Story by Will Chappell
In the late 1970s, the National Basketball Association was at a low point. Ratings were low, finals games were broadcast on tape delay, and the league’s viability was in question. But with two electrifying players, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, set to enter the league for the 1979 season, there was light on the horizon, though many couldn’t yet see it.
It was at this moment that a Los Angeles physicist cum real estate developer, Dr. Jerry Buss, bought the Los Angeles Lakers, kicking off a series of events that led to the Showtime era and helped to propel the league to the heights it has reached today.
Winning Time, airing on HBO on Sundays at 10 ET/9 CT, follows the events in sunny Southern California starting in the pivotal spring of 1979. The show, created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, is extremely entertaining and well-produced while also delivering moments of emotional depth. It is surely a comforting salve for Lakers fans during a lost season and worth watching for anyone interested in the NBA, Los Angeles or looking for a well-produced, entertaining hour of television on Sunday night.
John C. Reilly headlines the show as the gregarious and dynamic Jerry Buss. Undeniably a comedic genius, Reilly has also shown the ability to take on more serious roles, and this show gives him a chance to show his range. Most of the Time, Buss is wheeling and dealing, cajoling everybody from his ex-wife to NBA owners to Magic Johnson to help him achieve his dream of owning the lakers and turning the franchise into a premier entertainment property. But there are also moments of tenderness, self-doubt and anger, which Reilly also handles adeptly.
Matching Reilly’s masterful performance is Quincy Isaiah, playing Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Isaiah captures something of the special, magnetic quality that makes Magic Johnson one of the preeminent NBA figures to this day. He simultaneously captures the doubt and fears of a player transitioning to the professional ranks. After being embarrassed in a game of one-on-one at a party by the Lakers starting point guard, Magic decides that he’s going to return for another year of college basketball at Michigan State. However, he quickly changes his decision when Buss leaves him alone to shoot in the Lakers arena.
These two strong performances are buttressed by a stellar supporting cast. Gaby Hoffman playing team executive Claire Rothman, and Hadley Robinson as Buss’s daughter, Jeanie, have clear chemistry both with each other and Reilly. And DeVaughn Nixon is well cast as Magic’s mentor and sometimes-rival, Norm Nixon.
Beyond the acting, the show is a delight for NBA fans as it depicts iconic moments in league history. The coin flip sending Magic to the Lakers, Buss’s frantic scramble to sell properties to fund his purchase of the team, Donald Sterling’s notorious white parties and Jerry Tarkanian’s mob baggage has all already featured in the first three weeks. The show includes helpful narration for the less avid fan.
The show is not without its problems. Laker legend, Jerry West, is depicted as an angry, drunken wreck of a man, traumatized by his losses and unable to pull his life together despite the great opportunity presented to him by Buss’s arrival. Jack Kent Cooke, erstwhile Lakers owner is a miserly, nefarious jerk.
Winning Time presents a narrative glorifying the inimitable vision of Jerry Buss and the basketball greatness of Magic Johnson. As such, it should be taken with a grain of salt and the knowledge that the show is not a documentary but fictional. But, keeping those things in mind, Winning Time is an entertaining way to spend Time in a very specific version of early 1980s Los Angeles as the NBA began its path to sustained success.