“Time to Win,” the Showtime Lakers, and the Elusive Truth – The San Bernardino Sun


Editor’s Note: This is the Purple & Bold Lakers’ Monday, May 9th newsletter from reporter Kyle Gwen. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


There is a scene in Episode 8 of “Time to Win” – perhaps one of the best scenes of the show’s first season – that sees Jerry West sitting in the Lakers locker room across from Magic Johnson, in a rare rough mood after a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. .

In terms of tone, two personalities couldn’t be more different. There is the West, the ornate, troubled soul tormented by memories of past losses. Then there’s Johnson, the effervescent rising star who seemed to be up for a challenge who couldn’t disarm with his smile. But in that moment, West seems to realize something in Johnson he had in himself: an unrelenting desire to win.

“Championship,” West said, peeking at Johnson, “Well, that requires a real killer.”

Any information that requires context. I was immediately reminded of a passage from David Halberstam’s book “Breaks of the Game”, chronicling the same 1979-80 season, in which he voiced the musings of anonymous basketball watchers, wondering from afar whether Johnson—whose optimistic demeanor seemed so commercially attractive to Taken seriously – he was a player who could really compete in the NBA.

It seems like a somewhat odd point of speculation later, now that we know Johnson was the engine of one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties of all time. But in 1980, there was much suspicion that Johnson was a serious contender – also evidenced by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s reaction with displeasure when Johnson grabbed him in a festive hug after the Lakers’ victory in the season opener for the junior season. Over the course of the season, Johnson slowly beat them all.

Another thought popped into my head as I watched the scene with Johnson and West: It was almost certain that this conversation, as presented, never occurred on February 10, 1980, in the Philadelphia locker room.

The other part of the context that you can never forget while watching “Winning Time” is that it’s depicted with fantasy elements. Some are used to liven up the show for entertainment, with off-color jokes or steamy tickles. Others may be invoked out of convenience. But some scenes, though they may be fabricated, are meant to emphasize some kind of truth.

This does not meet the standards of journalism or documentary work, but “Winning Time” does not claim to adhere to these rules. It’s a Hollywood play, and Hollywood has rarely let truth stand in the way of a good story. But interestingly enough, that gray area – where drama meets true story – is under all sorts of scrutiny thanks to the “Showtime” Lakers themselves.

West has been most critical of his portrayal. Lawyers representing West launched a public request to step back last month, armed with eight testimonies (mostly from people portrayed on the show) testifying to West’s character and protesting his early scenes as a man’s mess. Many people have testified that very little in these early episodes registers as true to West’s character and that the man whose silhouette became the basis for the NBA’s logo has been soiled by HBO.

While watching the show, it becomes clear why the Lakers as an organization and many legends of the franchise have given up their association with it. It does not particularly please many school administrators, highlighting their tendency to make women and parties. About the Lakers franchise, employees still speak reverently of “Dr. Buss,” who is remembered as the more visionary franchisor and charismatic leader than the playboy John C. Riley. Magic Johnson said he hadn’t seen the show; Maybe it wouldn’t be fun for him to watch the drama of his romantic encounters. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described the show as “dreally boring,” but even more sharply took on the (somewhat neglected) part of the show when he told child actor Ross Harris in “Airplane!” to “(expletive)”, something “I’ve never said to any kid before.”

Abdul-Jabbar may want to discuss this with Linda Rampes, who told Jeff Perlman in the source material Showtime: Magic, Karim, Riley, and the ’80s Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty: “Some kids might ask for a personal signature and say, ‘Go (expletive) yourself. “While this isn’t an anecdote for him saying that to Harris, one can see how the ‘Time to Win’ book might have used that to inspire the scene. It’s the same with many of the people in the book who spoke to Jerry Boss’ late nights endurance With young women at the Forum Club (a friend remembered Boss saying, “Why don’t I go out with a 26-year-old playmate with a hot friend? A body?”) Or even West and Norm Nixon recount how hard West has guarded his base as a coach, which translates to In the show to aspects of West’s character.

