. In the premiere episode, “The Swan,” Buss tells first-draft pick Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), “I don’t know why basketball can’t feel like that,” while watching a musical performance at a nightclub.

Under his ownership, the Lakers won ten NBA championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010), and five of those were during the 1980s Showtime era. He also created the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997, and they went on to win two WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. He developed a lifelong friendship with Lakers star Magic Johnson, who later in life considered him a “second father.” Buss also worked with basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol as well Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductees Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.

A known playboy, he had a number of young girlfriends after his divorce from JoAnn Mueller in 1972. All six of his children — four with Mueller and two with ex-girlfriend Karen Demel — became involved with the Lakers franchise, including current owner and president of the team Jeanie Buss. Jerry was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 for creating one of the most successful sports franchises in history. “Even today, when they talk on ESPN, ‘Greatest Owners in Sports History’ … come on, man, that’s crazy! It’s just him! What are we arguing about? Ten championships? Countless times to the Western Conference Finals … He was the mastermind. Everybody today should be thanking him,” Johnson told the NBA of his longtime friend. Jerry died of kidney failure on February 18, 2013, after battling cancer for a year. At the time of his death, he left behind an unforgettable Lakers legacy and was estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion.

Magic Johnson (Played by Quincy Isaiah)

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One of the star Showtime Lakers players, 19-year-old Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. joined the team as the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft. At a towering six-foot-nine, he won his first NBA championship during his rookie season and became the first rookie to win NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP). Throughout his career, he won five NBA championships, three NBA finals MVP titles, and three NBA season MVP titles. Johnson’s close friendship with Jerry was criticized by his fellow teammates, as it was an unwritten rule for players not to befriend the owner of the team. However, Johnson wanted insight into the business aspect of the sport. Beyond basketball, Johnson had aspirations to be an entrepreneur in different fields, from sports to theater, once he retired from the sport.

Johnson’s biggest on-court rival was the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird. It began with Johnson’s win in the 1979 NCAA finals, reigniting the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, which has been deemed one of the sport’s greatest. The two competed head-to-head at three NBA finals, with the Lakers winning the last two. However, there are no hard feelings off the court between the two. Johnson and Bird became friendly during a 1984 Converse commercialBird invited Johnson to lunch with his mother; the two realized they had a lot in common. Despite their friendship, they kept their rivalry intense but professional on the court.

In 1991, Johnson shared that he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from basketball; however, he returned to the sport for the 1992 All-Star Game and the 1992 Olympic Games. Johnson became an advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness, launching the Magic Johnson Foundation in 1991. Throughout his career, Johnson continued to expand his community outreach beyond HIV/AIDS activism; he worked with churches, homeless shelters, and youth organizations. With what he learned from Buss, he became an entrepreneur, creating Magic Johnson Enterprises, which includes movie-theater chains, fast-food restaurants, and professional sports teams, with a reported net worth of $600 million. He served as a head coach for the Lakers for one season in 1994 then became a minority owner of the franchise until 2010. Johnson resigned as president of basketball operations in 2019, making it his final role with the Lakers. He’s currently an NBA ambassador and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. According to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, she still goes to Johnson for advice on the team despite his formal departure. Johnson has three children and is married to his college sweetheart, “Cookie” Johnson.

Jeanie Buss (Played by Hadley Robinson)

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Contrary to the series, Jeanie Buss worked for several years in sports management before beginning her acclaimed career with the Lakers. While earning a business degree from the University of Southern California, Jeanie became general manager of the Los Angeles Strings, a World Team Tennis franchise, in 1981 during the Showtime era. She worked alongside Linda Rambis, who then became her business partner for over 40 years. In the early 1990s, Jeanie became the owner of the Los Angeles Blades roller hockey team and was named executive of the year by Roller Hockey International. Eventually, she became a part of the Lakers family by becoming president of the Forum, the team’s former venue, in 1995. Just a few short years later, Jeanie would be named executive vice-president of business operations for the Lakers. When her father died in 2013, Jeanie was left with 11 percent ownership of the Lakers, an equal vote to her siblings. However, she was also named Lakers’ governor and team representative.

