‘Winning Time’ shows authentic human side of Laker legends

John C

John C. Reilly remembered being enthralled watching “Showtime” basketball with Magic Johnson’s no-look passes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s patented skyhook, but the actor never really knew the backstory behind the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty.

Reilly quickly found out after stepping into his role as late Laker owner Jerry Buss in the HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which airs Sundays. The 10-episode series follows the professional and personal lives of the team donning purple and gold in the 1980s and how the franchise became one of the most revered in professional sports.

“That was the vehicle through which the entire (basketball) world was changed,” said Reilly about the Lakers, which was bought by Buss in 1979. “From the world of basketball, it was a different thing once Jerry bought the team. He innovated so many things, and he changed the entire world of showbiz. When you think of Kobe, Shaq, Magic, these guys came to L.A. and became worldwide players. I don’t know if that happens for every team.”

The series stars Reilly along with Quincy Isaiah as Johnson, Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Solomon Hughes as Abdul-Jabbar, Sally Field as Jerry’s mother, Jessie Buss, Hadley Robinson as the young Jeanie Buss and Adrien Brody, who plays Pat Riley. The story is based on the book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” by Jeff Pearlman.

Sunday's show marked the midway point of its run, focusing on Abdul-Jabbar's religious journey. The fifth episode also touches on Jeanie Buss' recruitment of the Laker Girls — including young dancer Paula Abdul — and Jerry Buss wanting to improve the look of the franchise.

Before portraying Buss, Reilly had heard about his reputation as a self-made millionaire who became known in Los Angeles for his flamboyant demeanor and for bringing Hollywood entertainment into the NBA landscape. But after reading the script and doing more research on Buss, he learned about him being a chemist, mathematician and just an overall mysterious person.

“It’s like unpeeling the layers of an onion getting to know this guy,” Reilly said. “There are the public facts of what he did, when he bought the team, how much he paid, what he had to do to accomplish that, the big setbacks they went through that first year. But after that first year, he became a private guy. He would get like one interview per year or like a local reporter to talk about the team. Other than that, it was just this kind of mysterious image of this guy who was just really enjoying his life and dating a lot.”

Field, a longtime Lakers fan, said she agreed to participate in the show before reading the script. The actor said the series helped her reminisce about the moments when the Lakers merged its basketball world with Hollywood.

“I am such a big basketball fan, but then the show was about so much more than that,” said Field, who would attend games with her two sons. “It really takes a look at so much. You know, the culture in the ’70s in LA. Black culture, business culture, a bunch of dysfunctional families and what it is to take these talented athletes out of their homes and just plop them down in the middle of the world, essentially, and what it does to them. So it has a lot to talk about.”

Field said she was impressed by how the series shows the maturation of Jeanie Buss, the current controlling owner and president of the Lakers.

“Young Jeanie wasn’t even allowed to be in the room and at the table yet, but was inserting her young ideas,” Field said. “(Jeanie) was right about bringing dance into it, Hollywood, glamour, movie stars on the court and sitting them there right on the edge, and even bringing rock music in during the downtimes. They brought concerts in and used the arena. I don’t think that had been done before.”

Isaiah said he really wanted to hit the mark in making Johnson appear like a normal human being, instead of just the NBA legend, HIV advocate and successful businessman.

“I think that’s the joy that I get in trying to figure out how to do it in a way that makes him a person, you know, makes him a human,” he said. “And it doesn’t give off this like maybe you could see that he’s going to become an icon, but he’s not one yet. Just like playing it from there and trusting the people around me and allowing myself to be in the moment and be authentic.”

DeVaughn Nixon grew up being a Laker watching his father, Norm Nixon, play the guard position on the team. He said the series will continue to show how the Lakers changed sport's marketability.

“You’ve got musical performances, halftime shows and people doing flips and stuff,” said Nixon, who portrays his father in the series. His dad was drafted by the Lakers in 1977. “Celebrities really carried over. The term celebrity is completely different now.”

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