Jerry West is out for blood. The real Jerry West, that is, not the Jason Clarke avatar we have seen stalk and storm through the first season of Winning Time. The flesh and bone West, who is a part of the Lakers organization as much as Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson, is really fucking pissed. Recently, he’s demanded a retraction and apology over his portrayal in the Adam McKay produced series. However, HBO has stood firm, saying the portrayal is “based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands firmly behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”
To be fair to West, it is quite a nasty portrayal. So much so that the real-life counterparts of the Lakers have come out in support of West and against the show’s dramatization. West is portrayed as an alcoholic, verbally-abusive megalomaniac who bleeds purple and gold. But he’s not alone in his unflattering portrayal. None of the Lakers’ major players are spared their sins being exposed for entertainment on-screen. Before all this hoopla, West was known as the grandfather of sorts of the NBA. He was a salt-of-the-earth West Virginian who sat us on his knee to tell us how he envisioned the Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal game-winning alley-oop in the 2000 Western Conference Game 7 comeback before it happened.
While West has plenty of cause to be upset over the dismantling of his “Logo” image, this is art we’re talking about, not real life. While it’s based on real events, it’s a dramatization, and neither HBO nor Winning Time has ever argued against that core precedent. But, in episode nine’s “Acceptable Loss,” they might have laid bare their biggest conceit without foreseeing its contradiction. Early in the episode, Jerry Buss has to decide between reinstalling Jack McKinney as head coach after his near-fatal head injury or retaining Paul Westhead, who was McKinney’s protegee, and lackey, who McKinney now sees as his own personal Brutus. Retaining Westhead would ultimately send McKinney off to retirement, signaling his inability to coach a franchise after his injury.
After conferring with all the Lakers elders, he turns to West for advice. West rebuffs his inquiry as the blame for any answer he gives will undoubtedly “come back to me.” Buss tells him behind closed doors, “no one has to know it came from you.” This is an ironic retort, given this conversation is supposedly based on extensive research about the going-ons of the Lakers Showtime team. Even more, we are watching it play out in front of us, letting the whole world know what West will eventually say and do. If we are to follow the logic, Buss eventually told someone he asked West for his advice and subsequently revealed who West inevitably chose before a game of telephone brought this information to the writers of Winning Time just in time for this dramatization of the facts. As with most things, Buss has proven himself to be an unreliable confidant and narrator. Funny enough, that’s one of the main elements that make Winning Time such pure entertainment, if not historical fact.
Ultimately the decision comes down to Buss, who is knee-deep in his depression over his mother’s impending death. Whether Winning Time is over-stating the truth or twisting it for entertainment purposes, the facts remain the same. History tells us who stayed, who was banished, and who died. Knowing this, it’s up to the audience to decide if the surrounding evidence equals fact or fiction.
That being said, we should relish in the powerful performances which lead us to question this reality. This episode sees some of the best work from John C. Reilly, Sally Field, and Wood Harris in the series. All three face their own mortality, to differing results. Buss stays on track as an owner with a singular mission of winning, Spencer Haywood is banished after his drug addiction overtakes his play, and Jessie Buss, the loving matriarch of the Lakers organization dies from cCancer. Each of these actors gives us the whole gamut of emotions on the path toward their inevitable fate. Reilly reveals the cracks in the mirage of Buss as the ultimate salesman. As his mother’s health worsens, he goes full-tilt toward huckster until the dams break, and he is left alone in his muck. As the Buss matriarch, Field exposes the wounds left over from helping her family rise from rags to riches. She has been worn down, living a life carrying the men of her life on her back. Through her performance, we see the sacrifice that propelled the Lakers into the legacy they are today. The all-time great actress explodes with power and majesty in every frame, even as she shuffles and stumbles through scenes as a woman coming to terms with death.
In his two-decade-long career, Harris has embodied villains with little complexity outside of their money-related motivations. In portraying Haywood, he has found a vehicle to utilize his soul-stirring acting abilities. Of all the basketball players portrayed in this series, Harris’ Haywood is the greatest tour-de-force. We root for the crack-addicted Haywood, who espouses Black power excellence in one scene and drug-addicted despair in the next. The locker room scene where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar confronts Haywood with the news he has been let go is gut-wrenching. Knowing Haywood would be expelled before the Lakers reached the promised land lends him a Moses-like gravitas as a complicated and flawed veteran who fell prey to all the excess Los Angeles had to offer. It’s also an unheeded warning to the young star, Magic, who watches one of his teammates succumb to LA’s excess, while he begins his own relationship with the city’s sins.
As the series reaches its conclusion, it’s best to observe this series not as truth but as a forewarning that not all that glitters is gold. Just like Winning Time relies on spectacle in its slick editing, not all is as it seems in the epic of Showtime. Lurking beneath the bright lights of Hollywood is an underbelly that can twist even the most accepted truths. Those involved have a right to argue how their story is told. The audience should be thankful they survived to do so.