Fictionalized shows drawn from real life don’t always satisfy the people depicted. But when the subjects are superstars accustomed to speaking for themselves, their criticism can take on a life of its own.
That’s what happened after the first season of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which returns for a second season on Sunday. A dramatic series based on the journalist Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime,” its first season recounted the dawn of the legendary Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s — known as the Showtime Lakers — under their swashbuckling and womanizing new owner, Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly).
Along the way, there was enough drama — sex, drugs, infighting — to fuel a prestige-era TV series.
But many of the people portrayed in Season 1 objected loudly to the way they and others were depicted — Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and Coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) among them. West even demanded an apology from HBO (and his character does seem more muted in the coming season).
What might they expect from Season 2? And what might we? As Max Borenstein, the series’s co-creator and showrunner, insisted: “We’re telling this story because we have great fondness and appreciation for these characters and the people and everything they’ve accomplished.” But as he also put it: “We’re not making a documentary.”
Expect more drama, then, regardless of how faithful the depictions are. Here’s a look at some of the history behind the coming season — spoiler alert, for anyone who wants to watch without any prior knowledge — and how the creative team approached the retelling.
Led by Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, the Showtime Lakers, with their flashy, fast-paced and innovative style, won five championships in the 1980s and helped turn the N.B.A. into a multi-billion-dollar business.
By the end of Season 1, the dynasty was taking shape. The Lakers had just won the 1980 N.B.A. finals. Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) was still an assistant coach, and more of a hippie than a shark. Johnson grappled with his newfound fame, and an injured Abdul-Jabbar watched the championship victory from home.
Season 2 spans the years from 1980 to 1984, which got off to a rocky start. After winning the title in 1980, the Lakers were eliminated the next season in the first round of the playoffs. Season 2 addresses what comes after reaching the apex of one’s ambition. When you win one, why is it so hard to do it again?
Said Borenstein: “You find people who achieve that have to look at themselves in the mirror and say: ‘Wait. Is that all there is? What now? What next?’”
Starting in 1982, the Lakers went to the finals in eight of the next 10 years, an astoundingly successful stretch. Along the way, they had ups and downs. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving, in 1982, then were swept by them in 1983.
Riley, who was promoted to head coach in 1981, transformed into the seemingly omnipotent force he is known as today. In 1984, the Lakers finally faced the Celtics and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) in the finals.
Recreating Magic Johnson
For the sake of the narrative, the writers said they don’t present everything exactly as it happened. Still, the basketball has to look credible. That’s the job of Idan Ravin, the show’s basketball producer, who helps shape every aspect of the show that involves basketball, from casting to choreography.
One problem: Not many people are built the way N.B.A. players are, and even fewer can accomplish their athletic feats. It’s why Ravin, a longtime trainer for N.B.A. stars, chuckled when HBO first called a few years ago to ask for his help to “convert an actor into Magic Johnson.”
“There’s 400 guys in the N.B.A. that can’t be Magic Johnson,” Ravin said he remembered thinking.
At 6-foot-3, Isaiah is six inches shorter than Johnson, and he was stocky from his days as a football player. Ravin helped him slim down so his silhouette approximated Johnson’s.
To get him to move like Johnson, Ravin put Isaiah through the types of workouts he had used for players like Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. He taught Isaiah how to sell Johnson’s famously artistic passing — the way he turned his head for no-look passes, the subtle movements that made his bounce passes so precise.
Johnson publicly asked for a trade in 1981, a year after agreeing to a 25-year deal worth $25 million that some found absurd. Coach Paul Westhead was fired the next day, a move Buss said was unrelated.
One challenge, said Rodney Barnes, one of the show’s executive producers and writers, was presenting that drama and how Johnson interacted with his teammates in ways that still allowed the audience to root for Johnson.
“You have to be able to address an ego that it takes to become great at anything,” Barnes said.
Season 2 shows Riley becoming head coach after his spiraling friend Westhead (Jason Segel) was fired — a transition Borenstein described as “Shakespearean” — and then learning how to command respect.
“We kind of looked at it as having a superhero donning his cape and cowl, but what’s behind that?” Borenstein said. (Riley dons an Armani suit and about a gallon of hair gel instead.)
Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, has won nine championships as a player, coach or executive, and been to the finals 19 times.
He is revered by N.B.A. players and considered one of the best basketball executives in history.
An unlikely endorsement?
Jerry Buss’s daughter Jeanie, the current controlling owner of the Lakers, gave mixed reviews of Season 1. She has said it doesn’t reflect her life (her ’80s self is played by Hadley Robinson), but she also complimented a clip from the first season on her Instagram page.
Borenstein said he’d had a “very lovely and very positive” interaction with Jeanie Buss about the show; it was “gratifying,” he said, to “feel that she feels that we’ve done right by her dad and by her story.”
One clue that Buss may be a fan: Her fiancé, Jay Mohr, has a cameo in Episode 6 of Season 2.
Still the producers seem more prepared for any backlash to Season 2. They included a companion guide with the advance episodes for journalists, in which they cite their sources: the excerpt from Johnson’s book that details an awkward brunch depicted in Episode 3; the footage of an insane news conference that comes in Episode 5.
“We didn’t just make it up,” Barnes said, adding later: “It’s really hard to tell the other side of real life characters that people love.”
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