Winning Time Episode 7: “The Invisible Man”


Sean Small as Larry Bird and Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson.

sean Small as Larry bird and quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson.
photo: HBO

When John C. Reilly and allegedly Dr. Turning Jerry Buss into the camera, he doesn’t speak in the future tense, but in the present tense. Reilly’s buss is given no foresight as to what will become of his Lakers. He is far from an omniscient narrator and is by no means omniscient, all-seeing. Instead, breaking the fourth wall serves primarily as a vehicle for Buss to address himself. He argues with his frustration, as we see in the opening montage of Episode 7, “Invisible Man.” The title works both as a throwback to Ralph Ellison’s classic book on African American differences and to the invisible audience that is both ourselves and Buss’ identity.

When Buss speaks into the camera, he comments on what is happening in the here and now (i.e. 1980). This creative choice makes the Showtime sim not only entertaining, but also reasonably believable. If creator Max Borenstein allowed Buss or any of the characters to see into the future or comment on how decisions would affect themselves or others later, it would drown the show in confusion.

By limiting the character’s POV, the show stays in its world no matter how surreal and crazy it may get. It also allows those less privy to NBA folklore to enjoy the theatrics as scenes play out. Part of the fun is how distant the arc of the Showtime Lakers’ first championship season was from recent memory. We’re all a little fuzzy about the narrative, which applauds the anchoring of time and place in 1980’s Los Angeles.

In this episode, each character picks up a leg in their situations. Pat Riley leaves the broadcast booth to take on a role as assistant coach on the bench. Paul Westphal beats rivals Boston Celtics to keep his job for another day Jack McKinney learns to re-tie his shoes after a near-fatal fall. Claire Rothman devises a financial plan to save the team. And Magic has found its great white whale in Larry Bird, its equal, rival, and ultimate antithesis.

Magic takes on the role of Ellison’s unnamed narrator, taking us through three games on the East Coast as the fate of Westphal’s coaching career and the Lakers’ potential championship run hang in the balance. We see fans like the random white girl in Bird’s home state of Indiana flashing Magic with Bird’s name on her chest and telling him that Bird is going to eat his lunch. It’s an aggressive, sexually violent gesture when you know how the theatrics of lying white women led to the lynching of so many innocent African American men.

Magic navigates social, business, and racial dealings as a Black man with a newfound dual consciousness. Just as literary critics used Black Existentialism as a lens to read Ellison’s masterpiece, we too can use it to deconstruct winning time. The invisible in the game is both Earvin and Magic. As Earvin, he finds warmth in his father’s sensibilities, his mother’s proverbs, and the loyalty of his mistress Cookie. But as Magic, he’s just a pawn in the white owner’s plans. He has to smile for the camera, win ball games and stay in line. Magic must constantly overcome racism as an obstacle to achieve its dreams and solidify its identity.

When Earvin arrives in his hometown of Detroit to face the Pistons, he runs into Cookie again. But he’s immediately distracted by Magic’s responsibilities—business, isolation, and a deadly game of might and morality. Meanwhile, Magic has earned a reputation as a womanizer. In the following sequence, a white woman notifies Cookie, who thinks she’s a guy vying for Magic’s time, and scoffs at not wearing a bright enough outfit for his attention. Earvin may have his eye on starting a family and settling down, but Magic is enjoying the visibility he’s achieved.

There is a poignant scene between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic’s father, played by Rob Morgan, at a Christmas dinner before the big game against Boston. Both men marvel at the naivety of magic. How can he remain unfazed by all the shit white America keeps throwing at black men? Kareem has a penchant for knowledge. He has connected deeply with the emerging black consciousness. But Earvin Jr. lived it, noting that he grew up in Mississippi and watched lynchings at the Jim Crow South nearly every week. So Earvin Sr. asks Kareem, the Lakers’ senior statesman, to kick his son’s butt if he steps out of line. It’s a simple, loving gesture from a father and big brother to one of their own. It shows how people of color had/have to seek out the young prodigy in the midst of the white wolves and the sharp-tongued business types.

It also reminds us that there are so many characters that are critical to telling the Showtime Lakers story properly – some are left behind. Too bad we didn’t get to see more of Sally Field and Morgan. The poetic dinner scene could easily be forgotten in an episode centered around the crucial matchup between the Celtics and the Lakers. But the bets of Magic’s soul and the Brotherhood of Magic’s family on and off the field are held together by scenes like this. Is that exactly what happened? winning time says it’s inconsequential because these are the matchups that audiences invest in the most. Not Lakers vs. Celtics or Bird vs. Magic, but Magic vs. Earvin. Also, anyone who watches this show and stands up for these Lakers then and now knows, “Fuck Boston.”

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