Upon first glance, one might expect Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty to fall in line with sports-themed selections like Netflix’s The Last Dance docuseries, which focused on Michael Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls, or any number of ESPN’s celebrated 30 for 30 docs. But while the HBO series does go deep into some iconic basketball lore, Winning Time is a work of televised drama, through and through.
Created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, and executive produced by Adam McKay, the 10-episode series is an adaptation of sportswriter Jeff Pearlman’s non-fiction book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Considering the era the story takes place in and the creative minds attached, Winning Time unravels in a heightened, braggadocious style that brings plenty of fodder for fans of professional basketball to mull over. But it delivers plenty of emotional stakes, and unexpected twists, as well.
Newcomers Quincy Isaiah and Dr. Solomon Hughes step into the shoes of basketball legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. John C. Reilly plays Dr. Jerry Buss, the industry newcomer who brought plenty of razzle-dazzle in his personal life and used his panache for showmanship to usher in the Showtime era that would change basketball for good. Joining them is an epic roster of talent including Academy Award–winner Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead, Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Tony Award–winner Tracy Letts as Jack McKinney, Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, Tamera Tomakili as Earletha “Cookie” Kelly, Emmy Award–winner Michael Chiklis as Celtics coach Red Auerbach, Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss, and Academy Award–winner Sally Field as Jessie Buss.
Equipped with detailed subject matter and a powerful lineup of performers, Winning Time is gearing up to be a must-see event. Rotten Tomatoes spoke with the cast and crew of the docudrama to get the inside scoop on what to expect once it touches down on HBO Max on Sunday night. Here are five things to know about Winning Time: The Rise of The Lakers Dynasty.
(Photo by HBO)
From the get-go, Winning Time looks and feels different. There’s a grindhouse aesthetic to the production quality that brings the past to life. One could joke that each episode looks like a collection of Instagram filters, but as Max Borenstein explains: “It’s not a filter.”
“We shot the film on 35 millimeter,” he continued. “We shot it on eight-millimeter cameras, and we shot it on a period video camera called the Ikegami, which is this dead technology. When you look at things through the lens of that camera, it’s like a time machine. It just turns things into feeling like you’re authentically there.”
With details and Easter eggs strewn throughout each episode signifying the late ’70s time period, Borenstein and producing partner Rodney Barnes acknowledge the attention to detail the production team had in making sure that everything from the clothes worn, to the needle drops heard, to the set-dressing all accurately depicted the era.
“The period is a character,” Barnes said. “In the same way that you would put on costumes for an actor, it’s a way of taking you back to that period of time. When you look at it, you know you’re not looking at today. And you see a lot of period shows that basically look like today, but the costumes are different. Here the entire palette, everything, is different.”
(Photo by HBO Max)
It may take a minute for viewers to acclimate to the whole vibe of the show. Things are definitely different here. Going hand-in-hand with the production quality of the series is the time period–specific hairstyles and wardrobe. When speaking with Jason Clarke and Adrien Brody, who play Jerry West and Pat Riley, respectively, the actors insist the wigs worn are not at all intended to look fake. As Clarke said, the show exists in “a hyper-real world.”
“If you look at Riley when he was a player, you’ll be surprised at the hairstyle with that era,” Brody explained. “And with him in particular, and the stache, it was this kind of an extreme thing that went around. His character transformation is what makes that even more amazing.”
John C. Reilly’s depiction of Dr. Jerry Buss may feel over the top, but a quick Google search confirms how right they got the former Lakers owner’s style of dress. Reilly admits that while most of the cast wore a variety of wigs, he grew out his own hair to get Buss’s unique comb-over style right. As for his wardrobe, the actor reveals how he had to step outside of his comfort zone to embody Buss’s late ’70s swinger aesthetic.
“I don’t even wear T-shirts or baseball caps,” Reilly said. “I’m a pretty formal dresser, in my own way. So, it was really liberating to just be that body positive. I thought he was a really fascinating person to play for all of the artifices that he created.”