While the Lakers have stated that they “are not supporting nor involved with” Winning Time, Jeanie herself did not approve of the HBO series, per former Forum president Claire Rothman. However, Jeanie has been involved with several Laker-inspired shows. Jeanie is currently producing a fictional workplace comedy inspired by the Lakers with Mindy Kailing and Rambis and an upcoming Hulu docuseries about the Lakers.

Jeanie Buss is currently the controlling owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers. As one of the only three NBA teams with women in ownership positions, Jeanie became the only female controlling owner to guide her team to a championship in 2020. She remains close friends with Magic Johnson, who she considers a brother. In an interview with comedian Theo Von, Jeanie said of Magic, “When he and I are together, working, strategizing, we speak the same language because we were basically raised by the same man. My dad bought the team when I was 17, Magic came that same year at age 19, so we’re basically the same age. We learned at the hand of the greatest owners ever.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Played by Solomon Hughes)

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Beginning his Los Angeles Lakers career in 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped form the Showtime dynasty as the team’s center and main defensive strategy. The basketball star did, in fact, star in the 1980 cult-classic parody film Airplane! Of his role as Roger Murdock, Abdul-Jabbar said on the Today show, “I thought that I come across the wrong way to the public, and it really was a great opportunity for me to poke fun of my image and just get people to laugh about a few things. I had taken my career so seriously, and I was so focused on it. People didn’t think I could do anything else.” At a height of seven-foot-two, he had a reputation for carrying the team’s defense while playing center, winning five NBA All-Defensive First Team and six NBA All-Defensive Second Team awards during his career. He retired from the Lakers in 1989 and holds the record as the NBA All-Time Leading Scorer with 38,387 points. Abdul-Jabbar has since returned to Hollywood; he joined the writing staff of the 2019 Veronica Mars revival and is currently a contributing editor to The Hollywood Reporter.

Abdul-Jabbar has four children, three with his ex-wife Habiba Abdul-Jabbar and one with his girlfriend during the Showtime era, Cheryl Pistono (played by Sarah Ramos). Pistono convinced Kareem to formally divorce his wife after they had been separated for several years and supported him when he lost his beloved jazz-record collection when his house burned down in 1983. The couple broke up a year later. On her relationship with Kareem: “The reason we have a great relationship is because I don’t drag him back through those days and those issues. To do that would cause more problems. We made a pact because of our son. That was more important than anything we didn’t like about each other.”

Jerry West (Played by Jason Clarke)

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The man behind the silhouette of the NBA logo, Jerry West has spent over 60 years with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was the second first-round pick of the Minneapolis Lakers right before they moved to Los Angeles in 1960. He served as point guard for 14 years, becoming the league’s only MVP on a losing team after losing to the Boston Celtics in 1969. Winning Time meets West as an uptight general manager of the Lakers who struggles with the losses from his career playing in the league. West continued as the team’s general manager for many years, winning the NBA Executive of the Year award in 1995, a year before signing Lakers legends Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. After leaving the Lakers in 2000, he moved on to become the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, where he won his second NBA Executive of the Year award in 2004. West is currently an executive consultant for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Larry Bird (Played by Sean Patrick Small)

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Larry Bird first met Johnson on the court during the NCAA championship in 1979, where their rivalry began. He was drafted to the Boston Celtics during his junior year at Indiana State University where he won rookie of the year in 1980. His shooting ability and charismatic charm drew crowds to live games, especially when the Celtics played the Lakers. Bird won three NBA championships with the Celtics (1981, 1984, 1986) and three MVP awards in a row (1984, 1985, 1986). He eventually retired in 1992 because of ongoing back problems. However, he competed in one last professional game during the Summer 1992 Olympics alongside Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, winning the Men’s Basketball gold medal. Bird became the coach of the Indiana Pacers in 1997 and was named the NBA Coach of the Year for the same season. He later became the Pacers’ president of basketball, and for the 2011-2012 season, he won NBA executive of the year. With this achievement, he became the only person to be named NBA MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. Bird has since stepped down from his executive duties and is currently an adviser to the team.

