Episode 4 of Winning Time skips the philosophical misnomers and gets straight to the point. In “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” we are treated to our first episode dedicated to a singular biography. We learn McKinney was a relatively unknown assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers in the early 70s. He won an NBA championship with the Blazers under Jack Ramsay in 1976–77 and was credited with designing the uptempo pace the team played with. While the blueprint of the eventual “Showtime” offense looks familiar, McKinney does not ring a bell to most casuals. He never got a chance to make a name as the Lakers’ head coach after he was injured during a bike accident and had to leave the team. At the time, L.A. was 9-4 in 13 games.
The great playwright and stage actor Tracy Letts imbues McKinney with an everyman charm. As “Jack, the Nobody,” Letts blends into the background of larger-than-life characterizations like Tarkanian and West. His counterpoint proves to be the perfect complement to a team in full supply of egos but thin on vision. McKinney rejects West’s plan to stick rookie Magic in the post and decides to play him at point guard. A move that would prove revolutionary to the game of basketball for decades to come.
In the 1980s, the NBA was at the precipice of evolution. It had not yet integrated positional fluidity, fast-break-centric offenses, or calibrated itself as a star-centric league. It was a relic. Hence, it was trialing golf in the ratings. The idea of a 6’9 player manning the point guard position was heretical. Yet, McKinney was blasé to the idea. The Portland team he came from had utilized superstar big man Bill Walton in give-and-go action or as a high-post, passing center to hit multiple cutting options. The Blazers incorporated an improvisational, motion offense, with Walton as the primary outlet passer leading to easy transition buckets. Sound familiar?
Once Buss assembles the team to Palm Springs for training camp and McKinney holds his first practice, we see even the players are unconditioned to change. They initially bark at increasing transition plays outside of a result of the opposing team’s turnovers. McKinney might not have the flamboyance of his players or front office bosses, but he was of radical mind. He got the Lakers to buy into chaos. And by doing so, they began to play jazz on the court when everyone else was trying to orchestrate a symphony.
While the fourth wall breakage has receded into the background from the rate of the first three episodes, it has been replaced with overly-stylized animation and editing. Audiences would be better off watching Sally Fields stir a martini while talking accounting shop than an animated sequence around Magic’s love for passing as an analogy for a menage à trois. As of yet, the amount of screen time allotted to Fields, Adrian Brody, and Morgan Parker has been sorely limited. In this episode, Letts is given room to flex as a basketball-minded maniac trapped inside a mild-mannered prognosticator.
Capturing the ballet of basketball has been difficult for any film adaptions to execute. You either employ basketball players who can’t act, and you get Micheal Jordan on Space Jam or Ray Allen in He Got Game. Or you hire actors to play ballplayers, and you commit post-production surgery to achieve your basketball footage. It’s been four episodes, and even in training camp, Winning Time hasn’t shown us they’ve figured out the secret either. As a result, audiences are robbed yet again of the chance to see basketball successfully translated on screen. Perhaps we should be looking to an actual NBA game instead of parodying doppelgangers for our fulfillment.
Throughout the episode, almost every character begs the title question. McKinney seems to be the only one who knows his offensive scheme might answer the Lakers’ issues, on the court and off. Most of the core cast is too busy wondering who they are themselves to worry about McKinney. None more than Buss, who is becoming more and more aware of the growing debt and how much rides on the over-achievement of the ensuing season.
The show delves into the ideation of how a trip to the Forum was turned into a Disney World-Playboy Mansion-Oscars event. The late 70s were mired in President Jimmy Carter’s weak leadership and economic desert. People were itching to forget how awful real life was and dissociate into fantasy, even if just for two or three hours. Winning Time shows us how Claire Rothman and her team put together a plan that mirrored her boss’s excess and role-playing into a fully-realized fantasy, evolving a basketball game into an event.
When Jeannie Buss asks her accountant grandmother, “How bad is it?” concerning her dad’s growing debt, she replies, “falling apart,” it could easily be a conversation about America in 1979. It seems like the perfect time for a larger-than-life con-man to come along and sell some miracle water to the masses. Or in Buss’ case — sensual dancers, an exclusive VIP club, and a front-row filled with A-List celebrities.
The theatrics of basketball games have become so commonplace audiences are immune to the novelty they bring. Winning Time has crafted mythology out of luck and happenstance to show us how Mount Olympus was made. While the show fails at times to juggle storylines while adding new characters every episode, it remains so damn fun to watch. In the end, like Buss, you can’t help but care little about the line between fact and fiction.