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 Rivals. The 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+.
Kareem Weighs In
Showtime Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, has also partnered with HBO in the past. He is the subject of the great documentary, Kareem: Minority of One (2015).
But like Magic, Kareem (played in the series by Solomon Hughes) has also been vocal in his opposition to Winning Time’s depiction of history. In fact, Kareem, a prolific writer, commentator, and activist, penned one of the thoughtful takedowns of the series on his Substack page.
Fiction vs. Denigration
Kareem begins his essay by noting his main concerns do not include his own portrayal or the need for all nonfiction adaptation to stay 100 percent faithful to reality. Playing fast and loose with the facts is one thing, he writes, but denigrating people is another. One of the earliest examples he points to is the show’s depiction of Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), the daughter of the team’s owner, Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly).
For example, the show treats the hire of Jeanie, who is the current owner and president of the Lakers, as some kind of nepotism. However, as Kareem notes, Jeanie had already earned a degree in business management from the University of Southern California and managed a professional tennis franchise before joining the Lakers. He writes:
She wasn’t the naive daddy’s girl portrayed in the first few episodes. Making her a girl-child belittles her early achievements on her own. Having Claire Rothman [played in the series by Gabby Hoffman] unbuttoning blouse buttons and flouncing her hair before meeting Jerry Buss (which she denies ever happened) reduces her intelligence and competence for a cheap joke—which is probably the kind of misogyny the women had to endure in business and now have to endure from the filmmakers.
Jeanie Buss is currently collaborating with Hulu on a nine-part docuseries on the Los Angeles Lakers. Antoine Fuqua will direct and co-produce the series, which will debut later this year.
The Airplane! Moment
Kareem briefly discusses his own depiction in the show. He notes a fictional encounter he has with a child on the set of the 1980 comedy Airplane!, a film in which he made a famous cameo. In the show, Kareem tells a child actor to “Fuck off.”
The real Kareem notes the work he does to promote STEM education in inner-city schools. He worries whether this might undermine his work in the future. He writes:
I realize this was a shorthand way of showing my perceived aloofness during that time, even though I have often spoken about my intense, almost debilitating shyness. Sometimes the attention in public became so overwhelming I shut down to protect my sanity. The filmmakers had access to that information, but truth and insight were not on their agenda. Shocking moments were.
The Other Logo Controversy
The most recent controversy around the show concerns NBA legend Jerry West. The man nicknamed “The Logo” for obvious reasons sent a letter (via his legal team) to HBO and the show’s producer, Adam McKay, demanding “a retraction and an apology.” ESPN reported the news earlier this month.
Winning Time often depicts West in a rage, shouting and berating his colleagues and friends. One of his attorneys, Skip Miller, according to ESPN, said:
[The portrayal] is fiction pretending to be fact — a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family.
His lawyers, according to ESPN, said HBO owes West damages for his depiction. The letter includes a number of statements in support from former Laker players and employees. Signees include Kareem, Michael Cooper (played by Delante Desouza) and Jamaal Wilkes (Jimel Atkins).
West has spoken very openly about his life-long depression. His 2011 autobiography features the title, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. He is also a fierce competitor, who cared deeply about basketball and winning. His losses to the Celtics as a player were so painful, he said in a 2017 interview, that he has not stepped foot in Boston since his playing days.
Long-time Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote:
West is a passionately tortured and often profane competitor, but, in my dealings with him over the last 30 years, he has never been the raging lunatic that the series depicts.
This week, West made his first public comments about the controversy: “The series made us all [the Lakers] look like cartoon characters,” West said in an interview with Bill Dwyre (via the Los Angeles Times). He continued:
They belittled something good. If I have to, I will take this all the way to the Supreme Court.
No reports yet have indicated a response by HBO to West’s letter. West’s attorneys asked for a retraction letter within two weeks.
Despite the controversies, it doesn’t look like Winning Time is going anywhere soon. Earlier this month, HBO announced the show would be renewed for a second season. HBO has also optioned another of Pearlman’s books, Three-Ring Circus, which tells the story of Lakers greats Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Season one of Winning Time concludes with its tenth episode on May 8, 2022.
Related Topics: Winning Time