Before the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson with the first overall pick in 1979, the league was on the verge of a fate worse than death — irrelevancy.
The co-rookie seasons of Magic and Larry Bird, both with the two most-storied legacy franchises in the NBA, gave the league an unprecedented level of excitement and entertainment value unseen since the game’s humble beginnings in Jewish ghettos.
But this turnaround was not by chance. It was instituted through American ingenuity, marketing rebranding, progressive politics, financial conning, and the PT Barnum levels of showmanship of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. It’s poignant then that Buss and Magic would be at the center of HBO’s Winning Time, a television adaptation of the Showtime Lakers by Adam McKay and Max Borenstein, based on the book Showtime by Deadspin contributor Jeff Pearlman. Borenstein, a self-proclaimed “basketball junkie,” is best known for writing the American remakes Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island.
But he was also the writer behind Worth, the 2020 biographical film detailing the moral implications and fallout of one man’s handling of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Telling a complicated story around the inner workings of finance is precisely what the story of the Showtime Lakers needs. There is no better example of the complicated and conflicted ethos of the American Dream than the mythos behind the revitalization of the NBA in the 1980s.
Borenstein hopes to avoid the cinematic pitfalls of other basketball-centric movies by focusing on the cultural epoch the Lakers were reborn into. As a result, he has crafted a story that’s less about winning a game or season and more about winning at life. By doing so, Borenstein has mined the lengths we will go to make our wildest dreams come true and at what costs.
Borenstein talked with Deadspin on the research process behind Winning Time and how the series will define an era and shape the future of basketball as more than a sport but a spectacle. Undeniably, one worth watching.
Deadspin: It feels like the Showtime Lakers were made for television. Why hasn’t an adaptation happened sooner?
Max Borenstein: Oy, I don’t know why it hasn’t happened sooner, but I’m thrilled it hasn’t. To me, it is the perfect way to approach this incredible epic about the American Dream. It’s a moment about a cultural transformation in the modern NBA. A lens we can use to look at this incredible era in our country’s history and our recent history. And a reflection into a lot of the legacy we live with today.
DS: Before the Showtime Lakers, what was the entertainment value around the NBA?
MB: The NBA before the Showtime Lakers had a reputation as a third-tier sport in the 60s. By the time the 70s rolled around, it had fallen off even more to the point, it wasn’t only falling behind baseball and football in the ratings but behind golf. It was perceived to be a league, rightly or wrongly, to be violent. A lot of fights going on. There were some drug issues. There was a perception that because it was a game that had so many African-American players, white audiences wouldn’t be able to connect. A lot of advertisers talked about that at the time. They were more interested in advertising in golf, because they thought with wealthy white audiences, they could sell their products. Basketball didn’t seem to offer that opportunity. There was a race component to everything. At the time, the NBA was almost losing its contract with CBS. It wasn’t televising live games, even the Finals weren’t televised live. It was televised on tape delay, in LA, when they played the Finals, our series in 1980, when they won the Finals, that aired at about 11 at night. After the nightly news, because the news had better ratings. That was the state of the NBA.
In comes Magic Johnson. And on the other coast, Larry Bird. Two guys who were perceived to be as different as two people could be. Magic is massively charismatic. Built for cameras. Instantly gregarious to reporters. And, who happened to be black. And you had a guy in Larry Bird who happened to be white, who was an equally great player, but dour, not interested in media and didn’t have natural charisma with the media that Magic did. They wound up on two teams that were iconic, battling spy vs. spy kind of teams, in the Celtics and the Lakers.
In Jerry Buss and Red Auerbach, you have two guys who couldn’t be more different. Both brilliant sports franchise stewards. But, both, utterly different characters. Red, this gruff, East Coast competitor who comes from the world of sports. And Buss, the adopted West Coast Hollywood, flash and style guy who Red looked down on and underestimated. And who turns out was equally competitive and equally built to win. It was the makings of a rivalry. And that rivalry was the catalyst for the NBA becoming what it is today.
DS: Since Hoosiers, there hasn’t been a basketball adaptation that has worked. The best ones focus less on basketball and more on human interest stories like He Got Game. What did you want to do differently?
MB: Traditionally, the beauty of a sports movie is in its simplicity about winning or losing a particular game, season. There’s a finite clock. That’s the idea of a sports movie. It’s going to be Rocky going up against Apollo. Whatever story it is, that’s one of the traditional things we expect from sports. A story about the business of professional sports, that is an epic, not about a single season but rather a dynasty. The building, the invention of the brand, of the branding of a team, to the franchise, all the way down to the very strada, to the very playing of games and the lives of the players. Not just on the floor, but what it’s like to be a professional athlete. What are the choices and complexities of that as a human being, not just on the floor. That’s the sort of grist of this show that we just haven’t seen a lot of. That I haven’t seen a lot of. I didn’t realize we hadn’t seen a lot of it until we were digging in. This is an aspect, as a fan of the NBA, and of the Lakers, I’ve never really gotten to see behind the curtain into the general management of the team. The goal was to dig into specifics. In those specifics, there’s universality. Someone with no interest in advertising can enjoy the procedural of Mad Men. Obviously, very few of us have knowledge of the world of meth, but we can dig into Breaking Bad. We have an opportunity to show a procedural world of professional athletes, celebrity, that could be our window into all these beautiful stories we had the opportunity to tell.
DS: With a team as historic as the Showtime Lakers, everyone will have a different story to tell about how things went down. What was your research process? Did you interview each player, specific players?
