Like its main character Jerry Buss, Winning Time is not a show that is interested in subtlety. So when “Invisible Man” begins with Dr. Jerry Buss talking (directly to the camera, of course) about Monopoly being a metaphor for life, you hope as a viewer that it would subvert this ancient TV trope where a tabletop game and its player stand-in for an overarching message. It doesn’t, which is unfortunate given the high drama of episode 7: Magic’s first professional match-up with the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird and broadcaster-turned-assistant coach Pat Riley unofficially taking the reins from bewildered coach Paul Westhead. Maybe that’s the reason for the cold open: If someone is talking to you, it’s rude to fall asleep.
Six weeks after Jack McKinney’s bike accident led to assistant coach Paul Westhead helming the team, everything has gone off the rails. The team is still in 1st place, but Westhead finds new ways to look weak and totally out of his element in front of the men he’s supposed to lead. And after Buss visits McKinney in the hospital — the coach’s physical recovery is in the relearning-to-tie-shoes phase — the owner lets his wounded general know what’s happening back in Inglewood. The front office, led by Jerry West, wants to replace McKinney with former Laker great Elgin Baylor. Buss doesn’t want that to happen, but they both agree that the season is lost if Westhead continues to coach. When the owner leaves, McKinney calls up Westhead and tells him that if the team doesn’t perform on their upcoming three-game road trip, it doesn’t matter how quickly he gets out of the hospital.
Westhead, freaking out, immediately asks color commentator Pat Riley to join him on the bench as his assistant coach. Riley hesitates despite having the combination of fiery passion and cool level-headedness for head coaching that will one day earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. If Riley quits the broadcasting booth, will he still have a spot on the bench when McKinney returns? Westhead, lying out of his mouth, assures him that he will. Riley can’t resist, especially since the alternative is being muted by Chick Hearn for three hours every night. But as the Lakers board the plane to Indiana to face the lowly Pacers, who shows up unannounced but Jerry West? Westhead plays dumb, pretending that West is there to scout free agents if the Lakers crash and burn on their road trip. But Riley immediately knows he’s been had by his new boss.
So off the Lakers go to Indiana, where the sportswriters in Larry Bird’s home state can’t stop asking Magic about his highly anticipated rematch against Bird (Magic beat him in the NCAA Championship). For once, Magic loses his cool and is only stopped from saying further inflammatory quotes when Kareem steps forward to stop the presses. Clearly bothered by outside distractions, Magic and the Lakers get blown out in what should’ve been a gimme win. After the game, Spencer Haywood is so frustrated that he openly talks shit to reporters about his unfair benching. Westhead hears the comments and admits to Riley that the benching was over a misunderstanding that spiraled out of control. But when Riley gives him multiple sage pieces of advice — apologize to Haywood, treat his players like grown men and not college students — Westhead ignores it, perpetuating his image of weakness among his troops.
The next stop on the road trip: Detroit, just about an hour and a half outside of Magic’s hometown of Lansing. After a brief scene where a TV newsman tells us what’s going on in Cookie’s head (this show refuses to believe its viewers can understand anything buried under a light dusting of subtext), we pop into the lobby of a five-star Detroit hotel where Cookie and a friend see the Magic Show in all its glory. Magic wades through the mass of autograph seekers and groupies to bear hug Cookie. But they’re interrupted by Dr. Thomas Day, who reminds Magic that Cookie will have to wait until after he meets with Buick. As Magic leaves, a groupie reminds Cookie for the umpteenth time in seven episodes that Magic enjoys having sex with women who aren’t Cookie.
