Winning Time Series-Premiere Recap: It’s Showtime!

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

The Swan
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

The Swan
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

Jerry Buss, the late owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, loved reminding attendees they weren’t just watching a basketball game — they had a ticket to the hottest show in Los Angeles. The Showtime Lakers’ fast-paced style of basketball was the main event, but the 10-piece brass-and-rhythm band, celebrity sightings, the league’s first cheerleading squad (the Laker Girls, led by Paula Abdul), and one of the hottest nightclubs (the Forum Club) were all considered part of the show at Lakers games.

Winning Time’s pilot is directed by Adam McKay, executive producer of the series and die-hard Lakers superfan. McKay is also a big fan of breaking the fourth wall and reminding viewers that they’re watching a show. It’s a technique he has applied in explaining the financial crisis of 2007–2008 in The Big Short and Dick Cheney’s rise to becoming a warmongering vice president in Vice, but in Winning Time’s pilot, characters talking directly to the camera feels unnecessary and distrusting of the audience.

Snarky retorts to the camera aside, Max Borenstein’s script, adapted from Jeff Pearlman’s definitive Lakers tome, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, sets up a playful world with the breeze of an offshore South Bay wind. This is no small feat considering that the pilot introduces a bevy of characters who will soon balloon like Los Angeles’s population in the 1980s as the show slowly makes its way to the devastating end of the Showtime era with Magic Johnson’s 1991 HIV diagnosis.

John C. Reilly leads this massive ensemble as Dr. Jerry Buss, the rocket scientist turned real-estate magnate who became one of Los Angeles’s richest men (and one of its most notorious lotharios). We meet him in 1979 as he’s pontificating next to a sleeping Playboy Bunny about the similarities between sex and basketball. Buss thinks basketball is a beautiful, sensual, and powerful game. He’s right, but it’s 1979, and the NBA is considered a second-tier league that broadcasts its finals on tape delay. Some predict the NBA might not even exist in a few years. A big reason, as Buss explains, is that the NBA is mismanaged by stuffy, penny-pinching owners who believe that the Black men who make up a majority of its players are the roadblock to mainstream success.

But while others see a major risk, Buss smells an opportunity. The Lakers’ current owner, Jack Kent Cooke, is going through a costly divorce (the $49 million divorce settlement will make the Guinness Book of World Records) and looking to sell. Cooke and Buss make a handshake deal to the tune of $67,500,000, half due in cash. The only problem? Buss is still about $15,630,000 short.

Since whether Buss will come up with the rest of the money is never in question, the pilot mainly focuses on the Lakers’ key players: Jeanie (Hadley Robinson), Buss’s favorite child and a 19-year-old college student using nepotism to bond with her father; Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman), the tough, trailblazing executive and head of the Forum; Jerry West (Jason Clarke), the Lakers’ head coach and former player; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the author, screenwriter, actor, jazz enthusiast, public intellectual, and future NBA all-time leading scorer; and Norm Nixon, the starting point guard who’s not too pleased that Jerry Buss plans to use his No. 1 draft pick on a younger, bigger, and more charismatic point guard.

That point guard is, of course, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, played by the fantastic newcomer and young Magic dead ringer Quincy Isaiah. Isaiah beautifully portrays the 19-year-old who understands that his captivating charisma is just as valuable as his basketball abilities, if not more so. While that charm reads as arrogance to everyone else, Buss sees Magic’s perfect combination of Hall of Fame basketball skills and movie-star glamour as the ideal ingredient to his new-look Lakers. After burgers at Jim’s and drinks at the Horn, Buss impresses the young hooper by name-dropping several supermodel conquests in the building, and by the time the Horn’s signature song, “It’s Showtime,” plays, Buss and Magic agree: Basketball games would be a lot more fun with live music and scantily clad women.

