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Winning Time Defied the Blue-Collar Myth of the Boston Celtics

It's too bad HBO pulled the plug before we got the pleasure of seeing their defeat.
  • Sean Patrick Small in Winning Time (photo: Warrick Page/HBO)
    Sean Patrick Small in Winning Time (photo: Warrick Page/HBO)

    The second season of HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty sped through four seasons of the Los Angeles Lakers' Showtime era in search of a villain. Was it Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), the academically inclined head coach who antagonized his players while subjugating them to his vainglorious "system"? Was it Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), whose petty rivalries with Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) nearly imploded the team's chemistry? Was it Dr. Jerry Buss' (John C. Reilly) new (sort of) wife, Honey (Ari Graynor), whose palimony lawsuit threatened to take down the entire Buss empire?

    Of course it wasn't any of those. The bad guys in any TV series about the Lakers dynasty were always going to be the Boston Celtics. The seeds for that rivalry were planted in Season 1, with Celtics owner Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) lording his franchise's success over Buss, and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) assuming the role of Magic's chief tormentor both on the court and in Magic's head. Winning Time had been building up to the Lakers vs. the Celtics, the defining rivalry in NBA history. But the course of actual history was a winding road, one that kept the Lakers and Celtics from meeting in the NBA Finals until five years into the Lakers' dynasty. Season 1 ended with the Lakers winning their first championship of the "Showtime" era in 1980. Season 2 had to push through four more seasons before Magic and Bird would meet in an NBA Finals.

    For much of Season 2, the Celtics lay in wait, simmering on a back burner. Every now and then, the show would peek in on Larry Bird; Episode 3, "The Second Coming, delved into his journey from French Lick, Indiana, to college, and finally to the Celtics. Bird is depicted by Winning Time with a bracing lack of sentimentality. The "great white hope" image of Bird as an icon of working-class effort — the perfect contrast to Magic's flashy style of play — was always something of a marketing construct. For decades, NBA fans have heard the stories of Bird as an elite trash-talker on the court. Winning Time never saw the need to choose one version over the other. The Bird who drained deadeye three-pointers in jeans in his Indiana State tryout was the same Bird who mercilessly taunted Magic and threatened to murder teammate Kevin McHale if McHale apologized for clotheslining defenseless Laker Kurt Rambis.

    Winning Time needed a Bird who would stack up to Magic on the court, and it got one. The show also needed a team, a legacy, and a fanbase that could stack up against those of the Lakers, and creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht delivered that too. Archetypally, the Celtics and Lakers fell all too easily into opposing camps. The Celtics represented blue-collar, East Coast Boston. Auerbach preached about his team's work ethic, quoted Paul Revere, and never missed an opportunity to take shots at the glitzy West Coast Lakers, with their army of "sissy" Hollywood fair-weather fans.

    In valorizing the Lakers' dynasty, Winning Time challenged itself to run counter to almost every sports movie, TV show, and folk tale that's ever existed. The Lakers, the protagonists, were the heedless, front-running hare, while the Celtics were the hardscrabble, never-give-up tortoise. Winning Time's showrunners were smart enough to know that the Celtic Pride myth was always just that. The Boston Garden of the Winning Time finals wasn't a monument to work ethic and the poetry of Boston's blue-collar fan base. It was a sweaty hotbox designed to suffocate Celtics' opponents into submission. In L.A. the basketball was fun, fast, and fan friendly. In Boston, you could see the humidity in the air, and Kareem had to go to the locker room for supplemental oxygen.

    It was in the finale, with the Lakers/Celtics rivalry finally coming into full bloom, that the Celtics became the ultimate sports villains that the show always needed them to be. And just as soon as that happened, the series ended. The Celtics muscled out a win in the 1984 NBA Finals. In real life, the Lakers’ big win wouldn't come until the rematch the following year. But there won't be a next year for Winning Time, as HBO canceled the series shortly before the Season 2 finale aired. The Lakers' ultimate triumph over the Celtics in 1985 is communicated via a post-script (one of many) in the final moments, but the last thing we see on a basketball court is the Celtics' fans — those beacons of white working-class values — attacking Lakers' players in the midst of a Game 7 celebration. It's tough to be satisfied when the comeuppance for such dastardly villain behavior is left to a postscript.

    Winning Time was cut short just as enthusiasm to see the Lakers get one over on the hated Celtics was at a fever pitch. WarnerMedia CEO David Zaslav might as well have been wearing kelly green when he made the decision, since he was bailing the Celtics out of the on-screen defeat they had coming to them. Winning Time set up the Lakers for a third season in which they'd finally vanquish their hated foe, and then someone pulled the plug. Red Auerbach couldn't have done it better himself.

    Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is available to stream on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, HBO, Adrien Brody, DeVaughn Nixon , Jason Segel, John C. Reilly, Michael Chiklis, Quincy Isaiah, Sean Patrick Small, Solomon Hughes