“You look like one of us,” a young woman tells Jerry West at a bar, fresh off a championship but stuck in his own ennui. The woman is part of a group mourning a deceased loved one, some dude named Bob. West is three hours removed from winning his first NBA championship in 1971, after six attempts. West has yet to become the grandfather of the NBA. In HBO’s Winning Time, we’ve only seen him in the decades before now, as a surly, self-destructing misanthrope hell-bent on being miserable. West just has that look on his face, like he’s seen some shit. And he has.
The prologue we’re given moments before reveals West’s All-American slice of life. You know, that whisky-soaked American dream full of physically abusive fathers, battered mothers, and dead military brothers. For a show about the “golden age of basketball,” Winning Time has leveraged its characters between seeking a meaningful life and the seeming meaninglessness of the world.
Of all the mythological characters we’ve been introduced to thus far, West has been the most revealing. And the most counter-intuitive to the public archetype we have come to know as “The Logo.” He’s a nihilist, through and through. But spending your nights with a shotgun under your bed in case daddy tries to kill ya, as West did as a child, would push any one of us to embrace “après moi, le déluge,” which is essentially French for, “fuck it.”
Jason Clarke really gets into the minutia of West’s conflict of life. He creates a shell around his character, impenetrable by even Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes’ script. Clarke never shows his hand, oscillating between comatose and orgasmic, embodying the anxieties and potential of the American Dream approaching a new decade. We now know capitalism would burn up the American economy for Blacks, minorities, and the have-nots, but in 1979, West and America didn’t really know what they were looking at while the flames or economic disparity licked around them.
The second episode, directed by Jonah Hill, reveals the darkness surrounding the Lakers once the bright lights of the Forum have turned off, and reality settles in around finances, egos, and power dynamics. This episode finds everyone eating their fair share of shit. Including Buss, who’s broke; Claire Rothman, who is being gaslighted into a role outside the purview of financial corruption; Magic, whose mother peers right through his smile and new bathtub and into his blackened soul; and West, who is trying to figure out his crises of meaning.
Norwegian metaphysician, Peter Wessel Zapffe, was as big of a fatalist as West but denoted four ways to deal with meaninglessness: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. Buss’ free-wheeling and free-spending ownership, along with Magic’s game-changing skill set provided West an outlet to try all four. Magic was the last messiah for a league on the brink of destruction, as well as for the men at the helm.
In order for chaos to be averted, the league needed to be saved. To do so would mean the Lakers are able to pose a legitimate threat to their East Coast rivals, the Boston Celtics, and the basketball Bürgermeister, Red Auerbach, played by tough guy Michael Chiklis. Buss tries to appeal to the business aspects of a renewed rivalry. But Auerbach is only interested in slitting throats, most notably those of novices like Buss, a businessman who doesn’t know a motion offense from his ass.
Auerbach’s father was a Jewish immigrant from Minsk, Belarus, who came to America at 14-years-old during the Russian Revolution. Auerbach was raised poor in Brooklyn and had to fight for everything he had. His hot temper, which Chiklis embodies through the way he grips his cigar for dear life, earned him the nickname “Red”.
The dinner table scene is a meeting of two kingpins, one sitting on championship trophies, the other on dreams and schemes. Auerbach smells Buss’ fear and pounces, winning the first encounter between the two. But Buss isn’t interested in old school dick measuring contests. He realizes the Celtics hard-nosed, old-school pathology on the court is an extension of their boss. In order for the Lakers to challenge the totem, Buss’ team would have to reflect his own devil-may-care swag. Auerbach underestimated many things about Buss — his poor background, his personal success, his drive. Most of all, when he looked across the table at him, he didn’t see into a mirror, revealing a fellow wounded animal ready to defend itself, and it’s life, at all costs.
In the office, Buss is surrounded by myopia, settled in through a decade of Lakers losing. Outside the Forum, he is trapped within the confines of expectations. Even his own mother, Jessie Buss, played with dripping swarm and majesty by Sally Fields, doubts her boy can be a man. Jeannie keeps a picture of the family from more modest times, a facsimile of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Buss has no time for memories. He’s focused on the future, and pushing his family deeper into the mythos of American capitalism. Jeannie, the family accountant, just sees her son buying another toy.
This episode finds its central characters given exactly what they seek, without being satiated. Their empty hole is filled with booze, sex, money, and fame, only to grow deeper and endless. Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation feel more like basketball play calls on the court, than they do ways to cope with enervation. At the end of the second episode, our Laker heros are no closer to figuring themselves out.
“Is That All There Is?” the song from which this episode’s title is torn from, laments the singer Peggy Lee’s less-than-impressed perspective on her house burning to the ground. As the song plays over West’s brooding contemplation at the start of the episode, it scores another moment of a person shrugging at life’s absurdity. In a few hours’ time, shorter than it takes to fly to LA from NY, or work a 9 to 5, West had won an NBA championship and had sex with the woman he met at the bar. And yet, there he is, staring at a piece of confetti from The Forum rafters, wondering what comes next. If he only knew.