It’s Not About the Real-Life Lakers: Winning Time and Getting Stories Accurate

What Winning Time gets wrong is not what makes it wrong.

Winning Time Real Life Lakers

( Whenever an adaptation or historical account comes out via feature film or series, a recurring question most people consider when deciding whether to watch it is, “is it accurate?” Judging a film or series by its accuracy to the source material has always been a faulty approach, because it assumes that “the truth” is the only thing to gain from these retellings. Biographical fiction (which is still fiction, mind you) has always been special for how it can highlight truths from different points-of-view and even exaggerate certain elements to get a point across, since “the truth” doesn’t always set up themes so easily.


The latest to stir up such controversy, HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty has definitely (and unsurprisingly) ruffled the feathers of its widely known subjects. The new series centers on Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and his attempts to forever change the NBA league through use of the Los Angeles Lakers team of the 1980s, consisting of Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), and Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon), among others.

Here's Why Real-Life Lakers Don’t Like Winning Time

Since the series’ release, it has garnered criticism from former members of the Lakers themselves. While promoting his documentary They Call Me Magic for Apple TV, Johnson has stated that the series isn’t the truth. Former Lakers MVP and head coach, Jerry West (who Jason Clarke portrays on the show) has demanded via his lawyers an apology for his depiction as prone to public outbursts due to his dissatisfaction with how his athlete career ended.


On the other hand, Abdul-Jabbar has written a thoughtful blog post on the series, wherein he states that he has no problem with dramatization of historical events. However, he criticizes that the writing is boring and characters are presented only as caricatures that don’t present any meaningful truth.

The criticism is completely justified and worth raising, especially as the series struggles to find its balance juggling multiple plot lines, particularly those of the integral female characters and the commentary on racism in sports during the 1980s. Despite this, the series still carries a great deal of entertainment value and a few thematic flourishes that should save it from being immediately written off.

Winning Time Streaming Series
Quincy Isaiah portrays Magic Johnson (center-left) and John C. Reilly portrays Jerry Buss (center-right) in the streaming series.

The whole conceit of the series is that newly minted team owner Dr. Buss wants to boost Lakers sales by transforming the whole basketball league from a dad’s sport into a relevant entertainment at the forefront of culture. He does this by egotistically and obsessively surrounding the actual playtime with sex, celebrity, and a bit of showmanship to get everyone intoxicated with the brand.

The characters themselves then get swept up by the American culture of success and “winning,” and all the sordid stories that comes with it. It’s literally gambling to most of the characters. They’ll do anything to score big, or die trying.

Winning Time Review
The series centers on the rise of the 1980s Lakers dynasty, consisting of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) and Magic Johnson (right).

Winning Time Review: An Entertaining, Yet Incoherent, Fictionalized Account

Abdul-Jabbar has pinpointed this to be a disappointing outing for the first episode’s director Adam McKay (known for The Big Short, Don’t Look Up, and another HBO series Succession). This series definitely falls in the vein of Don’t Look Up (which Abdul-Jabbar has also expressed disappointment with), with its ham-fisted yet mostly unmotivated stylistic choices.

The series definitely doesn’t want you to think it’s 100% true-to-life. Outlandish, “no way that actually happened” moments happen quite frequently in just the first few episodes. Most of them were obviously sensationalized, but some surprisingly turn out to be true, which adds to the fun of the series. Even the most diehard basketball fans will catch themselves fact checking the show out of curiosity, rather than skepticism.

It’s a colorful show that isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, and not just for shock value within the series’ narrative. These dialed up events are totally believable within the world that the writers and filmmakers create, all in service to the picture they’re painting of an industry that only cares and looks after its winners. It’s not the most coherent picture, but the commitment to vision is ultimately what matters in telling a compelling story.


Boasting jump cuts to random stock footage and big, bold, explainer text, the episodes that follow his are definitely strongly influenced by his approach to the story. This ultimately is what feels like is hindering the series from crafting a coherent picture, as it’s consuming the time to set up these zany stylistic choices in order to use them as a crutch for viewer entertainment. Once the series strays further from this and grows more confident with exploring characters and its truth, then we’ll see if Winning Time proves to be an insightful look at celebrity culture.

In the meantime, the series’ first season proves to be a lively portrait of pop culture to check back in on a weekly basis. Whether it’s accurate or not, we’re willing to play ball.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is available to stream on HBO Go.


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