Damn, even legendary Chick Hearn is a bastard? Winning Time is hell-bent on tearing down all the NBA totems. Even the adored voice of the Lakers for 40-plus years, Hearn, is caught calling black security guards “gorillas.” Writers Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes show us the circus behind the curtain as a microcosm for America’s roster of societal ills. We’ve already rooted for these guys in real life. Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Jerry Buss are icons of the game. They are beloved, enshrined legends, impervious to the judgment of the proletariat. Winning Time simply reminds us they were also flawed human beings, like the rest of us scrubs.
If even Chick isn’t spared, where does that leave us? The show’s breaking of the fourth wall puts us squarely in the action. We aren’t regulated to just passing and catching with this cast of morally ambiguous lotharios. The audience is asked to be one of the main players. The circumstances of the main cast are all too recognizable. What would we do in these scenarios? Sometimes we are even asked by Buss himself in the show’s radical fourth-wall breakage.
The Lakers’ roster was already crowded with big egos and personalities, but the third episode, “The Good Life,” adds coaching prospects knocking on the door of the Lakers head coaching job. With West on the way out, there are three main options eyeing the center of the storm in former player and lackey, Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), NBA lifer Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), and controversial college coach Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane). But, of course, those who know history, or how to Google, know how this turns out.
The show attempts to construct a narrative, although flawed and subjective, around how one of the most profound teams of all time was assembled. Your interpretation of “Biblical truth” depends on how accurately you discern what’s in front of you. But as a character in the show, you, the audience, are playing a central part in its proceedings.
Americans, especially Boomers who were prime NBA viewers during the Showtime Lakers, like their narratives “based on a true story.” How many dads read fiction outside of Tom Clancy? This particular generation has an obsession with feel-good “realism.” That makes this show so fascinating as a simulation of a specific NBA history. So much of what is being discussed, Magic’s infidelity, West’s rage, Buss’s corruption, was never addressed transparently by them. It can remind some of us how we rarely get/got to understand the emptiness behind our beloved Boomer dads. At the same time, making the escapism of sports all the more revealing.
The documentary “The Last Dance” fortified our expectations of those legendary Bulls teams and enhanced the legend. Winning Time is a work of fiction based on fact. It demands us to be an active audience, make ethical alignments, and overlook sins, much like Magic’s mother does for a son she loves. Magic is considered a God of modern basketball more than any other character. He made the fastbreak sexy, not to mention mainstream. His million-dollar smile swooned us all. Yet, this version of the hero’s tale shows us the emptiness behind the smile.
Story-wise, three episodes in, not much has happened. However, this doesn’t infer Seinfeld levels of nothingness. The series isn’t interested in stepping on the gas just yet. Instead, the show takes joy in letting its central characters seep deeper into their muck. Magic still hasn’t left his family home in Michigan by the middle of the episode. Buss still hasn’t found a way to stop the financial hemorrhaging. And society still hasn’t found a way to stop being racist and misogynist at epic levels.
The show benefits from the creative choice not to force-feed the audience Wiki exposition on every character. Instead, we are expected to either remember or have done our homework. This allows the characters to be a human first rather than a caricature of biography. It also focuses on why characters made their choices instead of being force-fed the statistics.
When it comes to character development, some players were bound to ride the bench with such a talent-packed roster. Incumbent point guard Norm Nixon is regulated to mostly Magic’s nemesis, while Magic’s future wife Cookie is fleshed out only slightly more than the women he cheats on her with. Claire Rothman’s characterization wouldn’t have made it out of post-production if this show had been made a decade earlier. We should be thankful; Gaby Hoffman gives one of the best performances as a woman kicking ass in a man’s world. It’s a shame we aren’t treated to more of her time behind the scenes since her story is the least well-known.
Towards the end of the episode, when Riley and West are waxing poetic about the mysticism of basketball, it, in many ways, grinds at the core of the show’s value. We are watching men orbit their orange and leather sun. While they might become temporarily sidetracked towards women, drugs, and self-interest, they always return to orbit. For zealots of the game, basketball is hell. This is why West, after quitting the last episode, still hasn’t packed up his shit and is scouting his replacement instead. And why Riley is graveling his way back to Lakers’ broadcasting, even tearing apart his man-cave/shed to shake himself out of his basketball-centric malaise.
And that’s not even the worst of the obsession. Magic might have arrived in the City of Angels, but he’s already met a few devils. The free-for-all gangbang of LA’s nightlife is slowly stripping away what’s left of his soul and warping his love of the game into something beyond basketball - a fast break towards chaos. And then you have the other fringes of fandom. Where some people love their basketball so much, like serious fans of UNLV coach, and potential Lakers replacement Tarkanian, they’re willing to kill for it.
While history has shown us most of this legendary cast makes it out alive, unscathed is a whole other issue.