Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
For a show ostensibly about basketball, there hasn’t been a whole lot of that iconic pimply, bouncy orange ball in Winning Time, which makes sense. This is a show primarily aimed at viewers who vary from not knowing the story of the Showtime Lakers to not knowing a single NBA player by name. But after three episodes, it’s clear that dramatic momentum is hard to build when a show’s story lines revolve around job openings and workplace conflicts for a team we, the collective viewer, haven’t seen play a single game, let alone a practice. Thankfully in this week’s episode, “Who the Fuck is Jack McKinney?”, the series’s strongest thus far, we have that answer to its title: a strong, confident leader who shows up to training camp with an innovative plan that not only gives the Lakers their best chance to win but also establishes their new flashy identity. But, as we soon find out, he’s not the only person within the Lakers organization scheming to put the “show” in Showtime Lakers.
We start at Lakers training camp. And where is it? Palm Springs, of course! While modern NBA teams have training facilities in their cities, NBA teams operating before the Magic/Bird/MJ windfall of money and popularity most certainly did not. With three weeks until the season begins, a cavalcade of Lakers players, coaches, and front-office execs head east on the 10 freeway to Palm Springs, a desert resort town best known for its mid-century architecture, vibrant gay community, and bumping pool parties. The latter is right in Jerry Buss’s wheelhouse, and the Lakers owner is there to greet everyone while donning a Speedo and snacking on crab legs.
Unlike Jerry Buss and Jerry West, whom the show portrays as bullshit artists in their own singular ways, Jack McKinney shows up to Lakers training camp at Palm Springs as serious as a heart attack, even if it earns him enemies and detractors. Within minutes of showing up at Buss’s daytime pool party, he rebuffs the party and calls for a film session with the team. Without even introducing himself as the new coach, he bemoans footage of their previous season: “slow, methodical, and predictable” basketball, though it isn’t different from how every other team in the NBA plays. But several times a game, usually on a blocked shot or steal, the Lakers quickly run the ball up the court, darting and passing it for a quick score. Why, McKinney asks, don’t they do this every single play?
His players give him a quick and entirely reasonable answer: It’s hard! And that’s just one game, let alone playing at that breakneck pace for 82 games. Magic Johnson, whose style of play is a perfect fit for this system, is instantly onboard, but McKinney faces verbal pushback from the team’s mercurial captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At this moment, McKinney reveals that he’s not just a better coach than West when it comes to X’s and O’s; he’s also far better at connecting with difficult personalities (or any personality, in West’s case). After the Laker center and jazz aficionado compares the proposed system to “streetball” and “chaos,” McKinney knows exactly how to reel him in. He compares the old style of basketball to classical music, with its stodgy white conductors telling the orchestra to hit the notes the same way, every single time. His new system? It’s jazz: wild, unpredictable, improvisational, and one in which the Black players are in control. He has Magic and Kareem ready to give it a shot by the film session’s end. Unfortunately for Coach McKinney, the rest of the team is not persuaded. Mutiny is afoot, and these mutineers have an average shoe size of 14.
But is McKinney riling up his soldiers on purpose? At the first practice — a closed one, as Jerry West soon finds out — the new coach pits the two point guards and their divergent styles against each other. While Team A, led by Norm Nixon, gets easy buckets, McKinney berates them for their slow play and lack of passing. And even though Team B, led by Magic Johnson, nearly gets into a brawl because Magic’s teammates keep getting smacked in the face by his no-look passes, McKinney preaches patience to his players and assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) about the unpredictability of their offense soon becoming second nature.
Magic and Kareem might be on the same page for the new offense, but the future dynamic duo is just getting to know each other off the court. Around teammates like Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper, Magic laughs off the rookie label as if he’s still strutting around the Michigan State University campus. That being said, he does respect Cap just enough to take it seriously when Abdul-Jabbar lets him know that, as his rookie, he expects him to deliver a freshly squeezed glass of OJ and the morning paper, meticulously arranged so that the sports page is last, at the crack of dawn. Cocky as Magic may be, he respects the fraternal ritual and shows up the next day with his signature smile, only to be silently rejected after Kareem examines the viscosity of the juice. By the end of the episode, after Kareem sees how hard the kid is working on both his OJ squeezing and basketball, he earns a smidgen of Cap’s admiration. How do we know? The Harlem native lets him know that the only acceptable paper is the New York Times before he again shuts the door on him. It’s rude, but getting a couple of sentences out of the stoic center is a big step forward for their relationship.
