I distinctly remember my fascination for the sport of basketball growing once I started devouring episodes of “The Last Dance,” the 10-episode docuseries featuring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls team of the 90s. There have been moments that have struck me throughout the documentary, be it the technical prowess, or the amount of backstage access, or Jordan’s largesse of personality, but there were two important features that rose above every other feature for me. Basketball as a sport is a very sexy sport to film. The structure and the players’ abilities somehow add to the dynamic of movement and ratchet up the tension and narrative, a prime requirement for storytelling. The second feature is the reason why sports documentaries are so compelling to watch, or sports movies are so compelling to follow – the characters, the personalities, and how these personalities gel together to craft a team to follow.
The impetus of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” to focus on ‘The Los Angeles Lakers’ when it was bought out and placed under the new management of Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), is to highlight the two rookies who are the prime focus of the story, Buss behind the team and the court and a young Earvin “Magic” Johnson in the court, a reluctant addition by the existing Laker team. The series opens with contradictions: a modern-day method of storytelling by the undeniable touch of Adam McKay; the fourth wall breaking; the irreverent comedy with different cinematography styles for different instances. The court scenes or moments of confrontation are shot with a grainy filter akin to old VHS tapes. The series itself feels very much a part of the 80s lexicon of older TV series in terms of aesthetics. The contradictions also lie in the factual inaccuracies of the storytelling, because writers Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, in adapting Jeff Pearlman’s non-fiction book “Showtime,” take some of the fundamental points of the narrative and then ratchet up the style and excess. What we are left with is a cocktail of over-exaggerated adaptations of real-life personalities in a hyper-stylized narrative about the rise of the “Showtime” Lakers during the 1980s.
The trump card and what pushes winning time over the edge is that it is so entertaining. The pacing of the story is on point, and like the best dramas and the best underdog stories, every successful aspect is followed by an obstacle either unaware of the viewer or managing to take both the viewer and the characters by surprise. From a personal standpoint, like Magic Johnson’s own demons, or Buss’ tireless efforts to maintain the façade of the billionaire owner even when his line of credit is decreasing faster than he could plan to reimburse. And then we have the unique perspective of Tracy Letts’ Jack McKinney, the coach with the magic plan, the savior of the Lakers, who pulls that team together and forms them into a cohesive unit, only to be out of commission from an accident, forcing his assistant Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and his unwitting partner in crime, Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), to hold the team together in the middle of the playoffs and take them to the finish line. The story is so fraught with personal and logistical difficulties facing all these characters that none of the principal characters in a frankly huge ensemble feels underutilized. Even Jerry West, the most cartoonishly exaggerated character there is in this series, gets a moment of emotional reckoning and a moment to impart an important lesson to young Magic Johnson.
“Winning Time,” however, rests squarely on John C. Reilly’s shoulders as Dr. Jerry Buss, a role famously reserved for Will Farrell until it wasn’t, information he apparently became privy to from the trades. Looking at the 10-episode saga, it is evident that McKay made the correct choice because Riley is mesmerizing. He is the delivery mechanism for some of the more laugh out loud moments of the series; the glue holding the kinetically edited and frantically paced series together; and the emotional core; along with Quincy Isiah, which lifts “Winning Time” from a typically provocative and over-exaggerated form of content to become one of HBO’s best of 2022. Look at the monologue Riley has in episode 8 and tell me it isn’t the perfect clip show encompassing a role for Emmy consideration. Isiah, as Magic Johnson, looks the part of young Magic, and while he is provocative and funny, subsequent episodes reveal the vulnerabilities and flaws of the man. Part of the reason “Winning Time” works as a series is because of its provocative nature. We have seen movies like Straight Outta Compton, which have been produced by the members of the team on which the biopic is produced, as lacking some teeth, because these personalities would inevitably shy away from showcasing their flaws on screen, as they have been elevated to a god-like pedestal by their fans and quite logically wouldn’t want that image to be broken. But while the series does peddle in inaccuracies (pretty sure that the “airplane” incident of Kareem bad mouthing the kid didn’t happen), then you wouldn’t have been privy to hard-hitting moments like Spencer Haywood’s drug addiction, or the animosity between Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon, or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s burgeoning friendship and evolution into mentee and mentor, respectively. It is fascinating to watch, made all the more fascinating because Solomon Hughes’ Kareem is an absolute treat to watch.
The series’ treatment of female characters too ranges from problematic to sometimes downright brilliant. Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, Sally Field as Jessie Buss, or Hadley Robinson as Jeannie Buss, hold the fort. Field is extraordinary as Jessie Buss, the woman who is supremely capable as an accountant and the backbone of Buss’ failing business and who has to reckon with her cancer diagnosis, while Robinson, as Jeannie Buss, throughout the 10 episodes, shows a woman trying to reel her father’s hedonism in, while simultaneously craving his attention and respect. It’s a shame that the rest of the women in the cast are not given meatier character roles.
From a technical perspective, “Winning Time” is a fascinating study of excess. Excessive stylization, quick-cut editing, placement of music at opportune or inopportune moments. As a person getting inundated with the experience, this is a lot to process. But the story is strong enough that all these disparate moments manage to imbibe a unique sensibility to the proceedings. In the moments where they show the proceedings inside the court, “Winning Time” manages to extract cheer-worthy moments from your couch because of how dynamically they follow the players inside the court. Like I said, basketball is a sexy sport to film, and “Winning Time” is a hell of a slam dunk by HBO, flaws and all.
“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is a biopic sports drama series created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht.