The modern NBA has been defined by player empowerment, particularly by the game’s biggest stars. If LeBron James wants to take his talents from Cleveland to South Beach and engineer a superteam with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he can do it. If he wants to move back to Cleveland and get an overbearing coach he doesn’t like fired, he can do that, too. And just this year, star guard James Harden is angling to force his way out of the Philadelphia 76ers by calling general manager Daryl Morey “a liar,” which would be the third straight time he has quit the team he’s on, following ugly exits in Houston and Brooklyn. And those are just the obvious examples. Star players can assert themselves in subtler ways, too, by influencing team chemistry and effecting schemes on the court as well.
Player empowerment in 2023 remains controversial — with the Sixers, Harden is inviting the fury of the country’s craziest fans — but in 1981, such a notion was downright heretical. The hierarchies that are supposed to govern teams from youth leagues to high school to college and beyond are difficult to upend because the coach is supposed to be in charge. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in tonight’s episode of Winning Time, when asked about Magic Johnson’s new contract, suggests as much when he talks about a team as a family and the players as children. He may be referring to Jerry Buss as the parent in this situation, but he’s conceding that players have to respect the top-down management of the team. To give any individual special consideration is to court disaster. And for that individual to be Magic Johnson, a young talent who is coming off a disappointing, injury-riddled second season, rubs everyone the wrong way.
And yet Magic is seeing the future, right along with Jerry Buss, his biggest ally and the only one who matters. The infamous $25 million 25-year “lifetime contract” that Jerry issues to Magic may seem like chump change now, especially once players’ salaries (and inflation) would spike years down the line, but it creates all sorts of headlines and havoc. Fans and sports-talkers are left to wonder how any athlete could be worth that kind of money, and Magic’s teammates are so resentful that Kareem openly discusses an interest in playing for the New York Knicks. The pressure for the Lakers to have a bounce-back season and win the title again is immense, but the contract makes it worse for Magic, who has to be impossibly transcendent on the court to justify his paycheck.
“The New World” is the strongest episode of the season so far because it taps the brakes on the hyperaccelerated timeline and gives enough space for the drama surrounding the early part of the Lakers’ 1981 season to develop. One of Winning Time’s persistent flaws is its superficial, bullet-point approach to history, but here we get some insight into the conflict within the team and the front office and the mixed motives of the major players involved. The collective goal may be to win a championship, but that doesn’t mean the people who matter are on the same page about how to do it or aren’t also looking out for their own futures.
For Paul Westhead, the Lakers will win if they conform to “the System,” an offensive scheme that’s only vaguely defined as players finding the “spots” on the floor where they’re most effective. Westhead thinks it will lead to efficient, high-volume scoring. But Magic feels better suited to the free-flowing “Lakerball” that not only won him the title in his rookie season but showed signs of revolutionizing the game. And the battle lines are drawn: The thin-skinned Westhead wants his authority to be respected, and the insolent Magic feels so constrained by the System that he seems to be going through the motions. Why pay him $25 million over 25 years just to dump the ball to Kareem in the post? Any third-string point guard in the league could do that.
Much was said last season about Jason Clarke’s interpretation of Jerry West as a hot-tempered blowhard — an impression the real West didn’t exactly refute by threatening to take the show “all the way to the Supreme Court” — but Jason Segel makes Westhead look so much worse here. There’s a strong basketball mind behind West’s bluster that Westhead doesn’t seem to share. He comes across as dim and prideful, the professor who doesn’t realize his students are snoozing through class. Winning Time doesn’t spend much time articulating Westhead’s vision, so it’s made to seem puny and predictable, easy for opposing teams to exploit and too inflexible to accommodate a unicorn like Magic. Every literary quote, including his own original contribution (“The almond tree bears its fruit in silence”), makes him look like a fool.
Magic is a more complicated case. He once again struggles to gain control over a team that Buss, by virtue of this giant contract, has given over to him. His teammates feel slighted by the deal, and Magic’s refusal to buy into the program spoils the chemistry. At the same time, that lifetime contract immediately starts to feel as confining in its own way as Westhead’s system. He was signed to lead an up-tempo, dynamic, unpredictable, and wildly entertaining team to glory, year after year, and now he’s stuck in the salt mines. What’s the point of being Magic Johnson if the team that owns you won’t let you be Magic Johnson?
Winning Time leaves the answer to that question to the next episode, but it’s fascinating to see everyone jostle for position here. Adrien Brody has some lively moments here as Pat Riley, who believes that his fate is tied to Westhead’s, which makes him desperate for the team to change course. He’s smart enough to know that Magic is the transcendent talent here — and good ol’ Kurt Rambis a useful role-player — but he can barely offer suggestions to Westhead without being branded a potential traitor. Westhead’s dictatorial instincts make him defensive and inflexible, and Riley is in a situation where he can’t be insubordinate as an assistant coach but needs to get some separation from Westhead. The stress throws out his neck.
As for Buss, the real boss, he has paid everyone handsomely to keep the Lakers on top. In fact, he has made great innovations in paying people. And like a good owner, he’s trying to trust the experts to do their jobs and give him a return on investment so he can throw it in Red Auerbach’s face and keep his endless party rolling. He concedes to Westhead’s huffy demands that he run the team without interference. (“If you don’t,” Jerry replies, “I’m going to look like a fucking idiot. And you’re going to be looking for a new job.”) He deflects Magic’s private complaints about his coach. But when Magic, after a blowup in Salt Lake City, publicly asks to be traded, it forces Jerry’s hand.
Spoiler alert: Paul Westhead was not a Laker for life.
• “What are Norm Nixon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Magic Johnson doing in a classroom with Laker coach Paul Westhead?” reads the Sports Illustrated profile of the ’81 Lakers. Riley’s rhetorical answer, “Good fucking question,” is the rare time the show’s occasional talk-to-the-camera bit works.
• Of the many signs of weakness Westhead displays in this episode, running the starters ragged to beat the Celtics in a preseason game is maybe the weakest. A confident coach needn’t have to prove himself by running a rival’s benchwarmers out of the gym.
• The Jeanie-Honey subplot continues to go nowhere interesting. Even if Honey weren’t a composite character, her intrusion in the Buss-family dynamic makes Jeanie seem like a spiteful child not getting enough attention from Daddy. That’s not the shrewd Jeanie Buss that traded her brother’s girlfriend away for Martina Navratilova.
• “System on three. One, two, three … System!” Inspiring stuff.
• That the Magic-Westhead dustup comes during a winning streak, after the team recovers from a 2-4 start, is an interesting lesson in team dynamics. When you’re the Lakers in 1981, you have the talent to beat anyone on any night. But there are times when wins feel like losses.
• More foolishness from Westhead: He admits to Riley that Jack McKinney hired him as a “dilettante” and he got the job only because Jerry Tarkanian’s shady friend was found murdered in a car truck and McKinney crashed his bicycle. And yet he says of his coaching job, “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll throw that away playing somebody else’s game.” Perhaps a little humility about the job you lucked into may be more appropriate.