Before Buss can turn the Forum, with its Roman-inspired columns, into an Inglewood bacchanalia, he still needs a little more moolah. After getting the final $2 million from his ex-wife, he is told Cooke wants to put Buss in his place by demanding the entire deal be made in cash. It’s built as a climactic showdown, where Buss is the amateur poker player calling Cooke’s bluff to officially buy the Lakers, but I found myself distracted by the pilot’s umpteenth breaking of the fourth wall. Before the episode can end, Buss is thrown a final obstacle: Magic’s decision to forgo the NBA draft and return to Michigan State. But it’s a hurdle that’s quickly overcome as Buss leaves Magic to wander the Forum’s hallways, players’ locker room, and empty court. Buss, Claire, and Jeannie watch as Magic imagines himself hitting game winners, and it’s never really in doubt that Magic is destined to become a Laker — much to the exasperation of head coach Jerry West.

And that’s what the story of the Showtime Lakers is really about: A captivating and amusing workplace drama starring L.A. royalty with massive talent and egos. Jerry West doesn’t like Magic Johnson; Norm Nixon also doesn’t like Magic Johnson; Claire Rothman doesn’t like Jeanie Buss; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t like anyone. These are co-workers who don’t like each other. But one pioneering and extremely horny man is about to turn their place of employment from a joke into the coolest job in the world.

Forum Facts

• I’m Pablo Goldstein, and besides being a native Angeleno and lifelong Lakers fan, I am also the author of Goldstein and Gasol, a Julie & Julia–inspired blog where I cooked 82 recipes from the 1985 Championship Lakers Cookbook and wrote 82 posts about the people who contributed the recipes. That includes stars like Magic, Kareem, and Dr. Buss, plus a wide range of Angelenos involved with the organization. If this show sparks an interest in the Showtime Lakers, check it out for an in-depth look at the Lakers.

• As the show briefly mentions, Dr. Jerry Buss’s title was not an honorific given to him by one of Southern California’s many prestigious universities. He received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1957 but soon grew bored of the aerospace industry. Starting with one 14-unit apartment building, Buss and partners Frank Mariani and Lou Baumeister built a Southern California real-estate empire.

• Notice how Buss fidgets with a deck of playing cards throughout the episode? Besides basketball and sex, his other hobby in life was poker. Until his death, Buss was a regular at blue-collar Southern California casinos and even placed third at the 1991 World Series of Poker’s 7 Card Stud event.

• Jerry Buss didn’t just buy the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke. He also purchased the NHL’s Kings, a 13,000-acre ranch, and the Forum itself.

• DeVaughn Nixon, who plays his father, Norm Nixon, is not the only son playing his old man. Ted Enberg has a brief cameo as his pop, the late sports announcer Dick Enberg.

• If this show inspires you to learn more about the Showtime Lakers, I really cannot recommend Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime (or his follow-up on the Shaq-Kobe years, Three-Ring Circus) enough. Pearlman’s access to the Lakers organization was unprecedented, and it will likely stay that way forever. Because of this show, he has become persona non grata among the Buss family, and it’s unlikely that Jeanie Buss (who, along with the rest of the Lakers organization, disavowed this show) will ever open themselves up like that again.

• The episode downplays Rothman and Buss’s professional relationship before he purchased the Lakers. Buss first dipped his toe in the sports world when he bought the Los Angeles Strings of the indoor mixed-gender tennis league, World Team Tennis. After a few years at the Sports Arena near USC, Rothman convinced Buss to play their home games at the Forum in Inglewood. She also sold him a box seat to Lakers games, where he noticed owner Jack Kent Cooke was a frequent no-show due to his divorce. In my 2019 interview with Rothman, she said she “always teased” Buss about not getting a finder’s fee.

• Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty was initially titled Showtime, but it was changed due to sharing a name with HBO’s main premium cable competitor. Apparently, HBO execs didn’t think any confusion would arise from sharing a name with Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the Knicks, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.

• Last week’s Hollywood Reporter cover story confirmed what was a rumor in Hollywood for years: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay ended their business partnership partly due to McKay not casting his best friend and fellow Lakers superfan in the role of Jerry Buss.

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Winning Time Recap: It’s Showtime!