Winning Time instantly loses credibility
The first episode of the new HBO drama on the Showtime Lakers, especially with its viciously inaccurate portrayal of Jerry West, missed the mark
Jerry West's old office at The Fabulous Forum did not have windows to hurl objects through in anger. None of the Forum's basketball offices did.
West also, to my knowledge, did not keep his 1969 NBA Finals MVP trophy in that office. That scene Sunday night when he supposedly chucked it through glass in frustration because the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Magic Johnson over Sidney Moncrief? Total fabrication.
I'm likewise told West never played golf in a foursome with eventual Lakers owner Jerry Buss and then-Lakers general manager Bill Sharman. Even if he had, I'm quite confident that West — ever the gentleman in public — never would have broken a golf club over his knee or storm away from a putt to engage in a curse-filled shouting match with the regal Sharman.
These are suddenly pertinent details, more than 40 years later, because the needlessly over-the-top portrayal of West's anger and alleged events that took place before the Lakers' selection of Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft were so twisted in the first episode of HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty series.
I know, I know: This cinematic adaptation of Jeff Pearlman's bestselling 2014 book Showtime is merely meant to be a dramatization of the Lakers' wildly successful (and just plain wild) 1980s as opposed to a documentary like The Last Dance. Some of you will inevitably say: Lighten up, Stein. I'm sorry, friends, but even such disclaimers have limits when it comes to the dramatization of real-life events involving one of the most culturally significant and well-chronicled teams in the history of modern sport.
I want to love this show so much. We're only one episode into what proper TV critics who have seen so much more of the series say is a slow-moving arc, so there is apparently still plenty of time to get there. I intend to watch every single second of every single episode we get, whether or not the series gets any more accurate from here, but too much of Episode 1 wasn't even in the proverbial ballpark for accuracy.
For this viewer and presumably many others eager to relive such glorious days, that's a problem.
Sensationalized sex and drugs and party scenes were to be expected. This is HBO. Yet when it comes to the sports stuff, especially when we're talking about a period of Lakers history filled with no shortage of actual documented outrageousness for the show's brain trust to draw from, outright making things up because of the supposed need to create dramatic tension comes at a credibility loss that, for certain segments of the audience, will be hard to shake.
I did not study cinematography at Cal State Fullerton, so someone more well-versed in the craft will have to explain this to me: How did concocting an unfathomable story about Magic and Norm Nixon playing a competitive game of one-on-one in fancy street clothes on a court painted white at a lavish party at Donald Sterling's house — in which Nixon purportedly schooled Magic after urging him to stay in school — enrich the plot or make that scene anything but farcical?
This is not Ted Lasso. These are not fictional characters whose stories have to be somewhat outlandish, conceived from scratch, to draw us in. Challenging as it must be for the filmmakers trying to put a new spin on such epic tales, when we already know the outcome and so much backstory, realism is a component that can't be completely ignored.
I'm not going to try to put this production in context with the rest of executive producer Adam McKay's body of work, or grade the effectiveness of the show's repeated breaches of the fourth wall compared to other shows that have employed that polarizing device, or provide episode-by-episode reviews that make you think you're reading a beat writer's game-by-game team coverage like Alan Sepinwall does for Rolling Stone. Yet I do have a lot of experience consuming these sorts of shows and movies and will never be convinced that it’s wise to skimp on authenticity.
ESPN's The Bronx is Burning. The 2017 Swedish film Borg (known in the U.S. as Borg vs. McEnroe). Another film, The Damned United, which in 2009 took us back to the world of English football in the 1970s and the managerial career of the larger-than-life Brian Clough. I devoured every drop of them all, through countless viewings, because I so relish these efforts to go back in time and hopefully expand upon what Young Me remembers (or thinks he remembers) about the sporting giants of my youth.
You have to give Winning Time high marks for landing the likes of John C. Reilly to play Buss, Adrien Brody to play Pat Riley, Jason Segel to play Paul Westhead, Sally Field to play Buss' mother Jessie as well as newcomers Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes, who take on the thankless task of trying to fashion a convincing Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. None of those aforementioned productions I loved, though, strayed anywhere near as far from the actual history book as Winning Time did in its opening act.
Another example to illustrate how far: The Los Angeles Times just ran an excerpt from Pearlman's book that describes Magic's true introduction to that sand dabs lunch and how it was actually outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke — Buss wasn't even at the meal in question — who pushed for the drafting of Johnson in exquisite detail. The history is completely rewritten on screen, in an obvious attempt to paint Buss as the hero who rescues the Lakers from bungling their attempts to convince Johnson to leave college early, except that it left me with the feeling that the show's creators are eager to publicly attach themselves to Pearlman's credibility as an author while retaining the right to write anything they want.
Did you catch the message at the very beginning? The maiden episode opens with the following disclosure:
This series is a dramatization of certain facts and events.
Some of the names have been changed and some of the events and characters have been fictionalized, modified or composited for dramatic purposes.
This apparently means, in West's case, that they have the license to paint one of the most successful front office executives in league history — on top of his Hall of Fame playing career — as an unhinged rageaholic who throws more tantrums than McEnroe ever did as tennis' ultimate bad boy.
That's not the real West.
He is a tightly wound and tortured perfectionist whose chronic unhappiness and hypercompetitiveness has been written about for decades. Every former beat writer who covered him, long before my two seasons traveling with the Lakers in the mid-1990s, has stories of West erupting on them at some point. I once described him in The Los Angeles Daily News as Jerry Stressed because he curiously found it so hard to enjoy the early days after he stunningly maneuvered to acquire Kobe Bryant via the 1996 draft and then sign Shaquille O'Neal. West has since become rather open about depression and his demons ... as conveyed by the 2011 memoir he did with Jonathan Coleman titled West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.
