It’s no coincidence that the two best episodes of Winning Time this season, last week’s and this week’s, unfold over the shortest period of time. Last week was about the developing conflict between Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead over the team’s direction, ending with Magic’s famous locker-room request for a trade. This week comes the inevitable reckoning where it’s up to Jerry Buss to determine how to move forward, which isn’t as obvious a decision as it seems. And boy, does he make a mess of it.
“The Hamburger Hamlet” nibbles at a fundamental weakness in Jerry as an owner: He wants to be the flashy, glad-handing, good-time man about town, the one who gets the credit for making the Lakers the sexiest team in sports and wins championships in the process. From his perspective, he’s done his part in making that happen: The Forum is a party atmosphere that’s hopping every night, and he’s spent unprecedented amounts of money securing the services of Magic, Westhead, and everyone else who brought the Lakers to glory. He’s even bought Jeanie a tennis team to make her happy. In his mind, all he needs to do is kick back and enjoy the returns on his investment.
That’s not what happens, of course, but what actually happens isn’t as obvious as it would seem to us now. In the sporting world of 2023, we know that if a superstar player has made his displeasure with a coach this obvious, the coach will be out of a job. That’s LeBron James and David Blatt. (Despite LeBron’s comments to the press the next day.) That’s Dwight Howard with Stan Van Gundy. That’s James Harden with Kevin McHale. But in 1981, it was unheard of. The old hierarchies were still in place with respect to players and coaches, and while stars still draw plenty of heat for undermining management, it wouldn’t have been clear to Jerry Buss that the generational six-foot-eight point guard he just signed for 25 years was to be respected over the professorial coach who inherited the team after a bike accident.
In the most sharply written scene in the episode, Magic gives Jerry the cold splash of water he needs. Back in Salt Lake City, where the Lakers have sputtered their way to a fifth straight win, Westhead cooly dismisses Magic’s comments as an act of youthful petulance, telling the press that “he’s a sensitive soul, with a lot of growing up to do.” That’s certainly something you might say about a third-year player in their early 20s with a fat contract inflating his ego. But when Magic gets into a room with Jerry for a secret meeting, he’s stunningly resolute. That time at the party when he told Jerry about his misgivings about Westhead’s style? Magic seriously expected his owner to take action. And when he didn’t — when he opted just to let the good times roll, as usual — Magic forced his hand. That’s not immaturity. That’s the leadership Jerry ostensibly wanted from his $25 million man.
As the meeting begins, Jerry approaches Magic with the idea of walking back the whole thing as Westhead expects, like something a tough competitor blurted out in frustration. “I’m going to stand right by your side and say I forgive you, and I love you like a son,” says Jerry. But that doesn’t cut it. Not remotely. Then Jerry tries to play the card that every two-bit columnist and sports fan plays whenever they want to put a superstar in his place: Hey, you’re getting millions of dollars to play a game, so know your place. To that, Magic responds with what would become a player-empowerment-era credo: “I earned that shit. It wasn’t ’cause you loved me like a father. It’s because I’m the best player on this motherfucking team.” Jerry Buss may be the boss, but the Forum is a hot spot because Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put butts in seats and fill up the trophy case.
Winning Time suggests that perhaps it’s a generational thing. When Westhead strolls into Hamburger Hamlet for dinner with his family, confident in his job security, it’s his daughter who predicts that he’s about to get fired. And sure enough, he’s a dead man walking when he finally gets into the office. A secretary won’t even tell him who Jerry is meeting, and the front-office muckety-mucks won’t let him in the conference room. Poor Pat Riley, reflecting on the terrible day his own father lost his job, assumes that he’s going down with the ship, too. Even though he’d been doing his own politicking behind the scenes, getting close to Magic and the other players, he’d assumed his fate was intertwined with Westhead’s.
The boondoggle of a press conference that follows Westhead’s firing is well-known in the annals of press-conference boondoggles — it is the “guy throws his shoes at George W. Bush” of sports pressers — but Winning Time uses a title to make it clear to viewers that what they are witnessing actually happened. In an earlier scene, Jerry wants the other Jerry, Mr. West, to coach the Lakers on an interim basis, but his resistance to taking the job is so fervent that a compromise is struck. West would be the “offense” coach, which directly addresses Magic’s annoyance with Westhead’s stagnant system, and Riley would … well … do the rest. It’s a fluid situation, and Jerry Buss had decided to work everything out on the fly in front of a press still stunned that he’d fired a coach on a winning streak who’d taken the team to a championship two seasons before.
From there, the episode is about Pat Riley the taciturn assistant coach becoming Pat Riley the icon in the making. A series of early setbacks teaches him a hard lesson in the limits of being a “player’s coach.” He can no longer be everyone’s buddy like he could when his job was to implement Westhead’s system. He has to be the hard-nosed motivator that would win Riley many championships and give him a reputation he maintains to this day as the Svengali of “Heat Culture” in Miami, shaking off a mediocre regular season to reach this year’s NBA Finals. He may be movie-star slick on the sidelines, but Riley’s competitive fire would be unrivaled. In the show’s telling, it took some losses for Riley to find his footing. But the big difference between Riley and the teacher-type he succeeded? He’s capable of learning on the job.
• Terrific moment between Kareem and Jerry at the roller rink, with Kareem finishing the job Magic started. He knows the truth about that flashy $25 million contract, too, and it bothers him enough to snort at his own $2.5 million deal: “In five years, you and I both know that’ll be an average salary. In ten years, he’ll be feeling like a fool. But my problem is with you. Your selfishness and superficiality. I honestly wondered what was keeping me from signing that extension. Now I know. It’s you.”
• “Magic is more famous than Rick Springfield!” Fun fact: Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” which was the hit Westhead’s daughter is referencing at dinner, was No. 1 on the charts on August 1, 1981, the day MTV launched.
• “Am I the coach?” “I guess we’ll find out.” (Cut to: them not finding out.)
• The press conference really did happen. Paul Westhead appearing in the background with a box of his office things in his hands is probably a dramatic device.
• Yes, Laker fans really did boo Magic over all this. Fans booing players who assert their power behind the scenes still happens, but it’s not usually the home crowd doing it.
• Solid use of the direct-to-camera device to put faces on the quotes of angry fans and newspaper columnists over the Westhead drama, particularly Jim Murray calling Jerry a “disgrace to sports.”
• More proof that the younger generation gets what Magic’s doing here: Jeanie is onboard. She even slags 7-Up for taking a wait-and-see attitude over it.