In the final episode of Winning Time, Season 1 quickly does away with the spectacle and gets straight to the facts. The series’ biggest conceit is as a series based on real-life, it can’t deviate from the truth. But, for all the defending creators Max Borenstein and Adam McKay have done for the series against accusations of inaccurate portrayals, the show, at its core, is a fictionalized account of real people, a real team, and a real outcome.
The tenth episode reminds us of that as it opens in the pivotal Game 5 of the 1980 Finals where the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are tied at 2-2. The Lakers captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, injured his foot in the second half but returned to play, grinding out a win in historic fashion. But it renders him unable to play in the ensuing Game 6. So it is up to the Lakers coaching staff to experiment with something different.
Anyone who knows a modicum of NBA lore knows what happens next. Magic Johnson makes history by stepping down four positions to center, where he goes ballistic, notching 42 points and 15 rebounds as a rookie. It’s a positional move teased from the start by Jerry West (Jason Clarke) as a learning curve to kill the joy out of the rookie phenom. But Magic being Magic, he can make lemonade franchise out of lemons. It’s also apparently a move foretold by former coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), who offers it to former protege and current Lakers coach (in the episode) Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) as an olive branch for forgiveness. Magic also won NBA Finals MVP and cemented his path as one of the top 10 players of all time and the greatest Laker ever to those of a certain age.
There you have it. Lakers owner Jerry Buss completed his rags-to-riches story, lifting his family name out of poverty and into the history books. Magic does, too, pulling his bootstraps up through his blue-collar beginnings to NBA Mount Rushmore. And the Lakers franchise goes from a laughingstock to a legacy team.
But Borenstein and company didn’t create Winning Time as an entertaining Wiki article. Instead, they wanted to show the trial and tribulation behind the scenes and contextualize the Lakers’ rise to greatness amid an American economic and moral recession. Winning Time is not just about a team’s path toward glory; it’s also a retelling of literature’s grand narrative, a character changing for the better.
Unfortunately, where Winning Time could have been genuinely transgressive, it failed. Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman) was never fleshed out as a complete character. We never see her outside of The Forum at all. We leave her with no idea of her life outside Buss’s purview. So when Buss brings in his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson), who will eventually help turn the Lakers back into a champion in 2020, just to ask her opinion of which of her brothers should be given the empty board seat, we not only see how little Buss has genuinely grown, but how little mainstream media has grown in its point-of-view storytelling.
That’s not to say Winning Time should have told the story from Sally Field’s Jessie (Jerry’s mom) or Jeanie’s point of view. But it could have given both more screen time. Rothman, too. We have the books, written by the stars themselves and by others, of all the main players. But we know little of Jeanie’s rise to power with the Lakers. Winning Time could have shown us more from this vantage point to give us a true peek behind the curtain. Instead, we are given another batch of bad men trying to break good, fail, and try again.
The series devolves into your typical TBS/TNT drama by tying up all the minor storylines left open from the pilot. Kareem (Soloman Hughes) passes Magic the torch. McKinney and Westhead reconcile. Kareem learns to let go and let God. And Buss gets to one-up his rival Red Auerbach. Oh, yea and a strange but maybe true storyline involving Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris) hiring druggies to murder his former teammates get resolved.
It’s essential to note that Haywood would kick drugs and turn his life around. Perhaps presenting the best happy ending of any Laker great portrayed. As Haywood, Wood Harris steals the entire series, giving the best performance while telling one of the few stories even old heads weren’t overly familiar with.
The majority of the episode is spent reliving that faithful Game 6, which serves as a history lesson to the Millennials who think the NBA started with LeBron James. The faux basketball portrayed on screen is the best of the series, which isn’t saying much seeing as how most of the basketball scenes were mashed together in post-production. Most of the actors portraying the Lakers legends barely played above college ball, if that.
The episode devolving into a Hoosiers/Air Bud level of championship game histrionics is not a bad thing. But the show has been trying for nine episodes to be so much more than that. It’s tried to be a statement on the failings of capitalism, the invisible Black man, and the ills of American society. But in the end, it decided to be pulpy, feel-good entertainment.
For example, when Magic tells versions of his mother, girlfriend, and rival Larry Bird that exist in his head to fuck off in his living room, it colors the scene and episode with a melancholic sourness. We know Magic wins multiple championships and gets the girl. In fact, he gets every girl. And more. When the imaginary visions disappear, leaving Magic alone in his home, we still know less of the man who has been a part of our pop-cultural consumption for more than 40 years before the series started.