"They love shooting in the sweaty practice gyms and the labyrinthine corridors beneath The Forum," says Noel Murray of the HBO limited series executive produced by Adam McKay, from showrunners Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein. He adds: "The writing team has their pet themes. They explore how nearly every one of their characters is driven by a broken relationships with their parents. Winning Time frequently introduces flashbacks, to show how West’s tough childhood in West Virginia, or how the activist Abdul-Jabbar feuded with his New York transit cop father. The show also digs into the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism underlying the league’s promotion of the Magic/Bird rivalry, and the coded words NBA execs used to describe white players and black players. On the whole though, Winning Time isn’t heavy or preachy. It mostly shifts between affectionate, wonky, and playfully ironic. This is a portrait of an NBA on the precipice of a major transformation, thanks to new stars and new corporate partners (including Nike, whose failed shoe pitch to Magic is a plot line in one episode). It’s a show about how creating something great and lasting is hard work, and how not everyone involved emerges unbruised. Winning Time is about one of sport’s golden ages, yes; but it’s also about the nebulousness of that very concept. By including a lot of different perspectives, the Winning Time team makes clear that in hindsight, everyone has a different idea about what a golden age was really like—and about when and why it ended."
Winning Time's sensibility screams “self-indulgent show-off" -- until you get used to it: Winning Time, says Jen Chaney, "is about as subtle as leaping over two big men to deliver a decisive slam dunk in an NBA playoff game. It’s showy and a little arrogant, brash and aggressive, urgent and quickly paced when the moment calls for it. It can be a little much until you get used to it, and even then, it’s still a little much. But once you get hooked into the story of how a struggling team reinvented itself and the NBA experience, you may find it hard to look away, even though its pleasures run more surface level than deep." Chaney adds: "Throughout Winning Time, there are deliberately jumpy edits, bits of documentary-style imagery, flashes of actual footage from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, brief experiments with animation, and occasional splashes of text that appear on screen. In one scene, when Lakers coach Jack McKinney (a rigidly focused Tracy Letts) tries to sketch out a play that operates according to his constant-motion offense, the arrows leap off the page and swirl around McKinney’s body as he levitates just above his chair. This is a show that can’t sit still for even a second, one that at times appears to have done a line of cocaine right before the opening credits. The visual patina, which is just as conspicuous as these other techniques, might best be described as Late-’70s Sepia Haze. It is purposely grainy as a nod to its era and washed out frequently by the blinding L.A. sun. Even if you watch Winning Time in HD, it will still look like an old glitchy videotape or a 1980 broadcast coming through with cloudy reception on a TV with rabbit ears."
Winning Time is like a scripted approach to The Last Dance: "I do think this show is a winner — even though it showboats with its tone and approach, and goes out of its way to be out of the ordinary," says David Bianculli. "Think of the extraordinary appeal and success of ESPN's The Last Dance back in 2020. That series found as much drama off the court as on as it told of the rise of a later basketball dynasty — Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who ruled the sport in the 1990s. The Last Dance dived into the backstories of the individual players, arguments among the coaches and owners, and lots of side stories about racism, sex and sexist attitudes — not to mention the growing commercialization of sports endorsements. The series covered all that, dynamically – but as a documentary. Winning Time takes the based-on-fact dramatic approach, hiring actors to play the familiar roles, and taking dramatic license with certain events. In fact, Winning Time takes a lot of license, in a lot of ways."
Winning Time is defined by the increasingly wearying style of Adam McKay: "As in his feature films like The Big Short and Vice, the fourth wall is broken so often that it’s less wall than revolving door; what’s revealed to us is usually either banal (the idea that the act of love is like a sport because both have rhythm) or a data-dump that would be better revealed in another way," says Daniel D'Addario. "The soupcon of prurience poured over the top feels — in a way HBO programming rarely does these days — like an attention-getting stand-in for good ideas. Give the show this much: It’s trying to summon the spirit of the times it depicts."
