The penultimate episode of Winning Time’s first season finally answers the question hovering around the back half of the season: Who will be the head coach of the 1979-1980 Los Angeles Lakers when they enter the grueling NBA Playoffs? Fortunately for owner Dr. Jerry Buss, he has a little more time to answer that question because the top-seeded Lakers earned a bye (automatic advancing to the next round of the playoffs) and don’t have to play in the best-of-three first round. Unfortunately for Buss, Claire Rothman lets him know that the $500,000 in tickets they just sold for the first round just vanished with their team’s success. It’s a unique fact that explains a very The Producers–esque quandary that sports team owners still face in 2022: You can usually make far more money putting together a losing team than a winning team packed with stars. At least Rothman mentions they can break even on the season if the Lakers make the NBA Finals and don’t win/lose right away.
Jerry Buss finds out this news while sitting by his mother Jessie’s deathbed, only he still denies the inevitable and thinks she’ll be her usual chipper, martini-drinking self in no time. But he’s also in denial about his daughter Jeanie’s ability to become a paid, full-time employee for the team. Rothman begs him to hire her, but he rejects it because he needs Jeanie to continue working as a de facto second full-time nurse for his mother. As if there weren’t enough decisions to be made by one man in a cold open, general manager Bill Sharman informs Jerry that McKinney’s doctors have cleared him to return to the bench. He’ll have to decide whether to axe McKinney or the Paul Westhead/Pat Riley coaching team before the playoffs, just a little over a week away.
So Jerry turns to the front office, but the brain trust is an even split on which coach they prefer to (hopefully) take the team to the promised land. That leads him to ask the first of four head coaches we’ve met in season one, Jerry West, to advise him. But the usually very opinionated West doesn’t want to swing this sword of Damocles. Only when Buss lets down his guard and admits that he’s finally way in over his head does West promise to give it some thought.
While the Lakers are rolling through the end of the regular season, the return of Spencer Haywood’s drug addiction has finally spilled out into the open. After falling asleep in practice (he tells the team he was meditating), Haywood violently attacks a teammate for borrowing his athletic tape. In private, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells Haywood that his wife let him know Haywood is using again. Haywood promises to quit cold turkey and throws away the rest of his drug paraphernalia in a montage where the Lakers clinch the playoffs’ top seed.
After a doctor gives Jerry Buss the sobering news about his mother’s condition, the Lakers owner combines the first two stages of grief (denial, anger) by kicking him out of his office and telling Jeanie that they’re going to go “kidnap grandma.” The three Busses, full of liquor, drive over to the Pickfair House, where they break the lock and have one last outing as a family, even if Jerry can’t admit it out loud. As he passes out on the diving board, Grandma Buss lets Jeanie know that her father is proud of her, even if he has a tough time showing it, and encourages her to push for the job that he doesn’t want to give her. The next morning, a very hungover and happy Jerry snuggles next to his mom and tells her that he’s going to buy Pickfair for her to live out her final years. But moments later, she has a stroke and is rushed to the hospital, where the doctors tell Jerry that it’s up to him to pull the plug.
Back at the Forum, West meets with McKinney to suss out his condition. West seems to be placated, but when McKinney tries to leave, his blurred vision and pounding headaches leave him lying helplessly in the stadium tunnels, where Maurice, the head of security, finds him. A short while later, Riley tells Westhead the gossip from Maurice and demands that the coach march into West’s office and inform them of McKinney’s condition. But Westhead, even after being horribly insulted by his mentor at the end of episode eight, is still too chicken to do so. Surprisingly, even Riley can’t get the nerve to tell West the truth about McKinney’s health.
After the final buzzer of the regular-season game 82, West visits an exhausted Jerry Buss, who would love more than anything not to make a coaching choice in his present state. But West passes the buck to the man for whom the buck should’ve stopped with in the first place. West tells Buss to trust his gut, and that gut tells him to go with the coach who started the season. So Buss drives to Palos Verdes with purple and gold balloons tied to a bottle of champagne, presumably to let McKinney know that he’ll be leading the team. But McKinney, who moments earlier was confronted by his wife for carrying a piece of paper with their home address, is so out of whack that he mistakes Buss for a delivery man. Earlier in the episode, Grandma Buss tells Jeanie that her father’s poker tell is a twitching of the left eyebrow. Either Jerry fixed his poker face or the show’s writers/producers missed a great moment because Jerry bluffs his way out of the conversation with unmoving eyebrows and hurries back to his car.
With Westhead and Riley firmly in charge of the team again, the Lakers easily storm through the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals on their way to, presumably, meet the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. But the Philadelphia 76ers take care of the Celtics in five games, leaving the Magic-Bird rematch for Winning Time’s second season. While Jerry decides to turn off his mom’s life support after the Western Conference Finals, the team celebrates at the Forum Club. There, Haywood’s drug addiction spills out into the open.
Kareem, as the team’s captain, gathers the players and coaches for a team meeting. While he suggests sending Haywood to rehab after the season, he ultimately leaves it up to the players to vote. Soon after, Kareem heads to the locker room to give the news to Haywood, who assumes that the two white coaches are making the decision. But when Kareem reveals that he made the deciding vote amongst the players to kick him off the team, the big man, who just listened to Haywood tell him about growing up as a poor sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, sits in a pile of silent guilt as Haywood exits in furious disbelief.
Later, Kareem seeks out Magic, who is practicing skyhooks in the empty Forum. After a full season of trust-building — and feeling the shame over his decision to boot Haywood — Kareem finally teaches Magic the secrets behind his signature shot, the main weapon used by the greatest scorer in NBA history. Kareem explains how the skyhook is not just a shot but a metaphor allowing big men to shut out everyone who wants to gawk at and touch them. How it’s a tool for mastering isolation and inner peace. How it turns the human body into a wall that allows a man to leave the world everyone else inhabits and rise to the heavens, alone, while all they can do is watch.
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: After Jerry Buss kicks the doctor out of his office, he slaps the cameraman and shouts, “What the fuck are you looking at?!” You know how some shows are so intense and engrossing that the viewer sometimes feels like they’re in the show? Even when Winning Time has a rare moment like that, it remains obsessed with reminding you that you’re merely watching a TV show.
• In real life, Haywood was kicked off the team by coach Westhead for falling asleep in practice before game three of the NBA Finals. His drug use had gotten so bad that he only played a total of five minutes in the first two games.
• The estate that the Buss family breaks into is the famous Pickfair Mansion in Beverly Hills. Prior to Jerry Buss buying the mansion at a probate sale in 1980 after it had fallen into disrepair, it was home to actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The estate served as home for Buss and his four adult children from his first marriage until he put it on the market in 1986. The woman he sold it to, actress Pia Zadora, demolished it in 1990. She at first claimed it was due to termite infestation but in later years has claimed that ghostly spirits forced her to raze Pickfair.