Film and TV

Track the Rise of the Lakers Dynasty With the New HBO Series

Quincy Isaiah plays Magic Johnson.
Quincy Isaiah plays Magic Johnson. Screenshot
Sports are our biggest form of entertainment, and sports figures are our most prominent celebrities. There is no league more dependent on the individual star power of its players than the NBA, which has been built on the backs of stars who brought the league into its current popularity and the visionaries that saw what the league could become if they leaned into it.

HBO’s new series Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty is a no holds barred look at the stars and the owner that changed the NBA forever.

The series takes place at a crucial time in NBA history when the league is fighting for its place in the American sports consciousness. The show points out purposefully that at the time, golf and tennis outperformed the league by a wide margin when it came to ratings. In comes Dr. Jerry Buss, played by John C. Reily, an upstart owner with style and a vision to turn the Lakers into the league's main attraction.

The series looks at the organization's rise through its ownership, front office, and newly drafted star player, Irving “Magic Johnson,” played by Quincy Isaiah. It's a period piece looking at the ins and outs of the rise of one of the defining teams of the '80s with all the style and excess of that time.

Based on the book Showtime by Jim Pearlman, the series was created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht and produced by Oscar-winning director Adam McKay. McKay made a late period shift from comedy guru working with the likes of Will Ferrell to social satirist in such films as The Big Short, Vice and most recently the polarizing environmental satire Don't Look Up.

The series has McKay’s influence all over it and contains all of his tricks that have informed his filmmaking. There are constant fourth wall breaks, with explanations and graphs to keep the audience in the loop of what's going on and why things are important. This explanatory style works for a show about an NBA front office and for viewers watching the show who might not know the story beats of, say, the Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird argument and the media’s portrayal of the two NBA hall-of-famers at that time and the racial aspect of it all.

The first episode, directed by McKay, is a whirlwind and more akin to an hour-long movie from the director without an ending. All of the showy filmmaking techniques are their land can be a lot to soak in with his frantic editing style. It looks like it took place in the late ’70s and ’80s, as it’s filmed with a grainy nostalgic tint. Though hectic, it does an excellent job setting the table for the rest of the series. The second episode is directed by Jonah Hill, a frequent McKay collaborator, and we see the series settle into its own. The groundwork for the series was laid in the show's first hour, and in the second episode, it is allowed to dig in and be a unique TV series.

The unifying aspect of the show that could dispel any problems or shortcomings is the casting and performances. John C. Reily is incredible as the Late Dr. Jerry Buss, playing him as this magnetic and charismatic visionary with an uncanny eye for what people want. Finding actors that not only look like these real people but especially the NBA players and personalities like Magic, Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry West is a tall task, but the casting and performances are on the mark. Quincy Isaiah is a more than believable Magic Johnson, and Jason Clarke as Jerry West delivers an uncanny performance as the Laker Great. Solomon Hughes plays to Abdul-Jabbar's public persona at the time effectively, and it's exciting to see how his portrayal develops. The origin story of Magic might be the show's weakest link so far. Still, as he finally transitions from Michigan to California, where the show's magic really takes place, that's sure to change, and if the second episode is any indication, the significant figures of the show will all get their time to shine and develop.

The show also puts its HBO branding to use, assembling a deep bench of acting talent, including Oscar winner Sally Field who appears for five minutes in the second episode as the mother of Jerry Buss, Multi Emmy award-winner Michael Chiklis, who plays the legendary Boston Celtic Architect Red Auerbach, and an incredible performance from Rob Morgan, who plays the father of Magic Johnson.

And there's more to come, including Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Wood Harris, Jason Segal, and many more. The material allows for these performers to play around while embodying these real-life individuals, which is one of the strongest points of interest for the series and the aspect of the show that is pitch-perfect.

The show doesn't hold back in showing the excess of the time, making a point in showing all the drugs, women, and partying that floated around this team and life in Los Angeles. It's no surprise that the NBA has stayed far away from the series, and the real-life entities being portrayed, like Magic Johnson and the Buss family, are dubious at best about the series.

In an era when athletes have the ability to tell their own stories producing content that they sign off on controlling their narrative like Michael Jordan's hit documentary The Last Dance, something like Winning Time hits differently. There is already a Magic Johnson signed-off documentary in the works as well as a Laker's workplace comedy directly from the organization that is on the way. The show is a comedic and dramatic look at a dynasty and is careful not to upset the figures it's portraying too much, but the show being made by outsiders allows it to feel more organic.

The different pieces of the show aren't all together yet through two episodes, but when all of these characters start sharing scenes and screen time together it will be something exciting. The series has legs, and it could run for multiple seasons and is being set up to do so by HBO. For people familiar with the history of the NBA and an interest in it, this series is a no-brainer, but people unfamiliar or not initially interested might have a hard time with it. But in the way the show is structured, putting its characters in the forefront while not afraid to explain things and lean into the conventional prestige TV storytelling people are used to, it has the chance to be big and catch the eye of more than just NBA fans eager to reminisce about the ’80s.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is on HBO and HBO Max.
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Contributor Jamil David is a native Houstonian and Texas Southern University alumnus. He is interested in TV, sports and pop culture. @JMLJMLD
Contact: Jamil David