"I understand poetic license and having to tell an interesting story, but it just seemed like some of the lies the show told didn't really add much," says Stephen Douglas of the first season of HBO's Showtime Lakers drama. "But we're not here to nitpick. Mostly. The show is worth celebrating for two very important reasons: casting and basketballing. Even if the material is a little out there, the actors all deliver. Every actor was pretty much born for their role, including, somehow, Rory Cochrane as Jerry Tarkanian. John C. Reilly made me forget the real Jerry Buss ever existed. Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes are perfect as Magic and Kareem and the rest of the Lakers are great. Jason Segel and Adrian Brody make a great couple. I know nothing about Claire Rothman or Jessie Buss, but Gaby Hoffman and Sally Field are both excellent. Maybe the toughest role is Hadley Robinson as a young, inexperienced, capable, overlooked Jeanie Buss who is literally the posterchild for how poorly Buss treats women in this show. (Side note: Hoping for a whole lot more of the failson Buss boys in season 2.) Then there's the basketball. The actual basketball works. From the first game of one-on-one between Magic and Norm Nixon to the actual NBA season, the basketball has felt real. Everyone looks and moves like they're just alternate angles of old highlights. The scenes in the locker room and huddle feel like they've been ripped out of good sports movies. There are legitimate moments during the games where you might even get goosebumps (Couldn't be me)."
Winning Time Season 1 struggled at times to decide the kind of show it wants to be: "With all these known quantities there’s pressure on showrunners to inject drama into the story, but this is also an inherent joy to the subject matter," says James Dator. "We’re watching the rise of one of the greatest basketball players of all time, on one of the greatest teams of all time — that’s fun, it should be fun, and sometimes Winning Time struggles when it attempts to blend comedy with the drama in an attempt to make the show feel lighter. The issue is that the majority of comedic moments come at a character’s expense, which is normally fine, but comes off as cruel knowing these were real people. In early episodes this worked fine...As the show progresses these attempts at comedy become more awkward. With this blend of uncomfortable humor lightening the tone for dramatic events we can’t really rely on, the end result was an enjoyable first season — but a deeply flawed show."
The season finale devolving into a Hoosiers/Air Bud level of championship game histrionics is not a bad thing, but...: "...The show has been trying for nine episodes to be so much more than that," says Lee Escobedo. "It’s tried to be a statement on the failings of capitalism, the invisible Black man, and the ills of American society. But in the end, it decided to be pulpy, feel-good entertainment. For example, when Magic tells versions of his mother, girlfriend, and rival Larry Bird that exist in his head to f*ck off in his living room, it colors the scene and episode with a melancholic sourness. We know Magic wins multiple championships and gets the girl. In fact, he gets every girl. And more. When the imaginary visions disappear, leaving Magic alone in his home, we still know less of the man who has been a part of our pop-cultural consumption for more than 40 years before the series started."
Winning Time cinematographers used roller blade cameras and retro tech to film basketball scenes: “Our earliest discussions surrounding how to shoot basketball revolved around how to get inside the plays and help the audience understand the dynamics of why Showtime was so special,” Todd Banhazl, who served as cinematographer alongside Mihai Mălaimare Jr., tells Indiewire “And also how to connect the camera kinetically and emotionally to the players. Showtime is extremely fast, and we knew we’d be recreating very well known plays from Lakers history, so accuracy was also very important.” They also benefitted from extreme sports veteran cameraman John Lyke, who could operate a camera while Rollerblading. “John comes from the extreme sports world,” says Banzahl, “and had already shot a great deal of basketball where he had begun to learn how to work within the players, on his skates, with a small handheld camera in his hands. Everything opened up for us when John came on board. We equipped John with a lightweight handheld Arri 416 16mm camera on a backpack rig (so he could keep up with the players up and down the court)."
Winning Time co-creator Max Borenstein on Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar denouncing the series: "I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have any part of my life adapted into a show or movie; I don’t know if I could watch something that was made about my life if I wasn’t making it," he says. "So I would never predict or judge anyone’s reaction to it. But we’re so proud of what we’ve done. We remain enormous fans of the era, of all of these characters and everything these people have accomplished. We made this from a place of great appreciation, affection, and fandom. And beyond that, we’ve made it with a tremendous amount of research. We spent three years reading every book, watching every interview. One of the great benefits of telling a story about people who’ve lived their lives in the public eye is that, in many cases, they’ve written their own stories. Our only main character who doesn’t have a biography or an autobiography is Jerry Buss. Jerry West’s memoir, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, is one of the best books I’ve ever read about an athlete’s life. It’s a beautiful, poignant, and very self-revelatory memoir, and that was one of our great sources, as were Kareem’s books and many, many others. We strive to always root our show in the facts, and one of the things that’s been really cool has been watching reactions from the audience where they’re surprised by some of the characterizations or by the way that they meet these people."
For Winning Time, getting to face the Boston Celtics is like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones: "Anyone who knows the story of these two guys, has seen the documentaries or read about them, knows that what starts out as an intense bitter resentment and rivalry ultimately became very, very deep complicated friendship," Borenstein says of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's relationship. "In a way, they were the only two guys who really understood each other and so they were very uniquely bonded. In our show, hopefully we have an opportunity to get there. Getting to face the Celtics is like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones. They flirt with it for quite a while in this iteration of the dynasty and then only eventually get there. When they do, it becomes a rivalry for the ages. And so this is the hint that he’s more than just the villain, that there’s an internal presence there, and that he’s every bit as competitive and driven as Magic Johnson. Hopefully we have an opportunity to get to that place where we get to explore the beginnings of their friendship and get into Larry’s POV, which is certainly part of our ambition eventually."
Why Winning Time went from a limited series to a regular series: "This next season? What we discovered when we thought about the show is, this must be a miniseries but it just became clear that if you did that, you would only have room for the highlights," says Borenstein. "There are shows and things I’ve seen that do a thing like that with some true story stuff, but what was so compelling about this to me were these themes that we’re talking about and these characters, the way that they transform and the way that Pat Riley goes from being a color commentator to ultimately becoming this driven, controlling coach, one of the greats, but who as you say, burns out his own welcome in LA. That is a slow burn, a long arc, that’s something that you couldn’t make a great movie about all of this because you don’t have the real estate, and you can’t make a great miniseries about it. The only way to get there is to do it as a continuing drama that has the real estate and the runway to really serve these arcs. I hope we’re given the opportunity to continue to tell that story long enough to do it right, but we’re not going to adjust our pace to try to speed it up to the point where we lose the purpose. We’re making every active creation as an act of faith, and right now, we’re so fortunate to have this incredible cast, to have this network behind us, and to have fans who are appreciating it. So yeah, this next season is going to be, you know, taking the same pace that this first season did, roughly, to tell the next piece of the story."