Winning Time’s second episode deals with an all too familiar topic: money. But whereas the series premiere focused on whether Jerry Buss could come up with the money he needed to buy the Los Angeles Lakers, this episode centers on how the new Lakers owner will pay for the championship roster he desperately craves — and how it affects his employees.
It’s the Lakers’ head coach Jerry West who bristles most when Buss gleefully announces that he’s going to be a hands-on owner and promises he’ll pay whatever it takes to load the roster with talent. West is used to Jack Kent Cooke reverting to an industrialist mind-set once he realizes that a championship team means an expensive roster, which means less money in the coffers. But when West realizes Buss is serious, he falls into a devastating depression (“ups and downs,” as his wife Karen, played by Lola Kirke, calls his days-long mood swings). Why? Because if he has a roster packed with bona fide superstars and talented role players, he won’t have an excuse if he loses yet again.
During a family gathering to celebrate signing with the Lakers, Magic realizes that money changes everything (especially when your salary is front-page national news). When Magic gives his mom a brand-new hot tub, she trashes it because it symbolizes the end of his college education and not-very-devout Christendom — only to brag about it to everyone later. And in the first of what will surely be thousands of lousy business pitches Magic Johnson will hear throughout his lifetime, his cousins try to sell him on a shaved-ice business (because it’s hot in L.A., as they explain). He’s saved from those would-be entrepreneurs by the first appearance of Cookie (Tamera Tomakili), Magic’s ex-girlfriend, future wife, and true love of his life.
Unlike the other women in Magic’s orbit (all the nameless women that go through Magic’s car), Cookie isn’t wowed by his celebrity or impressed by his money. She makes that very clear when she rejects Magic when he uses both to put down her clean-cut, churchgoing-shoe salesman boyfriend, Vern. Even when she’s explaining how his troubled maternal relationship mirrors the young hotshot’s attitude to anyone whose status is below his (so, everyone), he can’t stop trying to take Cookie into Vern’s back office. When that doesn’t work, he ramps up the asshole arrogance to a new level, trash-talking and slam-dunking Vern into oblivion days later during a neighborhood street-ball game. Yet somehow, that display of textbook alpha vanity doesn’t turn Cookie away by the end of the episode.
The only thing more disconcerting than the trite Lansing-set melodrama in Winning Time are the scenes where Magic plays basketball (the only time we see basketball played so far). If you knew little about Magic Johnson’s basketball career before watching Winning Time, do the scenes of him dominating a shoe salesman convince you of his greatness? How about him getting made to look like a fool by lesser player Norm Nixon in the pilot? It makes sense to try to appeal to the part of Winning Time’s audience that knows little about basketball, but the basketball scenes thus far seem likely to leave viewers wondering why Earvin “Magic” Johnson is such a big deal.
Back in California, Buss is having a hell of a time figuring out how he will fulfill his promise to Jerry West. Luckily, he’s also the owner of the building the Lakers play in. So when he directs Claire Rothman to add 60 more nights of events at the Forum during the Lakers’ off-nights, she’s not too pleased about the new directive. First, she’s used to handling the books, and second, she only finds out about it because Jeanie Buss unwittingly allowed her father’s business partner to ransack Rothman’s office. Rothman holds a meeting to figure out how to book more shows and initially dismisses Jeanie’s very Bussian notion that, despite the crappy sound system, people will come to see musical acts at the Forum simply because it’s cool. But when Rothman realizes she has a legitimate passion for the business, she lends an olive branch and takes Jeanie under her wing — foreshadowing Jeanie’s destiny as the Lakers’ future owner and arguably the most powerful woman in professional sports.
Jeanie’s not the only Buss roped into the family business. Buss hands the accounting off to his mother, Jessie Buss (played by Sally Field), who gives this episode (and the series) a much-needed spark. Jerry takes after his mother in many ways: drinking, socializing, having witty retorts at the ready. She doesn’t quite believe her golden child when he says that sports owners will be the new titans of industries, but she will gladly handle the accounting while he figures out how to put together a winner.
But to be the best, you gotta beat the best. For the Lakers, that means the rival Celtics, run by cigar-chomping general manager Red Auerbach (played with Kingpin-like aplomb by Michael Chiklis). Auerbach sees Buss as nothing more than a frivolous playboy (Buss doesn’t help by inviting him to the Playboy Mansion) who naïvely asks his rival for advice on how to become a champion. Auerbach laughs in his face and offers to take Buss’s best players so that the Lakers owner can make some real money. But is the poker-playing Buss losing this hand on purpose? While he leaves the restaurant looking like the rookie owner that he is, he gains one battle-hardened piece of advice from the winningest man in the NBA: Championships aren’t won; they’re taken.
With that, Buss returns to the Forum and calls an all-hands meeting to let everyone know that the Lakers organization of old is dead. But unfortunately for Buss, he has no idea how instantaneous his words are as Jerry West announces that he will no longer be the Lakers’ head coach.
• The cold open shows Jerry West’s traumatic childhood in an impoverished West Virginia coal-mining town, where he grew up with a violently abusive father, a beloved older brother killed in the Korean War, and a mother traumatized by the death of the family’s favorite son. Combined with his deep-seated embarrassment over losing to the Boston Celtics six consecutive times in the NBA Finals, you get a clearer picture of a man who was described by his wife Karen in his 2011 autobiography West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life as “the saddest man she had ever met.”
• Jerry West might’ve been the “saddest” man his wife and colleagues had ever met, but he was by no means the angriest. In an article for The Athletic this week, several longtime co-workers and friends took issue with the show’s portrayal of West. They don’t deny that he was mercurial but that he kept his anger within and rarely, if ever, lashed out at others.
• Lakers general manager Bill Sharman, played by Chris Cullen, is one of only five people enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach. Before coaching the Lakers to their first NBA Finals title in 1972, Sharman was an All-Star shooting guard for the Celtics who defeated the Lakers in the 1959 NBA Finals, the first of eight consecutive defeats the Lakers suffered against the Celtics in the Finals.
• Jerry West has worked as a general manager or consultant for the Grizzlies, Warriors, and the Lakers’ cross-stadium rival Clippers upon leaving the Purple and Gold in 2000. He expressed interest in returning to the team in 2017, but Jeanie Buss’s lack of interest crumbled his chances into a nadir. In a February 2022 interview, West said that the Lakers have treated him like a “piece of trash.”
• Red Auerbach loved his cigars. This is the man who literally invented the victory cigar. He would smoke a stogie on the bench during the end of games where the result was not in question.
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: Magic Johnson lets us know that making money feels good.