(Photo by HBO Max)
When it comes to telling the story of the Lakers Dynasty, the crew was hard pressed to find talent who had the skills on the court and acting chops to help tell this story. And according to Max Borenstein, they struck gold twice with the discovery of Isaiah and Hughes.
“One of those roles would be the hardest role you ever had to cast,” he admitted. “Finding an actor who can portray an iconic figure like Magic Johnson, like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who can look like them, can play basketball believably, has the height and has the specific personality type … you know, Magic is as charismatic as the most charismatic movie star. That’s not something you can act. Quincy Isaiah has it. Kareem Abdul Jabbar has to have the gravitas and intellectual heft and introspection very few people have. Not to mention, also be seven feet tall, look like Kareem, and can also play basketball. Solomon Hughes has a doctorate in education policy, he played for the Globetrotters. Our casting team managed to tick those boxes in an extraordinary way, after a global search.”
It’s one thing to know how to handle a ball on the court, but considering Kareem’s world-famous sky-hook, Hughes had to undergo some intense homework to get the iconic move right.
“He has a Mount Everest–like record shooting a two-pointer,” Hughes said. “I shot it religiously. I would go to the park, or go to 24 Hour Fitness and just find a basket. I’d avoid the pickup games, and I would just shoot punches with the right hand. Older gentlemen would walk by and nod approvingly as I was working on the hook.”
While Quincy and Solomon did their own deep research in bringing these two legends to life, DeVaughn Nixon was faced with a special responsibility: He stepped into the shoes of Norm Nixon, his father. From the wardrobe to the swagger, Nixon was given free rein to tap into the essence of his dad.
“They let me really gave the creative freedom of bringing Norm to the screen. It was fun because I feel like I got to choose to be free. I didn’t really get too many notes. My posture, my mannerisms, or how I was speaking, it was all my choice and that’s what I loved about it,” Nixon said.
Jason Segel, who plays interim coach Paul Westhead, even has a background in college basketball. But Tracy Letts, who plays his coach mentor Jack McKinney, is just a fan.
“I’ve never played basketball; in fact, very early when we were first courtside, I turned to Jason Segel and I said, ‘Look, you have one job. If a ball comes near me, you need to grab it or deflect it. I’ve done a good job of convincing these guys that I could be a coach. See me handling a basketball, the illusion will be shattered.'”
When discussing the Lakers Dynasty, the common topic fans will usually bring up is the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Their dynamic, which started in the college basketball realm, blossomed when both players went professional and added a sense of theater to the game.
Theirs are multiple rivalries depicted in Winning Time, though. Segel calls the behind-the-scenes conflicts that play out between Paul Westhead, Pat Riley, and Jack McKinney, “a Shakespearean power struggle.” And that description certainly fits the bill when discussing the conflict between Dr. Jerry Buss and The Celtics’ legendary lead coach Red Auerbach.
“He is the establishment,” Michael Chiklis explained of Red, who he plays in the series. “The orthodoxy. This guy was raised in the tradition. He played basketball, albeit was not a great player, himself. But oftentimes, the greatest players don’t make great coaches as evident of Jerry West. He was a great player, but didn’t have the patience. So Red was this visionary and represented the establishment. And then you have this interloper, this upstart hot shit and his charismatic, Hollywood flash mob who comes in. It’s a perfect rivalry.”
(Photo by HBO Max)
Magic Johnson and Dr. Jerry Buss formed a deep friendship once they began working together in 1979. Their bond is one of the emotional foundations of the series. And as John C. Reilly points out, is both men were underdogs.
“They’re both newcomers to Los Angeles, they both come from humble backgrounds, they both have people underestimating them all the time throughout their lives, and they both achieve extraordinary success, both in business and in entertainment.”
Sally Field revealed that the building of the Lakers’ dynasty was a big part of her life while it was happening.
“I would have done this had I not read anything, because this was a huge part of my life,” Field said. “I had two little boys. It was my way to create a world that I could live in with them. The Laker games were what we did together. I watched Magic at this time. I watched Kareem. We watched the evolution of all of it. So this was a big big part of my life. It was a part of my knowing how to parent and was my way into my boys.”