If the first half of Winning Time’s debut season has a glaring flaw (besides the incessant breaking of the fourth wall), it’s the relegating of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the bench. By the end of his 20 seasons in the NBA, the 7’2” Abdul-Jabbar had won the MVP award six times and scored more points than anyone else in history. But Winning Time has so far prioritized flash over substance, leaving Abdul-Jabbar sidelined in favor of less interesting and oft-repetitive storylines until now. “Pieces of a Man,” the best of the series so far, goes deep into the life of a player who for years was maligned by the press for the aforementioned grumpy public identity, ignoring the myriad reasons why an outspoken Black Muslim celebrity would operate as a living, breathing defense mechanism.
Before the episode delves into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the show begins with the Lakers’ 1979-1980 season finally tipping off in San Diego against the Clippers, their future crosstown rivals. But back in Inglewood, the normally cool as a cucumber Dr. Jerry Buss is freaking out over every detail big (the uninstalled sound system in the Forum Club) and small (the snap of the Forum’s hot dogs) before the Lakers return for their first home opener under his regime. He wants everything to be perfect, whereas the more realistic Claire Rothman is so concerned about getting butts in the seats that she gives a box of 1,000 tickets to the arena’s head security guard to pass out to friends and family. Most worrying for Dr. Buss? The sexy Laker Girls dance squad he dreamed up seems to be imported from the Los Angeles Ballet company. While he fires the whole lot of them, Jeanie is smart enough to seek out one of the more youthful and seductive dancers, a young woman named Paula Abdul, who will be the first Laker Girl and the team’s choreographer.
Before the game, Magic Johnson and coach Jack McKinney bond over being the first ones to arrive for morning practice. McKinney praises the young kid’s leadership qualities on the court but asks him why he isn’t doing more of it? Magic correctly replies that the team already has a captain (Kareem), but the savvy McKinney tells him a little white lie: Cap has been openly wondering when the young buck will take over. So as the team gets ready for game one — and moments after the team sees Kareem smile for the first time when new addition Spencer Haywood (played by Wood Harris) enters the locker room — Magic interrupts Kareem’s massage to let him know that even though he’s a rookie, he’s ready to be the co-leader of the team. Kareem rolls his eyes about the dynamic duo of Cap and Buck that Magic envisions and brings him down to reality with a simple stat: After tonight, Kareem will have played 853 games in the pros, and Magic will have played 1. At halftime, the Lakers are down by four, and Kareem rebuffs McKinney’s request to speed up the game, correctly predicting with Nostradamus-esque ability that the pace will slow down in the second half and that he’ll lead a comeback with exactly 30 points and ten rebounds. What he doesn’t foresee is that Magic helps him seal it with an improvised inbound pass that goes against McKinney’s play call. Or that the rookie will celebrate the first win of the season like they just won the NBA Finals, pissing off Kareem for acting like he’s never been there before.
The following morning, we find Kareem unwinding with headphones and jazz. But while his beaten-up body is relaxing, his mind is racing, recalling memories of his father, a jazz musician-turned-NYPD officer, returning home exhausted from another day on the beat. But it was not just another day in 1964; riots had begun to erupt in Harlem after James Powell, a Black ninth-grader, was killed by a cop. Several years later, Officer Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr. asks his son if he’s throwing out their family name simply to rile up white folks. The former Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. tells him that his new name, meaning “Servant of the Almighty,” is a call for him to use his celebrity and power to enact real change in the world. And while Officer Alcindor finds his son’s activism commendable, he hates that it’s putting a target on his back.
When Kareem awakens from his daydream, he’s joined by his old friend Haywood to do a little reminiscing of his own. Like Kareem, Haywood has been labeled by white owners and general managers as a problem, a distraction, an angry Black man. Why? Because he sued the NBA for the right to leave college and play professional ball before graduating, a lawsuit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. As they walk the grounds of Kareem’s mansion smoking a joint, they differ in interpreting Magic’s reason for smiling all the time. But they agree on one thing: the younger, carefree players on the team don’t understand the sacrifices the previous generation made at the beginning of the decade.