MB: We chatted with quite a few people. People who lived through the era and wanted to consult. The good news is so many of these people, because they live their lives in the public eye, they’ve told their stories. They’ve been covered by the media, in interviews but also in books of their own. We had so much to draw upon. It allowed us to tell a really balanced version of the story. It’s not one character’s journey, obviously Jerry Buss and Magic are at the heart. They are at the spine of all of this. We are equally as committed to digging into the specifics, emotions, psyches of Jerry West, Paul Westphal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The only reason we get to do that is they lived in the public eye, and there’s so much we can draw upon.
DS: Although a staple of Adam McKay films, breaking the fourth wall can be a risk with audiences. What purpose did you want it to have in Winning Time?
MB: We wouldn’t have done it if it was just a style thing. One of the beautiful things about the show is it’s about entertainers. We wanted to create a style for our show that would give us that same freedom and irreverence. And at the same time, there’s so much information we need to get across sometimes. How do you do that in a way that’s not just expository and boring? And you’re right, it’s a risk. We didn’t know how well that device of talking to the camera would work until the first day shooting the pilot. John C. Reilly and Jason Clarke are on the golf course and they’re talking about drafting Magic Johnson and Jerry West starts screaming in the background. Then, John Reilly as Jerry Buss, this is our first shot of the show, turns to the camera and introduces Jerry West. The hairs on the back of our neck stood up. It worked. It didn’t overly deliver the information. It actually gave us a window into Jerry Buss’ view of this guy and his charm and his PT Barnum quality of taking us by the hand and guiding us through this story.
DS: One of the smartest things this show did was cast actors outside the realm of fantasy casting or sports-related fan service. Some all-time great creatives are working on this series in Tracy Letts, LisaGay Hamilton, Rob Morgan, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and specifically, Sally Fields. What was it like having this caliber of performers as vehicles for your writing?
MB: Oh, God, it was mind-boggling. Dream come true. Sally Fields is an icon. One of the great actors of any generation. Rob Morgan, my god, the day he came in on the pilot, and we saw him opposite Quincy Isaiah as Magic in the hotel room. Just talking to him as a father to his son, about his contract. There are two guys who had very different experiences in America. The dad who works multiple jobs to support his large family, and Magic who is a 19-year-old kid who is being offered the world and still thinks he deserves more. They are both right, and they are both arguing with one another because they come from such different experiences. There’s a moment that even in the love of a father and son, there’s a gap between them. It’s only going to grow, inevitably, as Magic becomes a bigger and bigger star. That’s such a universal thing. Rob channels such nuance and brought such meaning to that role. It’s an embarrassment of riches, this cast. And it challenges me, all of us, as writers every day because we have to bring our ‘A’ game and deliver scenes to these actors that justify their commitment to the show.
DS: Outside of the main cast, which supporting character did you find pivotal in casting?
MB: It’s impossible to say just one. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the hardest casting that anyone involved in our production had ever undertaken. Francine Maisler, who is the great casting director of her generation, said that one almost beat her. She had a nationwide search for who that might be. It came down to the wire, and suddenly, she sent us a tape of this guy. One of the challenges of Kareem, he doesn’t only have to look and feel like Kareem as a basketball player. We all know Kareem as a human being, this towering intellectual heavyweight, this gravitas. There’s a lot of boxes we have to tick to portray this icon. She comes back to us and says, “He’s never acted before but he’s a professor in education policy with a doctorate. He also played basketball professionally as a Harlem Globetrotter. He’s almost 7-feet-tall. Dr. Soloman Hughes walks in the door. This guy who never acted before, he’s incredible. He worked so hard to learn the nuances of the craft, in a way I think audiences will appreciate.
DS: When dealing with a time period like the 80s, where racism and sexism were overtly prevalent, there’s an appreciation amongst writers to play it subtle and not insult the audience with heavy-handed preachiness. What was your plan for handling societal ills surrounding the NBA, media, and the Los Angeles-based Lakers during the writing process?
MB: We’re using this story of the NBA, as the origin story of the modern NBA, as a window to a moment in American culture, a transitional moment in modern culture. A transformative, transitional moment. In telling any story of American culture, it would be false to ignore some of the themes that were a part of that transformation. Gender politics, racial politics. These things are essential to the American story and American narrative. It’s not our goal to finger wave or judge. We are trying to present the era honestly and allow the audience to view things that are different and have evolved since. And other things you might watch and say, you know there’s similarities between then and now.
None of it is about castigating the characters in the moment. Because we all live in the moment that we live in. Looking back always, things about 10 years ago that we thought and said things that now we would say, “that was insensitive.” I think this show can be honest without taking a finger-wagging or judgmental tone.
DS: The genesis of what the NBA is now, as a vehicle for pop culture, began with the 1980s Lakers. Did you want to consciously show the connections of how things evolved from the 1980s Golden Age to where teams like the Golden State Warriors and the Philadelphia 76ers are now?
MB: Absolutely. As a basketball fan. Style of play that we have today, fast-paced run-and-gun, kinetic, shoot within six seconds kind of play, would have never existed without the Showtime Lakers. Beyond the style of the game, the style of basketball is really part of the cultural zeitgeist in America right now and in the world. That’s because this was the moment, we’re telling, a sport became entertainment. It’s obvious to think about sports as entertainment now, but it wasn’t then. Sports was jock straps and sweaty guys in gyms. Fans smoking cigars and taking bets. It wasn’t’ something to take a date to. It wasn’t something to take the family to. It didn’t have the vibe of what Jerry Buss says in the show, DisneyLand, meets the Playboy Mansion meets the Hollywood Bowl with a dose of the Oscars. That’s what he brought, with the team at The Forum, Claire Rothman (general manager and vice president of the Forum), they turned basketball into a show. It’s impossible to overstate.