Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
Winning Time’s Paul Westhead is not someone you would describe as having any foresight. As portrayed by Jason Segel, the Lakers assistant coach’s one expression is that of a man looking up from tying his shoe just in time to see a bus wallop him into oblivion. The only thing he manages to predict is that nobody will get his first name right. So after last week’s episode ended with coach Jack McKinney suffering a horrific bicycle accident while on his way to play doubles with Westhead, it comes as no surprise that Westhead waltzes into McKinney’s office faux-complaining about getting stood up for their tennis match. But it’s not McKinney in McKinney’s chair; it’s color commentator Pat Riley watching last night’s game footage, analyzing the tape even though he managed to squeeze in only a few sentences in between Chick Hearn’s smothering play-by-play. After a prophetic chat about apprentices versus masters, they receive a phone call that will change both men’s lives: Jack McKinney is in the hospital and barely alive.
However, cell phones didn’t exist in 1980, so Dr. Jerry Buss is all smiles as he hosts a business lunch at the Beverly Hills Hilton. A couple of episodes ago, Dr. Buss sold the Lakers (in name only) to his ex-wife as part of a scheme to avoid paying a lousy loan that, unbeknownst to him, came with the team. And now that two bankers have flown down to Los Angeles to collect, Buss and business partner Frank Mariani put their penniless plot into motion. They ask the financiers if they could extend their relationship, a.k.a. their loan’s maturity date and line of credit, though ask isn’t the right word since the Sacramento-based bank doesn’t really have any choice in the matter. With the team technically no longer under Buss’s ownership, the bank will get little in return if Buss defaults. But even when Buss is a sneaky bastard, he doesn’t like to be an asshole. So he tells the two to give him their answer that night at the Forum as VIP guests for the Jacksons.
But as a cocky Buss struts away, Claire Rothman shows up with a ~concerning, extreme~ problem: The latest shipment of stadium food never arrived because the accountant, Buss’s elderly mother, Jessie, wrote bad checks. Buss rushes over to his mom’s seaside apartment, where she’s ranting to Jeanie as offshore winds blow unsent checks and unread documents around like a cyclone of debt. First, he is shocked to discover that his mother wrote checks from a bank account she personally closed five years earlier. Then he’s left aghast when he finds the transfer-of-ownership paperwork that was supposed to be filed a month ago lying on her living-room floor. With the loan due in 24 hours, the bankers could legally take the team if he can’t successfully woo them.
As if his mother’s mental state and his flimsy ownership of the Lakers aren’t concerning enough, Buss’s no-good, terrible, bad day gets even worse when he gets a call to rush over to the hospital. There, he finds out that a chunk of his comatose coach’s skull is in the freezer. Maybe it’s because he has a lot on his plate, but Buss’s main concern is not whether McKinney will ever wake up but who will fill the Lakers’ coaching vacancy that weekend. At least for now, the answer to that question is “Pete” Westhead. But Westhead is clearly out of his league, projecting zero confidence in coaching the team or navigating the media frenzy that will soon ensue. Too bad Buss, like the Great Western bankers, really doesn’t have a choice. So off goes Westhead to his first press conference, but not before offering the job to an uninterested Jerry West. How does the interview go? He immediately tries to give the job to Pat Riley.
Buss isn’t the only one navigating uncharted waters of business and family. In Magic Johnson’s best story line of the season so far, we see the star’s first real test of foresight when it comes to handling his girlfriend, Cindy; her business-savvy father, Dr. Thomas Day; and his first big endorsement contract. Magic meets with Converse, Adidas, and Puma, all vying to make the Magic Man’s signature shoe. Not coincidentally, these staid shoe companies all offer the same deal ($80,000 a year) and closing pitch (they all have a verbal deal with Larry Bird). As Magic leaves the athletic-shoe convention, he’s flagged down by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, who has a deal that’s as cutting-edge as the brand’s shoes. In 1980, Nike is a running-shoe company that is a small player in an overcrowded field of basketball shoes. So while he can’t offer a five-figure salary, Knight has the foresight to offer Magic $100,000 options of Nike stock plus $1 for every shoe that’s shipped. If Magic plays to his potential, this will make both men filthy rich. But can Magic look past Knight’s sweaty pitch toward a long-term vision of basketball shoes becoming as big a cultural icon as the players wearing them? Just as important, will any of the business-savvy men in his orbit — Dr. Day, Dr. Buss, or the bankers — see the long-term benefits of stock options versus a salary? The answer in each case is no.
