‘Winning Time’ Season 1: Separating NBA facts from fiction in HBO’s Lakers series

There’s no doubt that “Winning Time: The Rise of Lakers Dynasty” has been a surprise hit for HBO given its worthy critical acclaim and robust viewership numbers. While fans of the throwback docudrama series wait for its Season 2 spin on one of NBA history’s greatest teams, there’s still plenty to unwrap from a blockbuster Season 1.

Despite some controversy over its portrayal of real-life Lakers personalities, the eclectic cast of “Winning Time” — including John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss and newcomer Quincy Isaiah as Earvin “Magic” Johnson — has captivated audiences in recreating “Showtime” vibes of the late 70s and early 80s.

Although much of “Winning Time” is based on actual events as chronicled in Jeff Pearlman’s best-selling non-fiction book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” there are some liberties taken for dramatic effect.

MORE: ‘Winning Time’ Season 2 details 

Here’s how much Season 1 stuck to the true story vs. stretching the truth through composites with more entertaining television in mind:

“Winning Time” fiction: Magic Johnson thought about returning to Michigan State after being ready to be drafted by the Lakers

NBA fact: Magic Johnson would have thought about returning to Michigan State if he wasn’t drafted by the Lakers

The No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft was decided by a coin flip. With the rights to Johnson’s Indiana State-produced archrival Larry Bird being held by the Celtics from the previous draft, it came down to the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. Once Buss pushed for the Lakers to take Johnson over fellow guard Sidney Moncrief and others, Johnson was locked into playing for Los Angeles. 

Although Johnson was a Lansing, Michigan native, he didn’t really want to stay in the Midwest and play for Chicago. Because the Bulls were never an option, that was not a true consideration. Johnson got his wish to take his winning smile to Hollywood.

“Winning Time” fiction: Jerry West rage quit as Lakers coach just weeks before the 1979-80 season

NBA fact: Jerry West resigned as Lakers coach months before the 1979-80 season

West was not rash in his decision and didn’t embarrass Buss or leave the owner in a tough scramble spot during training camp. West was more contemplative and considerate of stepping down much earlier than that, admitting later he had lost his confidence in his coaching abilities. That stemmed from multiple playoff disappointments in that capacity, carrying over some of his competitive frustration during his playing days as a one-time champion.

There’s no doubt West was passionate about the Lakers and wanted to do what was best for them. “Winning Time” has gotten heat for pushing the envelope with West and portraying him more as a foul-mouthed hothead with the potential for violent outbursts. West has been transparent about his battles with depression, but there’s zero evidence of that manifesting into smashing trophies through glass.

For the most part, actor Jason Clarke plays West well and in the end, he comes off as a likable and respected man as the Lakers’ future ace general manager. The way West was lost was using him as the exaggerated dramatic foil early into Buss’ ownership.

“Winning Time” fiction: Magic Johnson has trouble meshing with his older teammates as a rookie

NBA fact: Magic Johnson had little troubling meshing with all of his teammates as a rookie

Johnson, only 20 during his NBA rookie season, brought mostly youthful exuberance and injection of fun into a veteran roster. That translated to them playing so well together on the court in the early stages of “Showtime.” 

There was some natural competitiveness with incumbent point guard Norm Nixon. “Winning Time” takes the mild tension between them to ridiculous heights, however, in a scene where Nixon and Johnson play a game of one-on-one while dressed to the nines at a fancy L.A. party. That dynamic quickly fizzles once new coach Jack McKinney flips the team toward a free-flowing style where Johnson and Nixon are both key backcourt starters.

There’s also a sense from the series that Magic’s flashy game doesn’t sit right with some and he’s often put in place by Abdul-Jabbar for worlds and scuffles with teammates. From all accounts, Johnson got along with teammates over the years and was respected for being a winner and leader beyond his years not long after he got into the league.

“Winning Time” fiction: Paul Westhead needed time to figure out what to do as the Lakers’ head coach

NBA fact: Paul Westhead knew right away what he was doing as the Lakers’ head coach

McKinney’s decision to hire professorial friend Westhead as his assistant coach is key to the initial Lakers championship success with Johnson. Westhead (Jason Segel), after 13 games, takes over the team for the interim in November 1979 after McKinney (Tracy Letts) suffers a life-threatening bicycle accident. Helped by future Lakers “Showtime” star Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), Westhead keeps the head-coaching job throughout the regular season and playoffs.