In regards to the show’s general fixation on the edgy side of the 1979-80 Lakers, it’s worth mentioning one clear thing: Moreso than any other NBA franchise, the Lakers’ image has been intertwined with celebrity and charisma. Some of Buss’ main visions in elevating his franchise to a great example were the Forum Club, the Laker Girls and making his home games a Hollywood face. You can never make a compelling account of that era of Lakers basketball completely separate from the franchise’s more formidable features.

There will never be a complete translation of facts from the book to the screen. Showtime Lakers have every right to be alarmed by the inconsistencies. But it’s also interesting to see what people are up against. On the show, Pat Riley is cast as an unlucky ex-player who stumbles upon a broadcasting career that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere quickly. In fact, when Riley became an assistant, he was doing color commentary for three seasons with Chick Hearn, and in the book, many people are willing to praise Riley’s ability in the role. But that specific narrative brevity doesn’t seem to inspire much concern – perhaps because Riley’s character doesn’t seem particularly vulnerable either way.

While the nature of being a public figure in America has long been associated with seeing your name and image quirky in popular culture, we shouldn’t assume that people portrayed in “win time” should be able to grasp how easily their characters can be manipulated through entertainment. In fact, at the recent movie premiere of ex-teammate Dickie Barnett, West – who is best known for his backstage decorations – couldn’t have been more generous with the lines and lines of people who wanted to show up, shake hands and chat with him for a while. He is still very aware of his own image and how you represent the NBA, and in a stylish suit, he is incredibly capable of warmth and attention. He has opened his veins in more ways than one, speaking at length about his battles with his various demons including his rough upbringing and lifelong struggles with mental health.

It’s a little curious, then, that the image of West raised for 83 years under this threat is from this TV show, which acknowledges that the elements are imagined and amplified for effect. Especially when it’s not the only account released this year in this era: Meanwhile, Johnson has been promoting his own Apple TV+ documentary “The Call Me Magic,” while the Lakers are supposed to release their Hulu-based documentary. Later this year directed by Antoine Fuqua. Both projects have more involvement from people who lived during the era – but as anyone who watched the “The Last Dance” series about the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan can attest, more involvement doesn’t always mean more reliable, realistic, and complete.

The battle between HBO and the former Lakers greats can best illustrate the era we live in: an era in which details are somewhat difficult to fathom as competing narratives. The Lakers “Showtime” may not have been as loose and swingy as the HBO series suggests, but the idea that they were implanted isn’t entirely true either. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between, being conveniently overlooked or written by HBO screenwriters for artistic licensing, and easily skipped or overlooked by some people of that era who wish they could be portrayed in a more flattering light.

We live in a time when athletes want to tell their own stories – like LeBron James who created his own production company Uninterrupt – not necessarily with the goal of being the most open and most vulnerable, but the most in control. In this regard, Michael Jordan may be the gold standard: In his own documentary, he gets the last word on every detail and every bit of the footage shown, even if his view differs from the truth.

If there is a competition story to tell, many of these athletes have the potential to push their own version of events. In fact, West wrote his autobiography, “West from the West,” which provides important context for anyone watching “Winning Time” who wants to know why so many people object to how it appears on screen.

But do you ask to retreat in a public speech? He says he’s willing to fight it in court? This might just be good publicity for HBO. The show’s viewership increased in the second half of the season, largely after characters like West, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar spoke out against it. There will always be a segment of people who want to know what these people don’t want you to see. West has a better chance of scoring 20 points in an NBA game today than making HBO back out of a show that already sold out a second season.

It is not necessarily HBO’s fault that it is difficult to understand the necessary truth and context. The best, most honest account is somewhere in the bay, and for us as viewers, in the face of so many competing accounts, it’s more difficult than ever to navigate and get around it.

– Kyle Gun


Editor’s Note: Thank you for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle John. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


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