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HBO + NBA and why I care so much
Season 1 of the Winning Time series about the Showtime Lakers is in the books. Please allow me to explain, better than before, why rewriting the history of #thisleague is so damaging
A former NBA All-Star who loves watching HBO's Winning Time asked me recently why I have voiced so much displeasure about its accuracy levels. The show, after all, flashes the same disclaimer on the screen every week, warning that there will be no shortage of dramatic flourishes woven in as it purports to tell the story of the Showtime Lakers.
Why does that bother you so much, Stein?
As we say goodbye to Season 1 of the polarizing HBO docudrama, after 10 episodes that some found #wildlyentertaining and which so rankled sticklers like me, allow me to explain.
It's all about the importance of history in a sport that hasn't preserved its past well at all.
As someone who treasures what happened in the NBA before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls rampaged through the 1990s to win six championships, it has always bothered me deeply that the late 1970s and ensuing 1980s — my time as a fan when the NBA finally clawed its way closer to the same relevance tier as Major League Baseball and the NFL — have not been memorialized in vivid detail like they deserve to be. I can log onto YouTube right now and rewatch countless episodes of This Week In Baseball from my youth dating all the way back to the show's inception in 1977. Video footage of Denver's David Thompson and San Antonio's George Gervin scoring 73 and 63 points, respectively, on the final day of the 1977-78 regular season as they dueled for the scoring title? Nada. You can't find a clip.
So it's naturally offensive, if you actually care about what happened during the 1979-80 NBA season that thrust a couple of rookies named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to the forefront of a flagging league, to see such a blatant disregard for reality and rewriting of history, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
From the moment this series started, its fans — and presumably people much more fun than Stickler Me — have shouted reminders and disclaimers that Winning Time IS NOT A DOCUMENTARY and was always going to be heavily fictionalized in the name of dramatic license that would result in a more watchable product for the viewers. Sorry, friends. These ain't fictional people. Spare me all the this is the way we’ve always done it talk. No show has the right to scramble its stories and personalities this much.
How much, exactly, is appropriate? Obviously everyone has a different bar ... and that's why this show has been so divisive. But I think I'm being quite sensible, as stated on numerous occasions previously, when I say yet again: Go ahead and sensationalize the drugs and the parties and the womanizing all you want. That's what we expect from HBO. Yet is it so much to ask that the basketball matters featured are at least 50 percent accurate? I would gladly settle for half-right in Season 2.
In Season 1, this show was roughly 20 percent accurate when it came to the events on hardwood, those in team settings and the relevant basketball personalities. Maybe 25 percent if we’re being charitable.
And that's a massive problem because, unlike with baseball, pro basketball’s actual history is common knowledge for so few. So this Frankenstein version of the Showtime Lakers' story is the one that will take hold now for so many viewers who have no other reference point.
That's why I've been so outspoken about it. I hate the idea that countless viewers, without wider distribution of more factual accounts, are bound to believe that this is how one of the most pivotal periods in the NBA’s rise went down. Or that this is what so many key figures of the 1980s NBA were really like.
I am simply one of many at this point who have railed against the show's creators for their cartoonish and demeaning portrayal of Jerry West … for taking what they've read and heard about West's troubled childhood and tortured perfectionism in adulthood and, as West's attorneys recently described, turning him into an “out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic [who] bears no resemblance to the real man.”
Yet it turns out, after watching every episode at least twice, that my list of faulty portrayals to protest stretches way beyond West, who was recently described by The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke as “the most revered living basketball player in this city."
🏀 Larry Bird is presented as an extreme hillbilly who, like the faux West, is comically enraged at all times and, worse, keeps highly questionable company off the court. The Bird we see in this show is as cartoonish as anyone.
🏀 Paul Westhead is reduced to a clipboard-fumbling nervous bumbler who looks like he was hauled out of a college classroom, with zero self-confidence or coaching ability, and plopped into the hot seat with the NBA’s glamour franchise.
🏀 Pat Riley, as we’ve mentioned previously, is made to look like Sonny Bono at the start and rendered largely insecure throughout Season 1. Multiple writers I’ve consulted who covered this team all say that even during the 1970s — even when he was merely working as a broadcaster or assistant coach — Riley had a confidence and a style that hinted at his eventual emergence as the Riles we all know now.
🏀 Jack McKinney is incorrectly painted as a my-way-or-the-highway disciplinarian as a coach when writers who actually covered him again say he was far more amiable and never reached anywhere near the levels of conflict to get his job back after his bike accident like the show pretends.
🏀 Legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn is repeatedly seen pouring out of a flask during live broadcasts. No less disappointing: HBO’s Hearn, via Spencer Garrett, comes nowhere close to replicating one of the most distinctive broadcasting styles in sports history. Shouldn’t that have been a prerequisite?
🏀 Watch this 1987 halftime interview Hearn conducted with Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss to see how soft-spoken and understated Buss often was compared to John C. Reilly's far more swaggering and combustible interpretation.
🏀 Two more points about West: 1) The show repeatedly casts him as an unsure decision-maker when in truth he ranks as one of the most decisive executives #thisleague has ever seen. West making a pros-and-cons checklist on a notepad and still failing to choose between Westhead and McKinney? Are you kidding me? 2) If he was such a day-to-day lunatic, as conveyed by the Jason Clarke version, would this many people in real life be speaking up for West? Even Spencer Haywood, as he informed The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn that he was actually fine with how the show handled his cocaine use, said he was bothered by the West presented on screen. (For the record: I’m a huge Wood Harris fan and loved watching him play Haywood … despite the crazy extremes of the script.)
Another disappointment: The various Lakers players aren’t featured nearly enough apart from Magic, Kareem and Haywood. I likewise can’t really buy into Quincy Isaiah's Magic Johnson, but I’ve (mostly) backed off there because I think it's pretty much a no-win task for any actor, seasoned or not, to try to channel the Laker legend when Magic admits that he was often playing a character himself as he developed Earvin Johnson’s alter ego after landing in Lakerland.
Everyone in our profession has copious praise for Jeff Pearlman's 2014 book Showtime upon which the series is based. The quarrel here, once again, is that the series eagerly attached itself to Pearlman's book and loves to trumpet to everyone that is based on Pearlman's book while constantly twisting/stretching/ignoring what is actually in the book.
Viewers are told, over and over, that every sports movie and drama does this, tweaking the truth to make the content more thematically compelling. What we got, in this case, was a show that distorted history more than any other sports drama I've ever watched … and for what? To serve up ludicrously hokey scenes like we got in Sunday's season finale, such as Westhead quoting Shakespeare out of a book to his players at halftime of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, followed by David Stern changing the results of Finals MVP voting on the fly to transfer the honor from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic for the supposed good of the league.
This is #wildlyentertaining television?
(Also during this dramatized Game 6: Jeanie Buss and Forum executive Claire Rothman go face-to-face back in Los Angeles in the middle of an empty building while the actual championship-clinching game is going on across the country in Philadelphia. Apparently those laughable face-to-face discussions invented between Jerry Buss and Red Auerbach at the Forum’s center circle in an empty arena for Episode 2 were deemed such great theatre that they had to be repeated.)
Yet I also know that lots of fans will keep loving the show no matter how many flaws are pinpointed. Variety reported Tuesday that the audience for Sunday’s season finale was 73% percent higher than the early March premiere and that the series enjoyed seven consecutive weeks of growth.
As much as it has infuriated me, I can admit that I will be back for every drop of Season 2, irresistibly drawn to a production about an era I will forever romanticize and hoping for more accuracy but settling for this consolation: If the existence of Winning Time can at least bring more awareness to the NBA’s undercovered rise and keeps leading some slice of the audience to go back and fact-check what it just saw to figure out just how badly Winning Time mangled it, those are passable outcomes for basketball historians. (Hat-tip to my pals at Silver Screen & Roll who have been publishing a weekly recap of truths and falsehoods.)
I will never understand why Adam McKay and Co. don’t just tell more of the actual (and delicious) Showtime Lakers tales that Pearlman and so many others (like Steve Springer and Scott Ostler in their wonderful 1986 book) have chronicled over the years, which are filled with scandal and sex and championship rings. Yet I can’t tune out the friends and acquaintances, like that former All-Star, who want me to shut up already and give my ranting a rest.
So I will zip it (for now) after simply sharing my last retort to the ex-player: I hope for your sake that Hollywood never decides to retell your team’s tales someday, because I promise you’ll be a far grumpier old man than me if they miss by this much.
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The winners of the league’s six major individual awards from the regular season are now all publicly known.
Enclosed is the breakdown (along with my selections from last month’s unofficial ballot since, we repeat, I have not voted on league awards since the 2016-17 season).
MVP: Denver’s Nikola Jokić (I also voted for Jokić)
Coach of the Year: Phoenix’s Monty Williams (my pick was Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins)
Rookie of the Year: Toronto’s Scottie Barnes (same for me)
Defensive Player of the Year: Boston’s Marcus Smart (I went with Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr.)
Most Improved Player: Memphis’ Ja Morant (San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray for me)
Sixth Man of the Year: Miami’s Tyler Herro (I had Cleveland’s Kevin Love)
Butler’s teammate Tyler Herro, still on his rookie deal, is the seventh-highest-paid player on Miami’s roster. Herro is earning $4 million this season and is scheduled to earn $5.7 million next season before he is eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension.
Amazing that Golden State's Jordan Poole was in the G League as recently as 14 months ago. The Warriors called Poole up from their G League affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif., on March 1, 2021.
The Spurs have received permission from the requisite local authorities to host four games outside San Antonio next season, when the franchise will be commemorating its 50th anniversary season. Those venues are expected to include Austin, Mexico City and the Alamodome in San Antonio, where the Spurs played their home games from 1993-94 through 2001-02.
Worthy points from my pal Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe when it comes to Kyrie Irving’s dismay that he was not selected to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team: Irving has played in at least 70 games just three times in his 11 NBA seasons and left both Cleveland and Boston in acrimony before signing with Brooklyn in July 2019. Those factors presumably weakened Irving’s case with some voters.
As we covered in this space recently, there were a record 605 players during the regular season who appeared in at least one game. The list of players who didn't log a single second of court time nonetheless jumps off the page when it includes Brooklyn's Ben Simmons, Denver's Jamal Murray, Golden State's James Wiseman, Houston's John Wall, New Orleans' Zion Williamson and the LA Clippers' Kawhi Leonard.
The WNBA has begun its 26th season with record levels of interest in the league … but also facing a roster crisis because of finances. There are 144 roster spots in the 12-team league but not all are currently filled because of the constraints of a hard salary cap that have led some franchises to keep less than the 12 players they are allotted. The Las Vegas Aces, who earlier this year hired Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon to be the first head coach in league history to earn a seven-figure salary, recently released two of the top 13 selections in the 2022 WNBA draft (No. 8 Mya Hollingshed and No. 13 Khayla Pointer) for financial reasons.
My former ESPN colleague Bill Simmons announced over the weekend that he was celebrating the 15th anniversary of his first-ever podcast in May 2007. I was his first-ever guest and apparently had more confidence in his podding potential than he did ... because even way back then I questioned why he couldn't get a more prominent debut headliner.