Westhead is seen in “Winning Time” at first as a bumbling Shakespeare-quoting replacement who has trouble connecting with his players and putting his own successful spin on McKinney’s fast-paced brand of basketball. That sets up the plot point of him needing Riley’s help to make the Lakers hum, foreshadowing Riley’s full-time takeover of the team in two years.

In reality, Westhead was an experienced coach and the Lakers didn’t miss a beat with their jazzy domination in the Western Conference, fueled by Magic and Kareem. He made the right tweaks with Riley all the way through the season, culminating in moving Johnson to center in the NBA Finals with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by an ankle injury.

Westhead is treated more like a serendipitous figure, someone who wouldn’t be anything with McKinney or Riley. Although he was fired and replaced by Riley during the 1981-1982 season because of not seeing eye-to-eye with Johnson and sticking with the “Showtime” concepts, Westhead saved the Lakers from a tough situation and deserves more credit for sparking a dynasty.

“Winning Time” fiction: Magic Johnson’s first NBA game vs. Larry Bird was in hostile Boston

NBA fact: Magic Johnson’s first NBA game vs. Larry Bird was in beloved Los Angeles

“Winning Time” mashes up the Lakers’ home-and-away interconference matchups with the Celtics. The Lakers swept the two regular-season contests, setting the tone for them getting to the NBA Finals from the West while the Celtics fell short in the East.

After revving up the Los Angeles-Boston big rivalry to come with over-the-top scenes featuring Buss and Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis), “Winning Time” had to find a way to make Bird and the Celtics bigger bad guys. 

The Lakers and Celtics did face each other twice after Christmas and into the new year. On Dec. 28, 1979, Magic far outplayed Bird as the Lakers won easily in L.A., 123-105.

On Jan. 13, 1980, the Lakers did play in Boston with Johnson for the first time at the end of a grueling five-game road trip that included a home-state stop in Detroit, as shown on “Winning Time”.  But a weary and ailing Magic was a non-factor in that game, playing only 21 minutes. Kareem dominated inside and the Lakers still won a tough game, 100-98, because of two late free throws from Nixon instead of winning 99-98 on a layup by Michael Cooper, per “Winning Time.”

The Rookie of the Year votes did go to Bird over Magic in a landslide. But for sure Magic got the much better team results than Bird, following the result of their epic NCAA Tournament title meeting.

“Winning Time” fiction: Pat Riley badly loses his first game head-coaching the Lakers

NBA fact: Pat Riley soundly won his first game head-coaching the Lakers

Westhead does get hospitalized with kidney stones as depicted in “Winning Time”, which set up a sneak preview of Riley becoming the head coach. Riley’s fill-in stint is shown to be a brutal blowout loss to the 76ers, a fictitious 112-92 result coming off the All-Star break. Although the Lakers did lose at the Sixers 105-104 on the road on Feb. 10, 1980, Riley’s first game coaching the team for Westhead was on Feb. 13, 1980, with the Lakers rolling the Portland Trail Blazers at home, 129-103.

“Winning Time” fiction: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is torn about still playing and is seen as the angry captain of the Lakers for one more year

NBA fact: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was focused on still playing and was the content leader of the Lakers for another decade

The biggest critic of how Kareem is portrayed has been Kareem himself. Dr. Solomon Hughes, a former basketball player at California, does capture the look of Abdul-Jabbar with his size (6-11) and era-appropriate facial hair, along with smooth big-man moves and a distinguished presence.

But Abdul-Jabbar’s dislike of his character is based on the fact he’s often shown as a one-note serious person with curmudgeonly qualities. It gets to the point of the on-screen Abdul-Jabbar questioning the importance of basketball and whether he should leave the Lakers and the game at age 32. It’s extended by loose speculation by the Lakers’ brass on whether they should trade Kareem.

Some of the events in “Winning Time” would make it seem like Kareem isn’t there for the long haul with Magic, including some stretched hostility between them. Reality says Abdul-Jabbar played for the Lakers through age 40 before retiring in 1989, only two years before Johnson’s shocking announcement about testing positive for HIV. There could have been shown more about the absolute reverence for Abdul-Jabbar and less about making him a less comedic Pedro Serrano.

