Winning Time’s third episode is all about the past, present, and future Lakers coaches, beginning with Jerry Buss’s search for a new leader after the sudden resignation of Jerry West. But while the initial thrust of the episode is Buss’s attempt to woo controversial college coach Jerry Tarkanian, it actually serves as a stealthy introduction to Pat Riley, the man who will play an enormous part of the Showtime Lakers’ championship success and reputation for looking cool while winning.
But the Pat Riley introduced in “The Good Life” is lightyears away from the Gucci suit-wearing, slick-backed hair-having style icon and Hall of Fame coach. Right now, Riley’s a straight-up loser. A former Laker languishing in retirement, Riley spends his days hiding out in Venice while his wife hosts therapy sessions at home. Even when he shows up at his old workplace to beg for a job with announcer Chick Hearn, his 1972 championship ring can’t convince the security guard to let him in.
Thanks to Jerry Tarkanian, Riley’s path to the coach’s bench remains cloudy. With three weeks left until training camp, the only coach that Buss can realistically nab is UNLV’s Tarkanian. Because Tarkanian has a reputation of “playing a little loosey-goosey with recruitment rules” and has the potential of NCAA sanctions coming his way, there’s a decent chance he’ll head west for L.A. for the right price. Negotiating said price is Tarkanian’s best friend and agent, a shady but lovable businessman by the name of Vic Weiss who, like most Las Vegas boxing promoters of the 1970s, has ties with the mob.
While Jerry Buss tries to employ yet another character with the same first name, Magic Johnson has finally left Michigan (and hopefully the boring side stories involving his family) for Los Angeles. In Inglewood, he meets up with Norm Nixon, who appreciates that the rookie acknowledges the roster’s pecking order. With the squashing of their minor beef, Nixon gives Magic pointers on how to look and act the part of a Hollywood celebrity. He buys the kid new suits at the clothing store he owns, gives him tips on dealing with women and sports team owners, and even helps him properly pose on the red carpet. But when Nixon steps away to hobnob with Bill Cosby, Magic falls prey to a pimp named Zastro, who invites him to his Crenshaw brothel for some real fun. Cut to: Magic talking on the phone with his family, on their way to church, as their innocuous questions (“Hope you’re eatin’, too …”) are intercut with salaciously punny inserts (Magic eating out a sex worker) — all of it foreshadowing his contraction of HIV in 1991.
Thankfully, there is a more interesting scene between Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss’s first meeting. Magic mistakes the First Daughter of the Lakers as just another one of her dad’s college-age conquests. Jeanie laughs it off (this must be a frequent occurrence) and bonds with Magic after Jerry abruptly cancels their lunch appointment without giving them the dirty details as to why he’s in such a hurry to fly off to Las Vegas. This blow-off comes just after Jeanie discovers that her father and grandmother are hiding the precarious nature of the franchise’s finances. With their respective mentors in Nixon, Buss, and Claire Rothman still keeping them at arm’s distance, at least these two kids have each other.
Buss might be keeping his cool in front of his daughter and surrogate son, but behind the poker face, the Lakers owner knows he has to convince Tarkanian to become the Lakers coach. So he and Frank Mariani treat Tarkanian and Weiss to dinner for one final push, and while Tarkanian says he’s there for a free meal, Weiss wants to hear what they’re offering. When Buss says he’s willing to multiply his yearly $75,000 salary by ten, he nearly causes poor Mariani to choke and the formerly reticent Tarkanian to put down his fork. But after Weiss negotiates two Rolls-Royces in addition to the ludicrous salary, a bottle of champagne is sent over to the table by four intimidating Italian-American men. Suddenly, the imminent handshake deal vanishes as Tarkanian and Weiss high-tail it out of the restaurant. Buss is crushed, but from Mariani’s point of view, they just got saved $750,000 a year by the guys who foot Tarkanian’s bribes to his amateur players.
Before the episode’s brain-splattered conclusion, we spend more time with Riley in one of the most confusing scenes of television I have ever seen. As Riley grows increasingly self-pitying while he narrates old game footage of himself for his audition tape in his garage, his rage turns outwards as he climbs on top of the garage with a chainsaw, chopping off vines and a chunk of his shin until he tears down the entire garage to the studs in a wild dream sequence. Only … it’s not a dream sequence? His wife Chris (played by Gillian Jacobs) calmly strolls into the demolition zone, takes a seat on a pile of what used to be her two-car garage, and gives her sad husband a “go get ’em, tiger” pep talk about not turning into his father. And … that’s it. I don’t even know where to begin with my questions.
Anyway, back to reality. While the shocking ending may seem made up, it’s actually more true to life than the garage demolition insanity we just witnessed. Shortly after meeting with Buss, Vic Weiss is reported missing by his wife. Tarkanian, seen circling Beverly Hills real estate as he chats with Mrs. Weiss, tells her not to worry. But a few days later, Weiss is found dead in the trunk of his Rolls-Royce with two bullets in his head, his Rolex and gold rings undisturbed, and a Jerry Buss business card tucked into his collar. The apparent message? “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
• The show fudges with the Pat Riley timeline for dramatic effect. While Riley was a part of the Lakers’ broadcasting team for the 1979-1980 season, he actually joined the booth two years earlier.
• The “back-up” coaching option who chats with Jerry West halfway through the episode is Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Jack McKinney. If you couldn’t tell by his casual introduction, the team’s boring second choice who extolled the virtues of a fast-paced offense will become the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers. At least, for a little while …
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: After Norm Nixon makes fun of Magic’s clothes, he turns to the camera and informs us that he actually looks good.
• Starring Norm Nixon, Julius Erving, Stockard Channing, Debbie Allen, and Harry Shearer, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is a disco-inspired fever dream of a movie about an astrologer who convinces a basketball team owner to build a roster entirely composed of Pisces.
More From This Series
- Winning Time Was No Match for the Showtime Lakers Legacy
- Winning Time Season-Finale Recap: Haywood’s Gun
- John C. Reilly Thinks Audiences Just Want to Be Surprised