Dominance in sports isn’t always entertaining, but the Los Angeles Lakers of the ‘80s were magnetic on the court and off. They’re the focus of Winning Time, a new star-studded HBO series, the teaser for which throws us into the world of Hollywood glitz like a Magic Johnson fast break pass.
The tone for the show is set right out the gate with John C. Reilly, who plays the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, narrating “There’s two things in this world that make me believe in God. It’s sex and basketball.” The series has been in the works for two years, and was created by Adam McKay, Max Borenstein, and Jim Hecht. It’s McKay’s second recent basketball project, following the podcast Death at the Wing, which explored the shifting of culture and politics in the 1980s through the tragic loss of players like Len Bias, Terry Furlow, and Drazen Petrovic.
Winning Time is based on veteran sports journalist Jeff Pearlman’s nonfiction book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. It features an impressive cast including Reilly, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Sally Field as Jessie Busst, and Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, who served as president of The Forum, where the Lakers played from 1967 to 1999.
A wide range of actors appear as basketball greats, including big names like Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead, and Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach. There are also some exciting fresh faces, some of whom have connections to the game–and even the Lakers themselves.
The 6’11” Solomon Hughes, a four-year basketball player at UC-Berkeley, will make his professional acting debut as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic Johnson is played by charismatic newcomer Quincy Isaiah in just his second-ever credited role. Marvel’s Runaways actor DeVaughn Nixon stars as his father, Norm Nixon, an All-Star guard for the team.
And this L.A. story does come with some of its own behind-the-scenes drama, too. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, McKay stressed the importance of picking actors who resembled the characters, and said the goal is to do a second and possibly third season. There has been widely-circulated news that Will Ferrell was upset McKay cast Reilly as Jerry Buss after the original choice, Michael Shannon, left the project.
“The truth is, the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic. And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss,” McKay said in a Vanity Fair feature. “And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.”
Ferrell wanted to play Buss, but McKay didn’t think he was the right fit and chose Reilly without informing Ferrell first. McKay has since expressed regret over how he handled the situation and said his friend “took it as a way deeper hurt than I ever imagined.”
The glimpse we did get of Winning Time shows several recognizable moments from the era. It includes the 1979 NBA draft where the Lakers got Johnson to Abdul-Jabbar’s cameo in Airplane! to an on-court fight between L.A. and the rival Boston Celtics (perhaps this famous dust-up from 1985).