Like the Showtime Lakers, Winning Time is a hell of a lot of fun to watch: "In some ways, Winning Time feels doubly nostalgic, both for the boys-will-be-boys heyday of men like Magic Johnson and new Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly, in a Talladega Nights/Step Brothers reunion with McKay), and for the premium-cable era that so easily glamorized antiheroic men making bad choices around womanizing, substance abuse, and other sketchy behaviors," says Alan Sepinwall. He adds that many of the "choices are out of the filmmaking toolbox McKay has been dipping into dating back to The Big Short. They can be a lot to sift through in one show, and the style can periodically get in the way of the substance. The changing image quality, for instance, seems to happen without rhyme or reason, often in the middle of scenes, in ways that distract from whatever is happening. The direct addresses to camera tend to work well, though, frequently injecting levity into otherwise serious situations without weakening the drama. But the show is often at its most effective when it dials back the excesses even slightly, like a delicately edited (but still explicit) sex scene between Magic and his girlfriend Cindy (Rachel Hilson) in a later episode."
To Winning Time‘s credit, it actually manages to capture the joy and exhilaration of watching those great Showtime Lakers teams: "Yes, it’s significantly overstuffed and surprisingly crude, and I do wonder if non-sports fans will get into it, but for me, it’s a hell of a fun ride," says Dave Nemetz, a fan of the Lakers since the Showtime era. "(A lot more fun than watching the current Lakers season, I can tell you that.)" He adds: "Winning Time feels like a freewheeling party from that era: breezily paced, with lots of laughs and characters breaking the fourth wall to directly address the camera. (Adam McKay is an executive producer and directs the pilot, and the show’s style recalls his financial crisis explainer The Big Short.) The tone is decidedly old-fashioned, too, with gratuitous nudity and off-color humor that’s straight from the swinging ’70s. The visuals follow suit, with grainy 16-millimeter footage spliced into scenes alongside crisp HD images to create a vintage vibe. Plus, the funk soundtrack practically struts, with dramatic scenes scored by a moody synthesizer."
While Winning Time disappoints, Quincy Isaiah delivers a revelatory performance as Magic Johnson: Isaiah's "wide-open approach, totally in control, invites us to consider just what makes this budding legend tick," says Gregory Lawrence. "Isaiah is adept at portraying Johnson’s earnest, endearing side, while also making him a figure of constant calculation, able to turn his charisma into a devastating weapon as needed. Heck, he even pulls off the camera asides and other stylistic difficulties that McKay’s production demands. It’s a star-making performance in the middle of an asteroid belt. But he’s saddled with choppy filmmaking and some one-note, loud, shallow writing (shepherded by series creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht), that robs the narrative of texture and substitutes shallow pop psychology for illuminating humanity. The Showtime Era of Lakers basketball was some of the most entertaining television you could watch. Winning Time is mostly hitting bricks."
Winning Time is garish and grating, but it is entertaining: "Beyond its considered analysis of what’s lost within an all-consuming drive to win, Winning Time is a lot of flash: big names, brazen storytelling, and near-constant nostalgia bait," says Ben Travers. "The premiere, directed by Adam McKay, sees the director at his most excessive and least focused — bouncing between frame-filling close-ups of ’80s-era paraphernalia to fourth-wall breaking narration from a half-dozen characters. But for sports fans (especially Lakers devotees), the 10-episode first season’s unapologetically biased depiction of building a dynasty through near-catastrophic obsession should carry weight. For everyone else, it still puts on a show."