After Kareem’s chat with Haywood, he approaches Magic in the locker room and surprises him with a request to talk one-on-one in the training room. While the talk goes well at first, with Kareem complimenting Magic’s youthful energy, it quickly turns condescending when the big man tells Magic that his actions represent how White America sees all Black people. Magic disagrees and turns the lecture on respect back onto Kareem, telling the veteran that the team is playing at McKinney’s desired break-neck pace while he lopes around for easy buckets. Within seconds, Cap & Buck have to be separated from turning the training room into a boxing ring.
Feeling spiritually and mentally lost, Kareem heads to his mosque. There, he tells the Imam that lately, his prayers feel meaningless and his purpose, once righteous, now feels rudderless. Even his anger, one of the things he could count on to direct his forward momentum, currently only serves to push people away. The Imam’s advice is simple, kneel and pray. With his knees bent and his head bowed towards Mecca, the peaceful image is of Kareem finally on the same level as everyone else. The painfully shy celebrity who hasn’t been able to walk outside without people staring at him since he was 13 has his eyes closed and can see nothing but Allah.
As the Lakers gear up for their first home game under new ownership, Dr. Buss goes through his own identity crisis. Even though Jeanie has a sexy Lakers Girl squad ready for the halftime show and Claire pulled some strings and permits to get the Forum Club up to snuff for the post-game party, Dr. Buss is all nerves and anxious energy. After talking it out with his best friend, business partner, and impromptu therapist Frank Mariani, he concludes that he spends so much of his life living on the edge that he never takes the time to step back and enjoy it. But that’s bullshit from a bullshitter. This Lakers organization and brand were refashioned as an extension of his personality. So if the team flops, it doesn’t just mean financial ruin; it also means his public persona is associated with being a loser.
Lucky for Buss, the team is anything but a failure. With the assistance of that classic staple of sports movies, a montage, we speed through the first month of the 1979-1980 season. With Kareem adjusting to his teammate’s pace, the Lakers jump to a 9-4 record and first place in the Pacific Division. Things are going so great that McKinney even cracks a rare smile (and a beer) with his assistant Paul Westhead in the private confines of his office. The next day, he leaves his Palos Verde home on bike to meet Westhead for tennis. He never makes it, crashing head over his handlebars when his brakes malfunction. Bleeding out on the hot L.A. pavement, the man who invented Showtime basketball may never coach the Lakers again.
• While Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA accomplishments are mind-boggling, they’re not necessarily the most interesting things about the man. As a college player for UCLA, he was so dominant that the NCAA banned the slam dunk for a decade. As an actor, he lampooned his grouchy public persona in the classic comedy Airplane! and fought his real-life Jeet Kune Do sensei Bruce Lee in Game of Death. A longtime activist for African-American civil rights, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, boycotted the 1968 Olympics and faced even worse vitriol when he converted to Islam. Abdul-Jabbar is also the author of over a dozen books, non-fiction and fiction, ranging from explorations of the Harlem Renaissance to novels starring Mycroft Holmes, the older brother of Sherlock. And at age 70, he became a first-time staff writer in the writers’ room of the Veronica Mars revival!
• To learn more about why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam, I highly recommend reading his 2015 essay.
• While it felt a little forced, it was still touching and historically accurate to see a baby Kobe Bryant in his mother’s arms as they watched his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, play against the Lakers.
• Spencer Haywood really did circumcise himself.
• Check out this video for a quick five-minute supercut of Magic Johnson’s Laker debut that’s depicted in this episode. The speed at which they played was truly unprecedented in the NBA and, despite all their success in the ‘80s, was never really replicated until the “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns helped usher in the modern NBA. You’ll notice that Winning Time took some creative license with the final seconds; that’s Don Ford inbounding it to Kareem for his incredible game-winning skyhook, not Magic.
• For my blog Goldstein and Gasol, I examined the house fire that destroyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 3,000+ jazz record collection and also cooked a paella of his own recipe.
• Breaking the Fourth Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: Before the Laker Girls are introduced, Jerry Buss tells Frank Mariani that his penis is going to want to see this. Then he turns to the audience and says that our penis will want to see this as well.