HBO’s 'Winning Time' isn’t accurate, but that’s not a bad thing

HBO’s sports drama series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” appealed to me as soon as I saw the trailer for its first season. The show is a dramatic retelling of the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers season, which saw rookie — and future Hall of Famer — Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson help lead his team to the NBA Championship. As a basketball fan, “Winning Time” fed into my fascination for the “Showtime” era Lakers team, a time trademarked by Johnson’s fast breaks and no-look passes. “Winning Time” promised a behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations faced by those who made this era possible, from the players to the coaches to the front office. 

Is the show good? In my opinion, yes, but with a couple of asterisks. First and foremost, the show is executive produced by Adam McKay, director of “The Big Short,” “Vice” and “Don’t Look Up,” whose style is imprinted all over the show, for better or for worse. I personally grew impatient with his documentarian brand of filmmaking with snarky fourth-wall breaks from characters. I admired the way that the 1980s aesthetic fit into the technical aspects of the filmmaking, namely the film grain visible in all scenes of the show. However, the style often took attention away from the story. However, beyond the surface of basketball, viewers are able to find an inspiring underdog story that confronts racial discrimination, the evils of the sports industry, confronting personal demons. 

The show, however, has attracted attention for reasons other than the stylistic quality of the show. “Winning Time'' is quite unpopular amongst those that it depicts, highlighting a common issue of biopics. As soon as it became clear that the 1980s Lakers players and front-office staff weren’t at the helm of the creation of “Winning Time,” statements by those subjects against the show earned lots of attention.

What makes “Winning Time” stand out, though, is the sheer volume and intensity of the criticism. Statements issued by depicted parties — such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry West — each said something different. Johnson’s criticism was the most simple, condemning the showrunners for not pursuing its subject matters for participation. Abdul-Jabbar took to a Substack article to label the show “dull” with bland characterization, particularly relating to Jerry West. Regarding the plot of the show, Abdul-Jabbar wrote the following: 

“If you gathered the biggest gossip-mongers from the Real Housewives franchise and they collected all the rumors they heard about each other from Twitter and then played Telephone with each other you’d have the stitched together Frankenstein’s monster that is this show.” 

He also criticized the showrunners for including a blatantly fictionalized scene in the first episode wherein his character curses out a young child, stating that the moment is bound to have an effect on his charity — the Skyhook Foundation — an organization that serves to make STEM education more accessible to under-privilledged children.

Jerry West, on the other hand, has issued more than just public statements. West wrote to HBO through his lawyer seeking an apology and retraction from the network for what he perceives to be a “demeaning” portrayal, even stating he was willing to take this case “to the Supreme Court” if he needed to. HBO’s official response stated that, while the showrunners can boast extensive research, the show has always claimed to be a fictionalized dramatization of real events, citing the disclaimers present in the credits. As of right now, West has not escalated his case further.

From my praise of the show at the beginning of this article, one can surmise that I obviously disagree with Abdul-Jabbar’s characterization of the show as ‘dull,’ and the show’s depiction of West as a complicated man battling his own demons — while unflattering at times — is also sympathetic. Biographical dramas are always bound to take creative liberties, so while their frustration is understandable, viewers should also take into account whether or not these inaccuracies make the narrative better. 

Storytelling inaccuracies should be a servant to the storytelling at play. Of course, the narrative should have some basis in the truth, otherwise, there would be no purpose in adapting actual events into a television show or movie. However, an adaptation that observes accuracy for accuracy’s sake risks being boring, a grave sin of all media. And not every former Lakers player hates the show; some figures forgotten in history such as Spencer Haywood and the family of the late Jack McKinney were reportedly pleased with their portrayals in the show which shined a light on their often overlooked stories. Inaccurate as it may be, perhaps “Winning Time” isn’t so egregious after all.


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