It’s a bizarre comparison, but Winning Time is a bit like The Martian or Zodiac, for basketball: "The eight episodes sent to critics contrast the briskness of the on-court action with a chronological deliberation that will be nirvana to the immediately engaged and glacial to those whose interest begins and ends with Magic’s no-look passes and Kareem’s sky-hook," says Daniel Fienberg. "It is, for want of a better word, a basketball procedural: Each episode introduces a series of on- and off-court issues and, albeit with some collapsing of the timeline and minor futzing of details, delves into the real-life solutions, sometimes accentuated by flashbacks focusing on a single player or coach. It’s a bizarre comparison, but Winning Time is a bit like The Martian or Zodiac, for basketball." He adds: "The question, one I can’t immediately answer, is what crossover appeal Winning Time is going to have; while HBO has specialized in dramas about insulated enclaves of fame and wealth, this series is significantly more focused on basketball than Succession is on the media or The Gilded Age is on 19th-century robber barons. Winning Time is able to explain, for example, why it was interesting and even notable that the Lakers had to settle for Jack McKinney (an appropriately erudite Tracy Letts) and his nerdy approach to offense after Jerry Tarkanian (the wonderfully reptilian Rory Cochrane) turned down the coaching gig. But explaining and making uninterested viewers care are two very different things, though nobody will accuse this series of lacking evident effort."
What’s remarkable about Winning Time is the attention to detail: "This stunning visual achievement seamlessly blends original material with archival footage," says Michael Grant. "So much so that there are moments when it’s difficult to differentiate between what is newly filmed and what is old. The series itself is meant to look like the 1980s and succeeds. From the clothing and hairstyles to little things like Gatorade bottles in the locker room, Coors beer cans in the coaching offices, and vintage corporate signage at The Forum. The casting is also a triumph. Everyone fits with few exceptions. You can credibly believe John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, an obsessed let-the-good-times-roll extrovert with a voracious appetite for basketball and sex. Reilly does very good work here, although we will always wonder how Will Ferrell would have handled the role. Ferrell is a vastly underrated dramatic actor."
John C. Reilly is the reason Winning Time works so well: Reilly combines "root-for-him warmth with hedonistic disco-era id," says Taylor Antrim. "He is introduced in the first episode, in 1979 Los Angeles, in flagrante in a waterbed at the Playboy Mansion, breaking the fourth wall and comparing basketball to sex. Reilly goes all out as the hard-spending, hard-partying Buss, who bought the Lakers and transformed the team into a cultural phenomenon. His silk shirts opened to the belly, tinted shades firmly in place, Reilly dispenses with all restraint because Winning Time is that kind of show: impolite, shamelessly unsubtle, highly entertaining."
Winning Time is freewheeling and creative: "Through the first eight episodes provided to critics, Winning Time is like those vintage Lakers on a fast break: quick-moving, freewheeling, creative, packed with colorful characters and occasionally rising to the level of art," says G. Allen Johnson. "It is also a foul-mouthed and sex-fueled titanic clash between alpha male super-egos (and some alpha females as well)." He adds: "The constant swirl of dramatic action, bigger-than-life characters and obsessive drive make Winning Time impossible to resist."
Winning Time is further proof that TV is the best medium at telling sports stories: "Its long-term approach to storytelling means it's better equipped to chronicle and interrogate the visceral highs and lows of a team or athlete, whether it's over a single season or across years," says Kaitlin Thomas. "The episodic structure creates space to investigate the personal lives, individual triumphs, and devastating setbacks of players, coaches, managers, and others connected to a particular sport, and it's made for some captivating art over the years. From the small-town community at the heart of Friday Night Lights and the bloody fights of Kingdom to the brotherhood of One Tree Hill and a disgraced announcer on Brockmire, we've been blessed with unique takes on the wide world of sports for the last 20 years. And with more recent additions like Ted Lasso, Dare Me, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, All American, and Heels, we've been able to explore the inner workings and team dynamics of soccer, cheerleading, hockey, football, and wrestling, all in satisfying fashion. Now you can add basketball to the mix (again) with the debut of HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty."
