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Winning Time review: Hugely entertaining basketball series

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Quincy Isaiah as Earvin

Quincy Isaiah as Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

One of the founding myths of modern professional sports begins with the idea that the National Basketball Association had wandered off in the 1970s, becoming a niche league for a variety of reasons, including a lack of likable players – or, to put it in the terms TV executives at the time used behind closed doors, a lack of White players. And then the 1979 NCAA basketball championship broke viewership records, due to the clash of intense Indiana farm boy Larry Bird and flashy Michigan kid Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who were both set to be NBA rookies. Bird and Magic would go on to dominate professional basketball in the 80s, setting the stage for future stars and helping to make the sport an international phenomenon.

This is all true…ish. The reality was more complicated. The NBA of the 1970s was far richer in charismatic characters and uplifting drama than conventional wisdom would suggest; and the 80s had their share of ugly scandals. The two eras collided in the thrilling Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s, which had exhilarating times on the court and messy times in the locker room, all covered in startling detail in sportswriter Jeff’s flatbook Pearlman. Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980sand now in its energetic and entertaining television adaptation, Buying Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.

winning time was co-created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, who have their names on nearly every script. But the biggest name in the credits is Adam McKay, the basketball-loving writer-producer-director who made his reputation with smartly silly Will Ferrell comedies like Presenter and Talladega Nightsbefore moving on to political films like The big court and Don’t look up. McKay directed the first of 10 episodes for the season (eight of which were made available for review), and the series has its stamp. It is very similar to The big court in the way it conveys complex information about history, strategy, finance and personal conflict, with a mix of illustrations, humorous on-screen text and characters breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera.

John C. Reilly stars as Jerry Buss, the hot-headed Los Angeles playboy and real estate mogul who bought the Lakers in 1979 and changed the team’s image and reputation, turning their arena The Forum into a one of the city’s hotspots. Reilly plays the character as a cross between a riverboat gambler, a crook, a lascivious creep, and a lost soul: a man who twists his finances to buy a team that drowns in red ink, then keeps his creditors at bay. as long as he can, hoping the Lakers can have a long run in the playoffs and generate enough revenue to keep him from going bankrupt.

Pearlman’s book covers an entire decade of the Lakers saga; and winning time opens with a scene set in 1991, when Magic Johnson discovers he is HIV-positive. But the first season is mostly set in 1979 and 1980, covering the steps Buss and his employees took to transform a moribund franchise into one of the NBA’s standard bearers. The season weaves three common threads. The first involves Buss, the unapologetic upstart, seeking the respect of NBA Blue Bloods like Boston Celtics manager Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis), while also leaning on his hardworking daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) and the Forum’s astute business manager, Claire Rothman. (Gaby Hoffmann) to find every possible angle to extract money from the arena and the team. The show is very good at turning Buss’ macho business deals and bluster into TV-ready drama, where every argument and long-term maneuver is high stakes.

The second common thread concerns the key element of the Lakers’ revival: Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), a dynamic player with a big, bright personality, who looks set to be the next NBA superstar. However, Johnson must first overcome persistent disapproval from his strict Christian parents, a lack of experience with life-changing financial decisions, and a voracious sexual appetite. winning time is packed with well-known actors, but even more impressive are newcomers like Isaiah and Solomon Hughes (who plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who don’t just do impersonations of famous hoop stars, but dig deep into what pushed them.

Adrien Brody as Pat Riley

Adrien Brody as Pat Riley
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

The final common thread in the series has to do with the jostling between past, present, and future Lakers coaches. Jason Clarke plays Jerry West, a highly motivated ex-player who quits as head coach to save his sanity, but stays on as a consultant. Tracy Letts plays Jack McKinney, the new head coach, a stern leader with an innovative plan to turn the Lakers into a nonstop fast-breaking machine. Jason Segel is McKinney’s trusty assistant Paul Westhead, the self-doubting intellectual. And hidden in the shadows is Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), another former player with a sharp mind, a deep understanding of psychology, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed. These four actors are all heavyweights, and the way they play their little feuds is a kick to watch.

Everything the Borenstein/Hecht/McKay team tries here doesn’t work. It’s great that they have the power to fill even the smallest roles with top-notch actors; but it’s hard not to be disappointed when Lola Kirke, Julianne Nicholson, and Gillian Jacobs show up (playing West’s wives, McKinney, and Riley, respectively) and don’t do much besides react to the main characters. The show also goes overboard on the “retro” visual style, using various techniques to make images look like faded and battered old film footage, or blurry home video. The gadget can sometimes be distracting. He rarely adds much.

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

That said, winning time is clearly the work of people who know and love basketball history. They love to shoot in the sweaty training gymnasiums and the maze-like corridors beneath the Forum. They love dropping references to the cult basketball movie The fish that saved Pittsburgh and the old “NBA On CBS” opening animation. They love stopping an episode for a few seconds to point out that the woman the Buss family hires to be the Laker Girls’ head choreographer is Paula Abdul, or to note that when the Lakers are playing the Clippers, one of the people in the crowd is a newborn Kobe Bryant, son of Clippers forward Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.

The editorial team has its favorite themes. They explore how nearly every one of their characters is driven by a broken relationship with their parents. winning time frequently introduces flashbacks, to show how difficult West’s childhood was in West Virginia, or how activist Abdul-Jabbar got into a fight with his New York City transit policeman father. The show also explores the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism that underlies the league’s promotion of the Magic/Bird rivalry, and the code words used by NBA executives to describe white players and black players. .

Overall however, winning time is not heavy or preachy. He mainly oscillates between affectionate, wobbly and ironic. It’s a portrait of an NBA on the verge of a major transformation, thanks to new stars and new business partners (including Nike, whose failed pitch to Magic is a one-episode storyline). It’s a show about how creating something big and lasting is hard work, and how not everyone is involved. fate unscathed. winning time relates to one of the golden ages of sport, yes; but it is also about the nebulosity of this very concept. By including many different viewpoints, the winning time The team points out that looking back, everyone has a different idea of ​​what a Golden Age really was, and when and why it ended.