‘Winning Time’ Recap: The Road to the NBA Title Is Paved With Problems

A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” coming up just as soon as I’m the guy without the catheter for once…

Winning Time Season One heads into the home stretch(*) with the Lakers on the verge of the playoffs, and playing a style and caliber of basketball that could make them look like obvious favorites to win the title. It’s not impossible to tell a dramatically interesting story about a dominant team or competitor, but it’s more complicated. Which is why “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” leans heavily on all the ways the Lakers somehow still feel like underdogs, despite the hot streak they’ve been on for most of the season. Everyone is too caught up in their own heads, and their own agendas, to focus on the bigger picture to the extent they should in order to win a championship, and one character after another falls victim to mind games.

(*) This was, in fact, the last episode critics were given in advance of the series premiere.

Many of this week’s conflicts are familiar ones from earlier in the season. Magic, for instance, continues to feel invisible compared to the great and powerful Larry Bird, who performs better even in a poll of other NBA players about which rookies should have wound up on the All-Star Team. Jeanie Buss remains profoundly uncomfortable with her father’s hedonistic behavior, especially when his irrepressible horniness turns its focus to Lucia, the home health aide who is taking care of Jessie after the Buss family matriarch has declined further cancer treatment. Others are relatively new, as longtime friends Jack McKinney and Paul Westhead find themselves at odds over Jack’s desire to resume control of the team, and Magic discovers the perils of meeting your idols when he’s hustled by The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh star Dr. J. But whether the conflicts are familiar or just developing, there seems to be little joy in Lakerville, no matter how much the team keeps winning — and, at times, because of it.

After spending the last few episodes recuperating from his near-fatal bike accident, Jack is back on his feet and understandably wants his old job back. Yes, the Lakers are winning under Paul and Pat Riley, but they’re running the offense that Jack spent a lifetime dreaming up, and the gig should still be his, right? Things are, of course, more complicated than that. It’s the Jack McKinney offense, but Paul is coaching it differently — leaning heavily on Michael Cooper, for instance, while exiling McKinney favorite Spencer Haywood to the bench over the snide comments Spencer made about him after Jack’s accident(*). And beyond the X’s and O’s, the team is very clearly responding to the Paul and Pat combo. They have developed inside jokes about Paul’s incessant Shakespeare quoting, and Pat’s hard-edged competitiveness offers a different motivational flavor than the original Jack-Paul pairing did. The only one who wants to mess with success is Jack McKinney, even though he’s not physically or mentally at his best just yet. The sad part is that Jack might have an easier path back if not for his disdain for — or, perhaps, paranoia about Pat Riley. If he weren’t so quick to insist that the team go back to a model of one head coach and one assistant, then Pat wouldn’t be working Paul and the media so hard to keep Jack down, and the conflict-averse Paul might be a bit less eager to fight for the new status quo. But the ugliness among the three provides lots of strong and entertaining material for Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, and Adrien Brody. The scene where Jack mercilessly negs Paul as someone not built for more than the life of an assistant — a belief we know Paul once had about himself — is particularly choice, and cruel.

(*) Spencer becomes collateral emotional damage in the inter-coaching rivalry. Jack tells Spencer that Paul and Pat want to trade him for big man Bob McAdoo, triggering Spencer’s own paranoia and leading him to freebase cocaine.

Quincy Isaiah in WINNING TIME

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson.

Warrick Page/HBO

The Magic-versus-Larry rivalry, meanwhile, isn’t going anywhere, as the two men would be linked for their entire careers. But this week adds some new wrinkles to it. Magic seems to find allies with future NBA commissioner David Stern and with Julius Irving, but Stern rightly sees Magic and Larry as a package deal for the league’s marketing, while Dr. J is tricking Magic into playing poorly against his own team. (As Jerry West points out, it is an old trick played by many of the league’s most competitive players against their would-be rivals.)

But the week’s most emotionally potent and messy material happens with the Buss clan, and particularly with Jeanie’s view of her dad. Jerry the overgrown little boy remains oblivious to the severity of his mother’s condition. When an emotionally overburdened Jeanie gets drunk just to cope, she hears Jerry talking about chicken parts as they eat KFC and begins imagining naked women crawling all over her gross old man. Later, she catches him being flirty with Lucia and has finally had enough. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks. “You’re not the fucking patient!”

Jerry seems chastened in the moment, but a later scene shows him driving Lucia home and sobbing into her lap, like she is the mother figure he now understands that he is losing. But within moments, his one-track mind gets back on track. He has recently offered to pay for Lucia’s son’s education, and you can see her accepting that this will be the price she must pay for her child’s future. It is deeply, unflinchingly unpleasant, and another marker of Jerry Buss as a man who — like Jack McKinney — simply wants what he wants, and doesn’t care who gets hurt on the way to him getting it.

Magic and Jerry West revisit the debate over their contrasting temperaments, with Magic insisting that he can win while still being happy. The episode concludes with the Lakers’ current star guard telling his predecessor how badly he wants to win when the playoffs begin. An intrigued Jerry West admits he wants to find out if that’s right. Memorable events lie ahead for the Lakers in these playoffs, and we’ll see how many of them Winning Time can effectively dramatize in its remaining episodes this season.

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