Adam McKay and his team should've learned from his other show, Succession: "It’s as if McKay (and Winning Time’s lead writers Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein by extension) didn’t pick up any story craft from working with Jesse Armstrong on Succession," says Andrew Lawrence. "That show knows how to marshal a large production: cram it in a tight space (a private jet, a kid’s room). Winning Time is all sprawl, dipping back and forth from LA when it isn’t exploring haunts like the Playboy Mansion – an even more haunting stop now in light of recent sexual abuse allegations made in a still-unfurling 10-part A&E docuseries. Really, most of the sex appeal feels cringe, the kind of stuff HBO once spattered across its shows to hook subscribers. (See Jason Clarke, as Lakers coach Jerry West, having sex with his future wife.) Sure, LA was all about free love back then. But that doesn’t mean Winning Time had to be so regressive."
How "unknowns" Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes transformed into, respectively, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Isaiah has had a few minor acting roles, while Winning Time marks Hughes' acting debut. “It’s tough, I’m not going to lie,” says Isaiah. “You’re playing someone who is beloved, a hero. It’s tough to see that the people you look up to are human. But it’s also helpful. It shows that they’re not that different from you. You can mess up, make mistakes and still come out on top. You don’t do a show like this without a deep admiration and love for what they did and who they are. I just hope the people see that — that these people are human but also extraordinary.” Hughes adds: “There is definitely fear and trepidation in playing these guys. But I don’t take for granted the opportunity to honor these men, to tell their story and show what they built, the coming together of sports and entertainment. These were the two players at the center of making that happen.”
Solomon Hughes went from college basketball stud two decades ago to earning his Ph.D. to making his acting debut on Winning Time: A casting agency contacted Hughes in 2019. As it turns out, he was a fan since childhood of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So he prepared for the role with an old teammate. When it came time to audition, he read with Quincy Isaiah, who would end up portraying Magic Johnson. “To use a sports analogy, I just left it all on the floor,” Hughes tells SF Gate. “I just went in there and put it all out there and trusted the process. It was terrifying; it was incredibly fun. You talk about stepping outside your comfort zone — it really, really was one of those out-of-body experiences where I’m like, ‘OK, this is happening, let’s go.’” What was Hughes doing when the Winning Time casting opportunity presented itself? "I had been working at Stanford for about eight years and I was primarily doing administrative stuff," he tells The Athletic. "And I really enjoyed the administrative stuff, but I loved teaching. I had the opportunity to teach in the Graduate School of Education and I’d taught some undergrad courses and I knew ‘All right, Solomon, you want to work in higher education, and you want to do something you’re super passionate about, you want to teach.’ So I left Stanford and my plan was to spend close to a year writing and applying for faculty gigs. Literally within a month after leaving Stanford, an audition came my way. I grew a up a huge fan of film and TV, just the craft of acting. I’m someone whose life has literally been shaped and inspired by performances of great actors."
Author Jeff Pearlman had "very little" influence on the series: How similar is Winning Time to his book on the Showtime Lakers? “It’s definitely similar," he says. "It’s not a documentary. It’s a dramatic series. For example, in the book, (the Lakers) had a coach when Magic was drafted named Jack McKinney. He coached them for a handful of games and then he had a bicycle accident. Very few people have talked about it. I wrote extensively about it. When I’m watching the show and they’re digging deep into Jack McKinney, it just warms my heart."
Adam McKay says finding someone to portray Magic Johnson and exude his energy was the toughest part of Winning Time: “It was the single hardest casting challenge I’ve ever encountered, and our casting director, Francine Maisler, would tell you the same thing," he says. "It was crazy, and to this day, I can’t believe Quincy and Dr. Hughes came our way. I mean it’s unbelievable. These guys can play ball, and they’re really talented actors, and they’re thoughtful, and they were collaborators. I’ve never experienced anything like it in all the years I’ve been doing it, and that goes for this whole cast. The whole cast is so unique. I mean DeVaughn (Nixon) is incredible. Tamera (Tomakili), amazing. Across the board, it was so cool to see how this cast just fell in line because the story of the Showtime Lakers involves so many different people and so many different points of view and backgrounds. I mean that’s why we were drawn to it.”