If McKinney had a more capable assistant coach, he might know the players are looking to get him fired before the season begins. But his right-hand man is Paul Westhead, who, like Pat Riley in episode three, is introduced as a total loser with little to no people skills. Unlike Riley, however, Westhead at least has a job. But it’s not basketball; after failing to reach the NCAA tournament in 1979, La Salle University demotes its Shakespeare-quoting men’s basketball head coach to English professor. So when McKinney calls his office, Westhead, played by Jason Segel in a classically sheepish hangdog Jason Segel manner, is almost literally out the door before he hangs up.
While the players, coaches, and front office are acclimating to the desert heat and new offense, back in Inglewood, Claire Rothman & Co. are trying to figure out how to make Laker games the hottest ticket in town. A presentation by Lon Rosen and Linda Zafrani makes a case for Laker games as a family-friendly escape: a marching band at halftime; a conservatively dressed spirit squad; a silly mascot, Slam Duck; the transformation of the Forum Club, a dreary lounge designed in the image of former owner Jack Kent Cooke, into a playpen for parents to drop off their little rugrats during the game. To Jeanie Buss’s chagrin, Rothman actually seems onboard with most of these things, even though they are precisely the opposite of what her horny, hard-drinking, celebrity-obsessed dad asked them to do. Her mortified look almost instantaneously convinces Rothman to do the exact opposite and creates two short-lived enemies in Lon and Linda. Later, when she walks in on them smoking weed, they realize that Daddy’s Girl isn’t there because she wants something to fill her time. What she actually desires is to avoid the life of her mom, post–divorce settlement, one spent at charity galas and country-club luncheons. Though little does she know, her mom is about to become a lot more involved with the team … at least on paper.
Back in Palm Springs, Grandma Buss makes a poolside visit to tell her son, as Sally Field’s one role on this show seems to be, that he’s out of money. When Jerry bought the team, he didn’t realize that he was on the hook to Great Western Bank for the previous owner’s loan. Her advice to keep the team: “giving” the team’s holding company California Sports, Inc., to his ex-wife, JoAnn, and then filing for personal bankruptcy when Great Western calls for their money. To Jerry’s shock, JoAnn agrees to the scheme and signs the papers, bringing yet another family member into the fold.
After several practices, the non-star players, led by Ron Boone, are ready to burst into Jerry West’s office to demand that he can the coach who replaced him. In order to do so, they realize they’ll need one of the superstars to do the talking. While Kareem’s cold shoulder comes as no surprise to the audience, Norm Nixon’s reluctance weakens the would-be rebellion. Despite not gelling with a new system that will clearly lead to a diminished role, Nixon is open to at least giving it a try if it helps the team. Even without any stars clamoring for McKinney’s head, West tells the role players he’ll give McKinney a talk, though his reasoning is mainly due to his personal slight about being banned from practices. So West gives McKinney both a request and an ultimatum: Find a middle ground and bring back open practices.
So McKinney does what he’s been told. But you can tell by his sly grin that this was his plan all along. His idea of finding a middle ground? Moving Magic and Cooper onto Team A with Norm and Kareem, even though that means a squad with two point guards. The ensuing result? The speedy, pass-happy team makes Team B’s slow-paced insurgents look like scrubs in front of West, Buss, Bill Sharman, and the rest of the organization. It took four episodes, but the Showtime era has finally begun in Los Angeles.
• Linda Zafrani is best known to Laker fans as Linda Rambis, wife of future Winning Time character Kurt Rambis, the fan-favorite bench player who looked more like an accountant than the tough-guy power-forward role he filled. Linda, the Lakers’ executive director of special projects and Jeanie Buss’s best friend, and Kurt, who was a longtime assistant to former Lakers coach and Jeanie’s ex-boyfriend Phil Jackson, are still heavily involved in the Lakers front office — so much so that some sportswriters have taken to calling them “Shadow Owners” of the team.
• The quick shot of a bicycle strapped to the top of the McKinney family station wagon? That’s what we call foreshadowing.
• This is the first appearance of Michael Cooper, arguably the greatest Laker to not have his number retired by the franchise. Despite being overlooked by the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Showtime Lakers would never have won their five championships without his stalwart lockdown defense.
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: Seconds before Magic tells Kareem that he’s going to love his orange juice, Magic tells the audience that Kareem is going to love his orange juice.