Sports

Winning Time: ‘Piece of a Man’ explores Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s relationship with Islam


The series shifts focus a little bit in this episode

Photo: HBO

What makes Winning Time’s tapestry of stories enthralling is how it reflects the chaotic jazz of our lives. Every character is at odds against the world and themselves. Magic, Jerry Buss, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, each man is fighting a private war. For many of them, it’s a war of the spirit against the flesh. This is why one episode can open with John C. Reilly’s Buss fingering a girl at a restaurant, while this episode, “Piece of a Man,” opens on an Islamic ceremony of a new follower, a young Lew Alcindor, bonding himself with a spiritual renaissance.

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The great mosaic of life is like that. It’s at once perverse and profane. As humans, we oscillate between the two at all times. Essentially, this is what Winning Time is about, albeit with some sensationalizing, reflecting what the Showtime Lakers were all about.

This leads to a perfect segway to talk about the show’s theme song. While “My Favorite Mutiny” is a soulful jamboree, a deeper, militant message is ringing forth. Its writer and creator, Boots Riley of The Coup, collaborates with Black Thought of The Roots and Talib Kweli to craft the perfect mid-2000s rap-along treatise. When it came out, the song was in direct opposition to the ring-tone rap which dominated the airwaves. Three of the game’s fiercest lyricists joined together as brothers in arms against the corporate industrial complex of music.

Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles, the creative team behind Winning Time shows us the excess and absence that rocked the city in the late 70s and early 80s. The opening montage reflects the state of America at the time, a harsh chasm between the haves and have nots. Riley and his bandmates probably never imagined their song soundtracking scenes of white women brunching, aerobics, and parasailing. But we also see righteous citizens protesting in the streets, a homeless man smoking crack, and even a scene of African-Americans enjoying brunch. Shit is everything, all at once. As Black Thought punctuates the montage with righteous indignation, we are prepared as an audience for the amalgamation of America’s specific brand of absurdity.

Kareem’s shrugging off of Magic’s nascent chirping in the lead-up before the Lakers’ first game embodies the clash between ideologies at the dawn of the 80s. Some saw the promise of Reaganomics as a framework for spoil and plunder. At the same time, veterans of the American nightmare were familiar with how the chapter would end. Magic wanted to impress the old head with the creative meshing of their two games, while Jabbar was just looking to make enough money to step away from the game and escape the conveyor belt, an insidious mechanism poignantly laid bare by author William C. Rhoden in his book, Forty Million Dollar Slave. The conveyor belt sees the NBA monolith plucking inner-city Black kids from their communities, and planting them on a path toward wealth and distracted from the problems they left behind. Then it isolates and insulates them from the outside world so they lose empathy toward their fellow man. They began to take an “I” approach to life opposed to a “we,” disconnecting them further from the communal plight of their family, friends, and neighbors. At the end of the belt you are left with a solitary figure, alone in his millions, too scared to speak up or cause trouble for fear of losing their comfort. Jabbar was the antithesis of this. He spoke out so much it made his own teammates, those ignorant of their place on the conveyor belt, uncomfortable.

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In this episode, we are given a backstory on how and, more importantly, why Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Essentially it boiled down to what should make any of us get mad enough to, as Black Thought says in the intro,

“Move, if you got the nerve

Lash out for your just desserts’”

Back then, as it is now, killer cops were murdering innocent African-Americans. It feels like not much has changed in today’s America, where killers with badges are rarely brought to justice for their murderous crimes. As a youth, Jabbar struggled with his father being a transit police officer as a means to make a living for his son and their family. Cap, as his colleagues affectionately called Kareem, was at odds with his father’s Christian faith and law-and-order mentality. Winning Time shows us, quite obviously at a dinner table scene, Jabbar’s early rejection of a white Jesus and his “turn the other cheek” principles which would come to fuel his outspoken views on war, police brutality, and racial justice throughout his life. It also made him an enigmatic teammate to those he was in the trenches with, especially Magic and new coach Jack McKinney.

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Just when you thought the roster was overflowing, the series adds another new player in Spencer Haywood, played by Wood Harris, of The Wire and Empire. As Haywood, Harris becomes the bridge between Jabbar and the rest of the Lakers. Haywood had sued the league and won the right to skip college and go straight into the NBA to provide for his family. He set the stage for Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant to enter the NBA straight out of high school.

In Haywood, Jabbar saw an ally, a fellow soldier willing to stand up for his beliefs in the face of racist power structures. But as the two share a joint in the back of Jabbar’s property, we learn the toll such a moral war took on Haywood’s spirit. Wood delivers a heartfelt, poignant monologue on realizing he had a second chance at life, that is unfortunately interrupted by manic editing. It would have done Wood’s performance justice, had the camera stayed on him in a single take, to let us see his expressions and ticks coalesce. Nevertheless, Wood does some of the best work of his career and should be remembered as an epoch of Wood’s long and illustrious career.

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The battles we fight, external and internal, and their outcomes are what will define us. In Winning Time, we are witnessing the diverse cast of characters in the trenches of these wars, public and private. So far, we have seen them try to fight as solitary soldiers. The private losses, especially, have worn on them before they even play their first game. Towards the end of the episode, as their first home game begins, we see Cap finally extend a hand in solidarity to his rook. History tells us the Lakers take a 9 and 2 record to start the season. And by the time coach McKinney takes his faithful bike ride through his neighborhood, they are finally a team. It can be said whatever wars lie ahead, McKinney’s head injury — the arrival of Larry Bird, Magic’s HIV diagnosis — they will face them together.

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