“Winning Time” fiction: The Lakers advance to the Western Conference Finals with a close Game 5 win over the Suns

NBA fact: The Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals with a blowout Game 5 rout over the Suns

“Winning Time” doesn’t show much of the playoff action during the Lakers’ first title run with Magic, even though it was, as the NBA might have said later in the 1980s, “Fan-tastic.” The Lakers did enjoy a first-round playoff bye before dispatching Phoenix, but oddly, there was a point to show the series-clinching victory had a final score of 108-106. Oddly, the Lakers beat the Suns by a slightly different score of 108-105 on the road in Game 3. But when they were up 3-1, they romped to a 126-102 win at home.

The Western Conference Finals results vs. Seattle SuperSonics are glossed over, other than the fact the Lakers also won that series in only five games. “Winning Time” did make it a point to foreshadow accurately, reminding us that Kareem did score 38 points in Game 5 of that second series.

“Winning Time” fiction: Spencer Haywood is voted off by his teammates and is cut from the Lakers before the 1979-80 NBA Finals

NBA fact: Spencer Haywood was disciplined by his coach and suspended from the Lakers during the 1979-80 NBA Finals

Haywood, played by Wood Harris, is one of the strongest side-plot characters in “Winning Time.” His difficult past battling racism and more challenging present fighting cocaine addiction aligned with the times of his life and playing career.  

In “Winning Time”, Haywood’s drug use and treatment of teammates cause Abdul-Jabbar to cast the deciding vote on whether Haywood will remain part of the Lakers for the Finals. In reality, Westhead was the only person who made that decision, suspending Haywood for falling asleep in practice after he already had appeared in two Finals games.

The series also shows Haywood hiring his drug dealer to take revenge on that action by killing the other Lakers players. Unfortunately, there also was a level of that extreme reaction in real life but it was targeting only Westhead instead. Haywood allegedly hired a gangster from the mob in his hometown Detroit to do the job that thankfully was never done.

“Winning Time” fiction: Magic Johnson and the Lakers almost run out of gas in Game 6 and needed clutch plays late to beat the 76ers

NBA fact: Magic Johnson and the Lakers were always in control of Game 6 and pulled away late to put away the 76ers

Johnson’s versatile and spectacular Game 6 performance with the Lakers up 3-2 and Abdul-Jabbar unable to play may be the best individual game in NBA history given the stakes. After lining up at center and going for the opening tip, Johnson played 47 minutes and put up 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and a block. That effort included making all 14 of his free-throw attempts.

It’s true the teams were tied at 60 at halftime and the Lakers did open up a 10-point lead after the third quarter. 93-83. But they weren’t up only one point, 104-103 with less than three minutes left. Their lead was a much more comfortable five, and there was no need for a regrouping timeout for a tired Johnson or Cooper making two clutch free throws after being smacked down hard to the floor. The final of 123-107 made it clear the Lakers were just fine finishing what they started early in the game without Abdul-Jabbar.

“Winning Time” fiction: Magic Johnson steals Finals MVP from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the prompting of future NBA commissioner David Stern

NBA fact: Magic Johnson took Finals MVP from Kareem Adbul-Jabbar for the sake of better television for NBA broadcast partner CBS

The rise of the Lakers was key because the NBA was coming off a struggling decade in the 1970s in terms of popularity. Stern, then the deputy commissioner to NBA Finals trophy namesake Larry O’Brien, is credited with pushing the league toward the global phenomenon it is today. Much of the thanks goes to raising the crossover celebrity profile of superstar players such as Magic, Bird and not much later, Michael Jordan.

“Winning Time” hints at Stern’s vision several times, knowing early that Magic means just as much to the entire NBA as he does the Lakers. But Stern is not the one who suggested Magic accept Finals MVP over an injured and absent Kareem as part of this plan.

It’s been well-documented that CBS felt awkward handing the MVP to someone who wasn’t there, despite Kareem being worthy for what he did in the first five games. The votes were tweaked to reward Johnson, in a strange cosmic compensation for Johnson not getting enough Rookie of the Year punch behind Bird.

Giving Johnson the award based on one massive game night didn’t feel out of place, given Abdul-Jabbar had just been named season MVP for the sixth time. But it was wrong to deny Kareem one more big accolade. He finally got named Finals MVP with the Lakers and Magic in 1985.