Features and Columns · Movies

A Brief History of the Controversies Around HBO’s ‘Winning Time’

Legendary members of the ‘Showtime’ Los Angeles Lakers are not pleased with the series’ depiction of events.
Winning Time
By  · Published on April 28th, 2022

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the controversies surrounding the HBO series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers.  

Adapting reality for the screen is always a tricky thing. Especially when the people depicted are still very much alive. Such is the root of the controversy surrounding Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers, the new HBO series depicting the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. The film is based on a nonfiction book by Jeff Pearlman.

The show features a disclaimer noting its fictionalization of events. However, fans, sportscasters, and NBA veterans are still dismayed by the show’s depiction of the team and various NBA Legends. At the top of that list is Jerry West (played in the series by Jason Clarke), the Hall of Fame player and former coach and executive. You may know Mr. West best from his silhouette, which is used as the NBA’s logo.

So whether you’re an NBA fan, Winning Time viewer, or just like reading about controversy, here is a look at the disputes surrounding the show and its depiction of the Showtime Lakers.

The Logo Controversy

One of the earliest controversies concerning the show was its use of the trademarked Lakers and NBA logos. Bill Shea of The Athletic reported in March that the show had “rubbed the NBA the wrong way,” partially because the series did not seek permission to use the logos.

Mike Bass, a communications officer for the league, confirmed in a statement that “NBA trademarks were not sought or granted and the league objects to any unauthorized use of its intellectual property.” The Los Angeles Lakers were even more opaque in their response: “[we] have no comment as we are not supporting nor involved with this project.” Shea’s story quotes intellectual property experts who note there may be grounds for a legal case. However, neither the NBA or the Lakers have filed a claim.

In the wake of the dispute, some speculated that the lack of a lawsuit had to do with existing partnerships. The NBA has a deal with broadcast network TNT, owned, like HBO, by Warner Bros. Discovery. The lucrative deal has been in existence for decades, and features a highly-popular show, “Inside the NBA,” co-hosted by broadcaster Ernie Johnson and former NBA players Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Magic Declines to Watch

At the center of the series is the rise of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the heart of the Showtime Lakers, played by Quincy Isaiah. The series depicts Magic’s journey to basketball greatness, his trials and tribulations on and off the court, and his various sexual relationships.

Months before the show was released in March of this year, TMZ asked Magic whether he was looking forward to the series. “”I’m not looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m going to leave it at that.”

Then, in March of this year, Magic told Entertainment Tonight he would not be watching the series:

“You just can’t duplicate it,” he added. “So I’m not gonna watch. Now, if the Lakers or myself or some Lakers have something to do with it, then I would, but it’s just, you can’t copy that, it’s just too much.”

Magic has worked with HBO on documentary projects in the past. In 2010, HBO released a documentary on the rivalry between him and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird entitled, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of RivalsThe compelling documentary took its inspiration in part from When the Game Was Ours, a nonfiction book by Jackie MacMullan.

In just the last few days, Johnson has been on the press circuit promoting a documentary of his own. A four-part docuseries on his life and career, They Call Me Magic debuted on April 22, 2022 via Apple TV+.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.