Yet the West presented in Winning Time was absurdly, embarrassingly one note and left out any hint of the wisdom, leadership and charm that made him a franchise pillar for decades and one of the greatest Lakers ever. The worst part: Younger fans of the Lakers and the NBA in general, who missed Showtime in real time and have turned to this series for an education, are bound to believe West was this unhinged.
The truth? Many of the writers he occasionally castigated would tell you there's no one they'd rather interview, because he dished far more candor than anger. Jason Clarke’s West, furthermore, is violently angry — based on what? The real West was not actually running the Lakers’ front office when he favored Moncrief over Magic and, by most measures, just might have made up for that misread with the moves he did make. As Pearlman ultimately wrote in his book, most importantly, amid an assessment of the two-time NBA Executive of the Year’s many quirks: "People within the Laker organization loved West."
Which likely explains why I've heard from a number of former Lakers employees since Sunday night who were so bothered by how West was depicted. Maybe this should be an animated series, one cracked, if The Logo can be made to look this cartoonish.
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How All-NBA works
I was asked during a recent Spotify Greenroom session if Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid could both earn All-NBA first-team status when they are so clearly centers and the ballot asks for two guards, two forwards and a center.
It was a question I couldn't answer with confidence because I haven't formally voted on NBA awards since 2017 and, five years later, wasn't totally convinced I had the most current handle on how such rulings are made.
So I checked to make sure I had it right.
For most of my history as a voter, ballots were filled out by hand. This prompted league officials to reach out to voters if they made an indefensible selection … like listing Embiid, hypothetically, as a guard.
Since the league went to electronic voting for season-ending awards, voters can only make selections based on where players are listed positionally. Those listings are determined by the league office based on past seasons as well as the current season.
For each of the past two seasons, Jokić and Embiid were listed at both center and forward, enabling voters to make room for both on the first team. Assuming those same options are provided this season, voters will have the room to select Jokić and Embiid alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo on the first team, with Ja Morant, Luka Dončić, Stephen Curry and possibly DeMar DeRozan vying for the pair of guard spots on the first team.
Last season, for the record, Jokić received 93 votes at center and seven at forward, while Embiid received 79 at center and 21 at forward. In 2019-20, Jokić received 99 votes at center and none at forward; Embiid received 38 at center at one at forward.
The obvious question, of course, is whether the league should scrap positions entirely for All-NBA teams ... or at least adopt the system applied to All-Star ballots that call for the selection of two backcourt players and three frontcourt players. Jokic, after all, could be treated as a point guard offensively given his playmaking responsibilities in Denver and a number of note you’ll find listed later in the Tuesday Newsletter Extravaganza.
Perhaps I should leave this invite here every Tuesday.
Consider this section our virtual suggestion box to discuss content ideas … NBA and otherwise.
What would you like to read more of in 2022? Or less of? What do you really think of my (largely pretend) idea to launch a complementary coffee Substack? Or a Substack about BlackBerrys?
I've got a lot of things planned already in terms of stories I hope to tackle in coming months, but I would love to hear your ideas either in the comments below or via email@example.com.
Apologies to the Boston Celtics. The Committee (of One) had you too low, at No. 11, in last Tuesday's edition of our monthly Power Rankings, failing to properly reward Boston for its incredible surge in the wake of an 18-21 start. Sometimes even we miss.
If we're going to bring up turnarounds, we have to mention the Memphis Grizzlies, too. Ja Morant and Co. are 35-12 since a 9-10 start this season to surge to a heady No. 2 in the West.
Another standings note: Minnesota remains a long shot to climb higher than No. 7 in the West, but the Wolves entered Tuesday's play at a whopping eight games ahead of the No. 9 Lakers. The Wolves need just five wins in their final 16 games to clinch the ninth winning record in the club's 33-season history.
With Gregg Popovich now needing just one more victory to surpass his friend Don Nelson as the winningest coach in NBA regular-season history (1,335), San Antonio (25-40) plays its next six games at home against Toronto, Utah, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and New Orleans.
Denver's Nikola Jokić is up to 18 in this season’s triple-double race to widen his league lead. His next closest pursuers are San Antonio's Dejounte Murray (12), Philadelphia's James Harden (10), Dallas' Luka Dončić (9) and the Lakers' Russell Westbrook (9).
Jokić also leads the league in one of my favorite statistical categories with 99.3 touches per game. Dončić is second at 92.2 per game, followed by Harden (92.0) and the Lakers' LeBron James (88.2).
Kyrie Irving has played in just 99 games, including the playoffs, since signing with the Nets before the 2019-20 season. The Nets are 5-11 with Irving in uniform this season.
The NBA's Basketball Africa League began play last weekend with 12 teams from 12 countries. They are: Association Sportive Salé (Morocco), BC Espoir Fukash (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Dakar Université Club (Senegal), Cape Town Tigers (South Africa), Clube Ferroviário da Beira (Mozambique), Cobra Sports Club (South Sudan), Rwanda Energy Group (Rwanda), Forces Armeés et Police Basketball (Cameroon), Seydou Legacy Athlétique Club (Guinea), Atlético Petróleos de Luanda (Angola), Union Sportive Monastirienne (Tunisia) and Zamalek (Egypt).