Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty chronicles the golden age of one of the greatest franchises in all sports. The HBO show debuted Sunday night with a high-profile start, introducing an eccentric Los Angeles as the backdrop and a cast of characters with a goal to make basketball the sport of the future. Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Based on Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime, Winning Time’s first episode —The Swan— introduces the humble beginnings of the 1980s Lakers, starting before the 1979 NBA Draft. The late Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) leaves the Playboy Mansion and purchases the Los Angeles Lakers. We learn about the current crisis of the NBA, deprived of stars, a disconnect between the players and the fanbase and the racial discord of the country at the time. All that changes with the draft, as the league adds two of the biggest stars ever to enter the game, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (Qunicy Isaiah, who is fantastic).
There, we meet the Johnson, the confident, charismatic star fresh off of an NCAA Championship at Michigan State. Buss is hellbent on getting Magic in a Laker uniform but faces an uphill battle from an angry (and alcoholic) head coach and Laker legend Jerry West, who prefers to draft Sidney Moncrief (this is apparently. West storms off of a country club course, upset with the idea of getting Johnson first overall. He states that he’s too tall to play guard in the NBA and wouldn’t be able to hang with smaller players as his counterparts, along with calling him a showboat and too soft for the league because he smiled. Buss wittily responds, ‘but [his smile] would look great on billboards,’ as West storms off (seriously, Jerry West will probably hate this show more than he hated the 1979 draft pick).
We also meet a jealous Laker all-star guard Norm Nixon (played interestingly enough by his son DeVaughn Nixon), who feels threatened by Johnson and current Lakers owner, Jack Cooke, who threatens to cancel the sale Buss for his own personal reasons. We are also introduced to the purposefully standoffish Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Soloman Hughes), who is not interested in the Lakers’ first pick.
In an underdog role (which is ironic because it’s the Lakers), Buss gets Johnson to sign pen to paper on a rookie contract, causing West to rage-spike his NBA Finals MVP trophy. Overall, the show doesn’t explain everything that leads to the first pick in the draft (such as the trade that got the Lakers the first pick and the team’s success before 1979). It does a great job of selling the story of just how improbable the Lakers’ beginnings were on the way to five championships.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to people who did not read the book or know the league’s history was just how bad the NBA was at the point of Buss purchasing the team. The association struggled mightily with attendance issues, the ABA poaching stars and a league-wide drug problem (which I’m sure is addressed later in this show). Buss shows the growing potential in the league, buying the Lakers with cash and various properties, including the Chrysler Building, to make sure the deal got done.
The show also quickly goes over the racial disconnect between the players and fans in its current state. As things stand, the league is viewed as “too black” for fans. The hope around the league is that Bird will remedy that issue, but Buss is delighted that the Celtics own Bird’s player rights (thanks to Red Auerbach finding a loophole in NBA rules) and he can take Johnson. Buss is interested in stars, and he views Magic as the biggest star in the world.
The first episode’s goal is to set the stage for the entire series and story behind the Lakers dynasty, but we get a glimpse into the characters that make it all happen and the lifestyle in Los Angeles.