Lakers Dramedy Winning Time Gets Its Head in the Game

​​“Goddamn! Basketball!” Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) exclaims good-naturedly in the pilot of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (HBO Max, March 6). “I mean, look at it. It’s like great sex. Always moving. It’s rhythmic. It’s up close and personal. There’s no pads or helmets for protection. It’s just you and these other guys out there trying to get the ball into the hoop. It’s a beautiful thing, and every single one of those guys plays that game with their own unique pizzazz and style. It’s sexy.”

While diehard fans of the sport don’t need a breakdown of its basic mechanics or dynamic appeal, that’s not really the point of this establishing monologue. Winning Time is not exactly courting diehards. Buss is an affable womanizer with an Aqua-Netted combover and a rum-soaked heart of gold. He loves shiny buildings as much as he likes shiny new women. He loves sex and he loves basketball, and has a gambler’s go-for-broke knack for holding on tight until his luck turns.

That matters because it’s 1979, and he’s about to become the new owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. And under his tenure, he will usher in the team’s Showtime era—a dazzling decade of play that turned Laker games into red-carpet events, with rock music, courtside celebrities, Laker Girls, orgies, free-flowing booze and cocaine, and big wins.

If you don’t know the story of how the Lakers married Hollywood flash and streetball might, tighten your laces. Some of it was luck: A favorable coin toss in 1979’s draft netted them first dibs on Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), fresh out of a Michigan State victory against Indiana’s Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). Some of it was tragedy: A traumatic bicycle accident made Coach Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) tenure short-lived, but it gave Coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) a chance to absorb McKinney’s brilliant offense strategy and put his own defensive flourish on it. And a lot of it was skill: Magic wowed with dazzling passes and clutch plays, which perfectly dovetailed with the graceful maneuvering and famous skyhook of “Captain” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes). Together, it all cemented the team as giants in NBA history.

But even if you do know the story, Winning Time is happy to retell it to you with a wink and a nudge—fast-paced and mesmerizing one minute, tenderhearted and obsessive the next. And a lot of cheeky asides that break the fourth wall.

As serious as Winning Time is about the soul of the game and the stakes involved in the Lakers glory-grab—a league in the shitter, low ticket sales, dwindling viewership—it refuses to take itself too seriously. Don’t Look Up’s Adam McKay, who directed the pilot and created the show with Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, revels shamelessly in the hedonism of the era.

Women are paraded through the series in a boob-splosion of sexcapades; Buss is rarely unaccompanied by a stiff drink, a stacked babe, or a wolfy grin. Early reviews have called Winning Time a love letter to the Lakers, and it is, if that letter is written in lines on a coke-dusted mirror.

But the series also sends up the bluster of its many male hotheads. Buss never stops believing the money will keep flowing, even as he loses his cool several times an episode over minor details. Jerry West (Jason Clarke), a former star Lakers player who scouts for the team (and whose figure graces the NBA logo), is a sore winner whose exceptional career somehow haunts him at every turn. He’s seen here as a temperamental prick, but one who can’t turn his back on the team.

The series’ hodgepodge of irreverent reverence wouldn’t quite work without Reilly’s outsize magnanimity or Clarke’s tour de force as West. It’d fall even flatter if Winning Time didn’t appreciate the game’s ultimate hook, and the significance of its socioeconomic impact. But it does.

The famous rivalry between Magic and Bird—the Lakers and Celtics have mutually loathed each other since the 1960s—is played like a territorial pissing contest. It also charts a racial reckoning the NBA is ill-prepared to face: that a foul-mouthed, doughy white hick from Indiana who spits chaw and chugs Bud is still considered more sellable by advertisers and owners than any of the numerous excellent Black athletes in the league. The simmering awareness we see here is only the beginning of a decades-long contention about race roiling the league today.

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