The game against Detroit, a last-place team, ends in a similarly disastrous fashion. While Riley tries to keep Westhead’s hopes high with a Christmas dinner of Chinese food, beer, and strategizing the Celtics game, the team heads to Magic’s house for some home cooking. There, Norm Nixon warns his young teammates that Boston is extremely hostile, sometimes even supernaturally, to Black athletes. On the other side of the room, Kareem sits down with the elder Earvin Johnson to ask if his son has always been so happy. Earvin Sr. jokes that the doctor didn’t slap a newborn Magic to stop crying but rather to stop smiling. As the two men bond over their bewilderment of Magic seemingly being impervious to the hardships of life as a Black man in America, the topic of their conversation is disappointed to find out Cookie skipped his family’s Christmas dinner.
Back in the coaches’ hotel room, Riley shaves off his mustache and gives Westhead the lowdown on how unruly it gets at the Boston Garden when the Lakers are in town. But Westhead is either too drunk or uninterested in caring. When Riley’s old teammate Elgin Baylor accidentally calls him instead of Jerry West, he finally realizes what’s happening: Baylor is meant to replace Westhead ASAP, meaning Riley will soon be back to his beach bumming days. When Riley angrily confronts Westhead about his lie, Westhead tries to soften it by praising Riley as his coach. Fed up with being Westhead’s “nanny,” Riley drags him into the shower and sprays him with cold water, trying to get the message into his head that both their professional careers are on the line. With Riley slicking back his wet hair in the mirror, the origin story of Pat Riley, GQ style icon and Hall of Fame coach/executive, has begun.
After a brief scene where Cookie and Magic express their love while another woman hides in his bathroom, the show wisely moves on to a more interesting relationship: Magic and Larry. Larry Bird might look like a dorky white guy, but not only does the man ball, he’s one of the game’s all-time trash talkers with a chip on his shoulder, as Magic quickly learns before their joint press conference. While Larry gives the reporters nothing more than one-word answers and the spittle from his dip, Magic is his usual charismatic self. That confidence carries over to the pre-game locker room, where Magic dismisses Westhead’s game plan to double team Bird.
As the team soon finds out, they really need to double team Larry Legend. The Celtics jump out to a halftime lead, aided by rowdy fans and refs who are seemingly on Boston’s payroll. But after Riley prods him to send in Spencer Haywood, the Lakers get some much-needed buckets and toughness. Haywood’s hard foul on Bird causes the Celtics star to throw a ball at him, starting a brawl and giving Haywood (but somehow not Bird) a technical foul. After a pissed-off Riley yells at the ref and gets a technical foul of his own, Westhead finally sees his chance to show strength. But he hesitates, so Riley takes the wheel to control his own destiny. He insults the ref’s wife and gets tossed for a 2nd T, earning the respect of his players and giving them a boost for the final quarter’s run. Which they do, as Michael Cooper hits a game-winning prayer to give the Lakers a one-point victory. Among the hushed crowd are two unexpected smiling faces. One is Kareem, who’s played more than his fair share of games in the Garden. The other is Celtics GM Red Auerbach, who looks way up to the nosebleed seats he so generously gifted Jerry Buss. Auerbach isn’t smiling because the hated Lakers beat him in a regular-season game. It’s because after a decade of waiting, at long last he has a solid opportunity to crush the Lakers again in the NBA Finals.
• The Bill Russell shit story is true. Despite bringing 11 titles to Boston as a Celtics player and coach, Russell’s move to a white neighborhood led to Bostonians breaking into his house, spray painting the N-word on his walls, and defecating in his bed.
• The 1979-1980 Lakers’ six-week “skid” after McKinney’s accident was not only heavily overblown in this episode but also wildly fictionalized. Between Paul Westhead’s ascension to interim coach and the Celtics match-up, the Lakers went 20-8 and only had one losing streak. They also did not play the Pacers and Pistons immediately before the Celtics, nor did they play on Christmas Day. Finally, the Lakers went 4-0 versus the Pistons and Pacers that season.
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: After Chick Hearn insults Pat Riley for leaving the broadcasting booth, Pat turns to the camera and sarcastically says, “I’m gonna miss him.” Credit Winning Time for respecting its audience just enough not to have Pat follow that up with “By the way, that was sarcasm.”