Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of the “Showtime” era Lakers as depicted in HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty tells the story of the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, led by all-time NBA greats Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and coach Pat Riley. The HBO series, created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht and directed by Adam McKay, takes its inspiration from Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, a book by Jeff Pearlman. Clearly, HBO did not want viewers to mistakenly tune into another network of a similar name.
The Lakers of that period earned the name “Showtime” for their fast-paced style of play, their associations with Hollywood, and their off-court exploits. The Showtime era lasted from 1979 — Magic Johnson’s rookie year — to 1991, when he retired after testing positive for HIV. While no decade could be entirely captured in one article, let alone one series, here is a look at some of the real people and events behind Winning Time.
A Night Club Atmosphere
The year 1979 may be the most important in Lakers’ history. In June, the team drafted point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time) with the first-overall pick in the NBA draft. Johnson, a standout player at Michigan State University, had just led the team to an NCAA championship. His team bested Indiana State University, led by his future rival, Larry Bird.
That same year, Dr. Jerry Buss, a chemist and later a real estate investor, bought the team. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the 1960s, Buss frequented a nightclub named The Horn. The upscale place attracted rich and famous clientele. Each night, the club would begin its show with the same song: “It’s Showtime.” The Los Angeles Times notes:
“Buss loved that opening — it gave him goose bumps. Its theatrics created a mood and charged the room with expectation. He liked to sit back, a pretty woman at his side, and light a cigarette, sip his rum-and-Coke and let himself be swept up in a fantasy of lights, music and entertainment.”
And so, when Buss (played by John C. Reilly in the series) bought the team and their arena, The Forum, he knew he wanted to cultivate that same showtime feel. He believed that basketball, just like nightclub shows, should be entertaining. His philosophy was simple: “Once you booked your talent, you set the mood.”
Buss hired a “lively band” and a team of female dancers, the “Laker Girls.” He played disco music over the loudspeaker, built luxury boxes, and improved media accommodations. Buss aimed to have the “right sociological blend of fans.” He wanted both blue-collar and celebrity fans to be at home in The Forum (Gaby Hoffmann plays Claire Rothman, head of The Forum). And they were. But of course, none of that could be possible without solid basketball to go with it.
While the arrival of Magic Johnson marked the beginning of the Showtime era, the seeds of the basketball dynasty were planted in 1975, when the Lakers traded for center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (played by Solomon Hughes in Winning Time). By that point, Abdul-Jabbar had won a championship, three MVP awards, and solidified his place as one of the greatest basketball players in history.
Jeff Pearlman has referred to Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” While the pair were not close friends, they developed a working relationship centered around respect for the other’s abilities. When Johnson joined the Lakers, he deferred to Abdul-Jabbar and called him a mentor. Pearlman says that term may be too strong — it was more like Abdul-Jabbar was the elder statesman and Johnson respected his status.
The pair went on to win five championships together. Their first, in 1980, might be the most memorable. The Lakers squared off against the Philadelphia 76ers, headed by NBA legend Julius Erving. In Game 5 of the series, Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s MVP, severely sprained his ankle. The following game, Johnson, the team’s 6’9” point guard, laced up at center and led the team to victory in the game. The win secured the series for the Lakers, and Johnson was named MVP. A dynasty was born, and everyone in Los Angeles wanted to see it.
Not only could Laker fans see Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson (played in the series by Max E. Williams) in the crowd most nights, but the players themselves lit up the big screen. In addition to winning the MVP in 1980, Abdul-Jabbar made an equally important contribution to American culture that year. He starred as pilot Roger Murdock in the comedy Airplane!, one of the most iconic performances by an athlete in film history. He probably could have retired there.
The Lakers’ Coaching Tragedy
Let us briefly return to 1979. That year, Jerry Buss hired Jack McKinney (played by Tracy Letts) as head coach. He wanted the coaching staff to install a “running offense,” one centered around fast breaks, quick outlet passes, and ball movement, epitomized no better than by Magic Johnson’s signature “no-look” passes. It was all about the entertainment factor.
But soon after McKinney was hired, tragedy struck. Thirteen games into the 1979-80 NBA season, a bicycle accident sent him into a coma. Taking into account the injuries and the long recovery time, the Lakers made the decision to fire McKinney. The headline for his 2018 New York Times obituary describes him as an “NBA Coach Trailed by a ‘What if?'” Later, Jeff Pearlman told the Los Angeles Daily News:
“Jack McKinney is one of the great tragedies in the history [of] the NBA. He would have had Pat Riley’s success. The players were excited to play for him. He had a great track record.”
Assistant coach Paul Westhead (played in the series by Jason Segel), took over for McKinney, leading the team to the championship in 1980. The following season, Pat Riley (played by Adrien Brody), took over as head coach. The Lakers went on to win four championships during his tenure. And while Riley, naturally, is the coach most associated with Showtime, players, fans, and reporters are quick to remind fans that McKinney, in fact, is the one who first constructed the iconic offense.
Magic Johnson Tests Positive for HIV
Of course, no story of the Showtime Lakers could be complete without mentioning the Boston Celtics, then led by Larry Bird (played in Winning Time by Sean Patrick Small). Those looking for a full history of his and Magic Johnson’s rivalry and eventual friendship should watch the 2010 HBO documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. Together, they are credited with changing the game of basketball, both in terms of the unselfish styles of play they pioneered, and also the renewed interest their rivalry brought to the NBA.
One of the most compelling parts of Magic & Bird is when Johnson recounts calling his friend after testing positive for HIV. Before the start of the 1991-92 NBA season, after a routine physical, he learned he had contracted the virus. On November 7, 1991, Johnson announced his retirement from basketball and shared the news of his condition. He had gotten married earlier that year, and his wife, Cookie, was pregnant with their child. Thankfully, both Cookie and the child had not contracted the virus.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar having retired two years prior, the Showtime Lakers officially came to an end. Johnson promised to fight the disease and dedicate his life to awareness and finding a cure. At that point, so much remained unknown about HIV. Many thought his promises to fight and live on were delusional. But of course, he was right. Johnson not only lived on, but he continues to be involved in professional basketball, having served as an advisor, coach, and minority-owner of the Lakers.
At the time, Johnson admitted to contracting the virus through the numerous sexual encounters he had with women throughout his career. At the time, he admitted to having “harems of women.” Some people were critical of his openness. Others, including then-President George H.W. Bush, praised him for saving lives.
When asked about the biggest misconception surrounding Showtime, Jeff Pearlman said:
“That Magic was all about partying and sex and living the showbiz life. Truth is, the man was a dogged worker who put basketball far before anything else. Yes, he enjoyed the fruits. But he was a Laker.”
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty debuts on HBO in March 2022.
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