Claire Rothman (Played by Gaby Hoffmann)

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As a homemaker and business partner to her first husband, Claire Rothman knew how to run the numbers. After her divorce, she worked as a bookkeeper at the Spectrum arena in Philadelphia and was quickly promoted to business manager. She was hired by former Forum owner Jack Kent Cooke, who she then introduced to Jerry Buss, leading to the historic sale. Rothman began her career with the Forum and subsequently the Lakers in 1975 as the president and the general manager of the arena. She left the Forum in 1995 to become an executive vice-president at Ticketmaster until her retirement in 1999. Contrary to the show, Claire Rothman did not work directly with Jeanie Buss; Jeanie took over the role after Rothman left the Forum.

With respect to Winning Time, Rothman shared that she declined to be involved because it was not approved by Jeanie. “I did read the first episode that Jeanie sent me, and I didn’t like the way it presented Jerry, and I didn’t like the way it presented me,” said Rothman to Goldstein and Gasol’s Pablo Goldstein. “The thing that stuck out was that it said when I went to meet Jerry, I unbuttoned my blouse by three buttons. Now, that’s bullshit. I had a long-term association as an arena manager. So I wouldn’t have cooperated in any case.” Rothman remains close friends with Jeanie Buss.

Norm Nixon (Played by DeVaughn Nixon)

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Played by his son DeVaughn Nixon, Norm Nixon was the point guard for the Lakers, winning two championships in 1980 and 1982. He was traded to the San Diego Clippers in 1983 but never made the playoffs with the team. Once he retired from playing professionally, Norm became a sports agent for several years and is currently a color analyst during the Lakers’ home games.

Pat Riley (Played by Adrien Brody)

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Winning Time finds Pat Riley uninspired, several years after his retirement from playing professional basketball. In the series, his therapist wife, Chris (played by Gillian Jacobs), inspires him to head back to the Forum in an effort to not turn out like his father. Similar to Jerry West, Riley began his Lakers career in the early 1970s as shooting guard and spent nine seasons in the NBA. He rejoined the Lakers in 1977 as a broadcaster for two years until he replaced Paul Westhead as an assistant coach. However, after Magic Johnson expressed his dissatisfaction playing for Westhead as Lakers head coach, Jerry Buss fired Westhead and named Jerry West and Pat Riley as co-head coaches in the 1981–1982 season. Riley fit right into the Showtime image with his signature tan skin and Armani designer suits (Giorgio and Riley were friends off the court) which earned him the nickname “the Godfather.”

As co-head coach, he used the 1-3-1 half-court trap that helped the Lakers win using defensive techniques. Riley won five NBA championships with the Lakers, one as a player (1972) and four as a coach (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988). He left the Lakers in 1991 to become the head coach to the New York Knicks for four years and then moved to the Miami Heat in 1995. He became the president and head coach of the Heat, winning an NBA championship in 2006 as both a coach and an executive. Riley stepped down as head coach in 2008 but has since remained as president of the Heat.

Paul Westhead (Played by Jason Segel)

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After head coach Jack McKinney was hospitalized because of a biking accident, his assistant Paul Westhead stepped up as head coach of the Lakers in 1980, leaving his job as a NCAA coach and English teacher at La Salle University. As a coach, he lead the team to their first championship during the Showtime era in 1980. However, after a devastating playoff loss in 1981 to the Houston Rockets, Magic Johnson began questioning Westhead’s coaching ability. Tensions finally escalated in 1982 when Jerry Buss finally fired Westhead in the middle of the season, promoting Pat Riley to head coach alongside Jerry West. He eventually returned to college basketball and coached for Loyola Marymount. Westhead coached and assisted for many teams like the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, and the University of Oregon. “I had a rather unusual basketball system and style of play. Over 20 jobs, it got me fired 14 times,” Westhead said in an interview with Legends of Sports. “If I was just another fast-break coach, I might be still coaching the Lakers or the Bulls or somebody. But because it was so different, I got fired.” Westhead is currently retired from coaching.

How Winning Time’s Characters Compare to Real Life