“Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.”
That bit of homespun wisdom from a minor-league baseball manager in Ron Shelton’s classic Bull Durham doesn’t exactly apply to basketball, where rainouts are exceedingly rare, but it certainly applies to the life of an athlete. The subtitle of Winning Time may be The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, but even dynasties suffer setbacks and hardships and require constant tending. There were 23 teams in the NBA when the Lakers and Celtics ascended in the 1980s, and plenty of talent was stocking the top rosters. The expectation that a single team is going to win every year is not realistic, but it nevertheless persists in the minds of the league’s fiercest competitors. In a way, how an athlete handles losing is part of a championship mentality, on and off the court.
This past year, when his top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were knocked out in the first round by the Miami Heat, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked after the game if he considered the season a failure. His answer became a viral moment:
“Every year you work, you work toward something, toward a goal, right? Which is to get a promotion, be able to take care of your family, to be able to provide the house for them, or take care of your parents. You work towards a goal. It’s not a failure; it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships; the other nine years were a failure? That’s what you’re telling me? There’s no failure in sports. You know, there’s good days, bad days. Some days you are able to be successful; some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win; some other team’s gonna win. And this year, somebody else is gonna win. Simple as that.”
For the worst of sports commentariat, Antetokounmpo’s speech seemed like an attempt to excuse a season when his team had obviously fallen woefully short of expectations. But tonight’s strong episode of Winning Time is about the process of coming to terms with failure while still preserving a tough, championship mentality. Rather than show even a second of the Lakers blitzing the Sixers in the 1982 NBA Finals, the episode cuts immediately to the locker-room celebration afterward, as a healthy Laker team redeems itself after a season lost to injury and dysfunction. “I’m on top of the world, and that’s where I’m going to stay,” says Magic Johnson in opening narration. But he’s still a kid three years into the league, amped up by two titles in three years. He won’t stay there. No one can.
After a mid-season that focused on a small, dramatic time for the team behind-the-scenes, particularly the coaching situation, “Beat L.A.” covers two full years in an eye blink, from that 1982 celebration to the 1983 letdown series against Moses Malone and Julius Erving’s bruising Sixers team to the pregnant moments before the Celtics finally get their long-sought-after bid against the Lakers in 1984. Within that time, contra Magic, the Lakers are mostly dealing with loss — loss of key players, loss of back-to-back title hopes, loss of a marriage for Jerry Buss, and even loss of a house for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The question remains whether those failures are, in fact, “steps to success,” and it takes some Giannis-like humility on everyone’s part to understand this important piece of wisdom.
First off, there have to be changes to the roster itself. Though Kareem got bodied by Moses Malone in the ’83 series, it doesn’t make much sense to move a player who is still so productive on offense that he’s on the cusp of breaking the all-time scoring record. But shipping Norm Nixon, a streaky shooter who’d lost a step, starts to feel like an appealing option for Jerry West, who has taken over GM duties. It should be said upfront that Jerry West was (and currently is) a basketball genius whose silhouette is quite literally the NBA logo. Taking James Worthy with the No. 1 pick in the draft in 1982? Great choice! Trading Nixon to the crosstown Clippers, the basketball “Siberia” owned by the loathsome Donald Sterling, in exchange for Byron Scott and Swen Nater? Another great choice! Now Magic is the unquestioned point guard, Scott is his sweet-shooting and gritty backcourt partner, and Nater … well, not everything works out perfectly.
The change in personnel allows Winning Time to emphasize another point that should be obvious but isn’t, especially to sports fans: Athletes are human beings. As a reward for helping the Lakers to two titles, Nixon gets sent to the worst franchise in the league on his birthday, albeit with one significant consolation prize in his future wife, Debbie Allen, the famed dancer and choreographer poised to take Fame to the stratosphere. In a bit of a dramatic stretch, this gets Magic thinking about bringing balance to his own life by re-committing himself to Cookie, the on-again/off-again sweetheart who’s stuck around despite his Hollywood womanizing. Quincy Isaiah is such an uncanny casting choice for Magic Johnson that it’s worth mentioning he can act, too, and the way he infuses a boyish sincerity into his awkward pleas for Cookie’s affection is disarming. We have to believe that a woman of Cookie’s intelligence and integrity can look past a lot of flaws and embarrassing indiscretions, and Isaiah’s Magic makes it plausible.
The episode is less successful in handling the dissolution of Jerry Buss’ marriage to Honey, which turns out to be invalid due to his failure to disclose the fact that his last marriage wasn’t officially over. Honey is a composite character — she could be one of three different women, as this piece details — and the vagueness of that conceit has turned her into more of a device than a person. She has no specific traits, but she represents Jerry’s distractible nature and his refusal to commit to anything beyond basketball despite the promises made to her and to his children. It’s almost a surprise when Honey is packing up and complaining that he’s “married” to someone else, and she actually names a person rather than the Lakers. Regardless, the team is his greatest love, and it leaves him in a lonely place.
Of all people, it’s the quiet Kareem who sets the team’s focus back on track after losing his home — and a massive jazz record collection — to a fire. Kareem’s standoffish relationship with fans had been an issue dating back to his days in Milwaukee, but he’s touched by the outpouring of support he receives from the Lakers faithful, who offer up a pile of new LPs to replace his old ones. His locker-room speech about the excellence they owe to the fans and themselves is about effort, not winning. That’s what Giannis was talking about. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. But you owe it to yourself to make the best of it.
• Big-time music cues to bookend the episode, with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” over the jubilant finish to the 1981-82 season and Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” as a prelude to next week’s epic showdown against the Celtics. Perhaps the latter is a little on the nose given what happened to Kareem’s house, but if the shoe fits…
• “You guys get cheesesteak? Terrible. Not a cheese. Not a steak.” Jerry Buss, wrong about sandwiches.
• Adrien Brody is doing the strongest work of anyone on the show currently. He looks exactly like Pat Riley at the time, for one, but in this episode, he gets at the truth about all coaches, even the great ones like Riley. They can yell and scream and give inspirational speeches, but the players will sometimes tune that stuff out over the course of a long season.
• Bird’s cold-blooded desire to face the Lakers seems true to his personality. Here’s hoping his reputation as a notoriously vicious trash-talker gets a full airing.
• “He wants to do the poor man’s Lakers, get the SoCal riff-raff coming in.” Jerry West speaking the truth on Donald Sterling’s Clippers.
• It seems implausible that Magic would have stepped into a convention and given Cookie a boost among the fashion executive skeptics, but he is a man known for dishing out assists.
• “You get to the top of the mountain, you ease up. It’s natural. You don’t even know you’re doing it. Next thing, you’re losing to the fucking Clippers in November, and it doesn’t cost you a night’s sleep.” That’s Pat Riley. In an 82-game season, teams cannot sweat every loss, but sometimes they don’t sweat enough.