Later that night at the Jacksons concert, the master bullshit artist Jerry Buss is a nervous wreck. It’s only after a pep talk from Mariani that he puts on his dancing shoes and heads out into the coke den that is the Forum Club to close the deal with Great Western. It’s not just a coke den, though, as a vial of crack popping up at the Lakers players’ table makes Richard Pryor (played by Mike Epps, finally, years after his Pryor biopic fell through) appear out of thin air. After the comedian makes fun of Magic’s teammates by boasting that the two of them are on a different level of fame (White Famous), Pryor takes Magic aside for some serious advice on stardom. He warns Magic that nobody is ready for fame except the hangers-on of the famous and that his real name — his true self — is the price of doing business with the white man.
As if on cue, Dr. Buss beckons Magic over to meet with the two bankers and help him close the deal. Pryor’s advice hovers in the air as Dr. Buss refers to Magic and his smile as property that belongs to the Lakers … and Great Western if they extend the terms of the loan. Getting Magic Johnson to star in the company’s commercials for free — along with Buss sending over plenty of drinks and women to their table — seals the deal for the bankers, although they counter with a hefty vig. Buss counters their counter with another: Instead of a six-month extension, he wants a seven-month extension since he’ll be taking a few weeks off to celebrate the Lakers’ first championship under his ownership and their partnership. The men shake hands, with only one side knowing that Great Western could’ve legally obtained ownership of the Lakers that night.
The next day, Westhead gathers his players for the first time at McKinney’s hospital waiting room. Everyone is there, except for Magic, who signs with Converse but is politely ignored when he pitches Converse on the idea (one thought up by Knight) of having his name on the shoe. Later that night, before Westhead’s first game as coach, Magic discovers that his girl sent over an enormous bouquet of flowers in his stead and without his permission. With this act being the latest in a string of incidents in which Cindy Day acts a lot more like Cindy Johnson, Magic realizes he has to cut her loose. Here, Magic shows a bit of his own savvy by having her father dump his own daughter on his behalf. Not only does he free himself of an overbearing girlfriend but he also tests the loyalty of the man trying to become his business manager. Days later, Dr. Day flies to Michigan to hand-deliver a pair of Lakers tickets to the one woman whom Magic can’t stop thinking about: Cookie. Magic’s still got a lot to learn in the short term, but at least he’s focusing on the long term.
• The doctor on crutches is Bob Kerlan, the most influential doctor in sports-medicine history. Kerlan, who suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, understood the pain of athletes in a way that owners in the mid–20th century could not (or refused to), and he laid the foundation for modern sports medicine as we know it. Along with his partner, Dr. Frank Jobe (the inventor of Tommy John surgery), he co-founded the Kerlan-Jobe Institute, which is the world’s leading hospital for orthopedic surgery.
• The Forum would be officially rechristened as the Great Western Forum in 1988, a time when such corporate-sponsored names were rare. Just this week, the Forum gained a new name: the Kia Forum.
• Since his third and final retirement in 1996, Magic has become one of the wealthiest former athletes of all time, and he remains the business blueprint for an athlete’s postretirement life. But the Dodgers’ co-owner would’ve become a billionaire faster — and many times over — had he taken that initial stock-heavy offer from Knight.
• Breaking the Fourth-Wall-Expository Revelation of the Episode: When Magic signs his shoe deal, a Converse exec tells him that he won’t regret it. After seeing how much money Magic lost out on ($5.2 billion), Knight turns to the camera and tells us, “He regrets it.”