HBO is taking us back to the ’80s in the new Lakers Showtime-era drama series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Executive produced by Adam McKay, who also directed the pilot, the series is based on Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. An expansive series like this requires an expansive ensemble cast, and the lineup is loaded with actors like John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley and Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, alongside newcomers and rising stars like Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The show dives into both the professional and personal lives of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, “one of sports’ most revered and dominant dynasties — a team that defined an era, both on and off the court.”
It’s a series that uses multiple devices to tell its story– from animated transitions to copious amounts of McKay-esque fourth-wall-breaking– to reveal what the characters are actually thinking in certain scenarios. But as showrunner/co-creator Max Borenstein and executive producer Rodney Barnes point out in a recent interview with Shadow and Act, these devices are not used gratuitously.
“This was the moment where basketball and Hollywood production combined and it transformed culture,” Borenstein told us. “These characters, these guys on the court like the Magic Johnson, became more than just athletes…Pat Riley, too– they became entertainment figures. We wanted to find how we can tell this story in a way that’s going to feel as exciting and as energetic and as freewheeling as the Showtime [Lakers’] offense, but through the tools that we have.”
“And at the same time, we’re so accustomed to watching documentaries about sports that pull from various media and have different things in different formats spliced together, that it felt very natural that we should have the freedom to use all that same stuff in our storytelling,” he continued. “So it was really about a matter not of like settling on a single style, but saying that our voice [and] our rule was that there aren’t any rules in terms of what the show can look like how the show can feel, as long as we weren’t just using style for its own sake, it always had to be illuminating character. It had to be something that was bringing an ironic twist or making a commentary that you couldn’t otherwise do.”
“Since this is as much a character-driven show as it is a plot-driven show, you’re always looking for ways to get character across, but you’re also looking for ways to get exposition across–and you want to be entertaining while you’re doing that,” said Barnes. “So every time a character speaks into camera, he’s giving you an aspect of his character, even if it takes you out of the scene for a moment. He’s looking directly at you and he’s giving you information about who he is. Hopefully, that’s making a deeper connection for the viewer to that character.”
“The other things like the animated sequence, we’re going deeper into what Magic’s thinking [and] how he sees himself, and we’re doing in a way that’s a little unconventional, but hopefully it puts you on edge of your seat,” he added. “To me, that’s sort of what makes the show unique beyond just the storytelling. We use anything and everything from camera lenses, to the types of cameras that we use, to whatever it takes in order to get you to know who these people are because the idea is to get you to be empathetic to the journey that they go on.”
So far the Lakers’ have had primarily mixed or removed reactions to the series happening. Johnson recently said he was “not looking forward” to the series. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar said, “While I respect other artists’ rights to choose their subjects, I think the story of the Showtime Lakers is best told by those who actually lived through it.” Generally, it seems that the thought, right now at least, is that everyone from that era isn’t really too keen on the series, save for Norm Nixon, whose son DeVaughn is playing him in the series. Still, it’s not like he is incredibly involved in it himself either. The creators behind the project hope that at the end of the day the real-life figures appreciate the project and know that their only intent is to give life to the story.
“This is a story that took place in the public eye,” said Borenstein. “All of these people, these characters, [they’re] are real figures who have lived much of their lives in the public eye, they’ve told their own stories, in their own words a lot. Our challenge is to make sure that we are telling as balanced a version as possible in trying to present this story of an era not of any individual character. At the same time, obviously, when consolidating all of that sweeping story into a narrative that can fit into a television series, there are creative liberties that we have to take. There’s dramatic license.”
The showrunner says their “rule of thumb” was to always have the show’s most outrageous moments be very much factual, explaining, “When we show the things that are going to make the audience sit forward in their chair and say, ‘Wait a minute, that couldn’t possibly have happened, that too crazy to be true,’ all of those things have to be true. And that goes for the fate of Jack McKinney, the story of Spencer Haywood, the fate the reason why Jerry Tarkanian doesn’t end up the Lakers coach, all of those things that make your jaw drop, and people are going to run to Wikipedia and check. Beyond that, there were places where you had to consolidate, [such as] the character of Jessie Buss played by Sally Field. And in reality, Jerry Buss’ mother passed away in 1977, two years before our show, [but] we felt based on what we learned about Jerry and his relationship with his mom, who was a single mother, who really was instrumental in forging that personality, that was the man who would go on with this drive to create a dynasty. We really wanted to be able to show and dramatize that relationship, because we thought it’s built his character.”
Barnes said he totally understands the negative reaction and some of the pushback and says he gets how someone may feel if a series would be made about them and they did not have the creative input.
“Anything that’s disparaging, we leave on the cutting room floor,” he said. “We’re fans and appreciators of these guys, all of us are fans of the Lakers, and mostly when we’re talking about the Lakers, [we’re talking about] Black men. And I don’t want to do anything or be a part of a story that sort of desecrates the legacy of someone who got to this level, and created a style of play that to this day, you look at modern basketball, and you can look at the Showtime Lakers and the up-tempo pace that’s directly connected to this story that we’re telling right now. So you never want to do that.”
“We went through painstaking research to figure out as much as you possibly can…virtually everybody wrote a book. So we read all of those books, any articles, anything that we could find to do research to figure out who these people [are],” he said. “In regards to how they feel, [I’m] big-time empathetic to how they would feel. If somebody was doing a story of my life and I didn’t necessarily have a say in that, it would feel kind of weird and be off-putting. So I understand any negative pushback from those folks. But I would hope once they see the show, I hope they feel the level of reverence and appreciation for what they accomplished, and us in telling that story. Because we love those guys.”
Also, while the show was initially envisioned as a miniseries, the team is already working on what a season two would look like and wants to have a sophomore run. It has been reported that they have already optioned another Pearlman book, Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty— as a possible season two or later down the line if the story continues longer for the Showtime era.
“[A miniseries] was the original plan,” said Barnes. “But then once we started to dig into the information, we saw that there was a lot more than just a miniseries here. And then when you think about it, and you go from the Showtime Lakers…[there are] a lot of the figures that are in our show now. Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Linda Rambis, you know, we’d go down the list of a lot of makers are still present there. So it’s not like you would be stopping one to start another if we were so blessed to be able to continue to tell the story. So, you know, as long as people want it and dig it, I’d love to be able to tell the story. And I know everybody, all of our collaborators would.”
Winning Time premieres this Sunday on HBO.
Watch more of the interview below: