Jerry West is out for blood. The real Jerry West, that is, not the Jason Clarke avatar we saw in the first season of winning time. The flesh and bones West, who is as much a part of the Lakers organization as Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson, is really pissed off. He recently requested a retraction and apology for his portrayal in the Adam McKay-produced series. However, HBO stood firm, saying that the portrayal “is based on exhaustive fact-finding and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands firmly behind our talented creators and cast as they brought to the screens a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history.”
To be fair to West, it’s quite a wicked performance. So much so that the Lakers’ real-life counterparts have spoken out in favor of West and against the show’s dramatization. West is portrayed as an alcoholic, verbally abusive megalomaniac bleeding purple and gold. But he’s not alone in his unflattering portrayal. None of the Lakers’ main players are spared their sins when they are revealed on-screen for entertainment. Before all this fanfare, West was known as something of a grandfather to the NBA. He was a salt of the earth from West Virginia who got us on our knees to tell us how he imagined Kobe Bryant’s game-winning alley-oop against Shaquille O’Neal in the comeback of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference before it happened.
While West has plenty of reason to fret over the dismantling of his “Logo” image, we’re talking art here, not real life. Although based on real events, it is a dramatization and neither HBO nor winning time ever argued against this central precedent. But in Episode 9 “Acceptable Loss” they might have revealed their greatest conceit without anticipating their contradiction. At the beginning of the episode, Jerry Buss must decide whether to reinstate Jack McKinney as head coach after his near-fatal head injury, or keep Paul Westhead, who was McKinney’s protégé, and his lackey, whom McKinney now regards as his personal Brutus. Retaining Westhead would eventually retire McKinneysignaling his inability to coach a franchise following his injury.
After consulting with all the Lakers elders, he turns to West for advice. West dismisses his request as the blame will no doubt “come back to me” for any answer he gives. Buss tells him behind closed doors, “No one needs to know it came from you.” This is a tongue-in-cheek retort, as this conversation is said to be based on extensive research into the operations of the Lakers Showtime team. More than that, we’re watching it unfold in front of us and letting the whole world know what West will ultimately say and do. Eventually, if we’re to follow logic, Buss told someone he had asked West for his advice and subsequently revealed who West inevitably chose before a phone game got that information to the writers of winning time just in time for this dramatization of the facts. As with most things, Buss has proven to be an unreliable confidante and narrator. Strangely, that’s one of the main elements that make it winning time such pure entertainment if not historical fact.
Ultimately, the decision rests with Buss, knee-deep in depression over the impending death of his mother. If winning time exaggerate the truth or twist it for entertainment purposes, the facts remain the same. History tells us who stayed, who was exiled and who died. Knowing this, it is up to the audience to decide whether the surrounding evidence is fact or fiction.
That being said, we should enjoy the powerful performances that make us question this reality. This episode features some of the best work from John C. Reilly, Sally Field, and Wood Harris on the show. All three face their own mortality, with varying outcomes. Buss stays the course as an owner with a unique mission of winning, Spencer Haywood is relegated after his drug addiction overtakes his game, and Jessie Buss, the loving matriarch of the Lakers organization, dies of cCancer. Each of these actors gives us the full range of emotions on the way to their inevitable destiny. Reilly reveals the cracks in Buss’ mirage as the ultimate salesman. As his mother’s health deteriorates, he turns to the huckster full-time until the levees burst, and he’s left alone in his filth. As the Buss matriarch, Field reveals the wounds left behind as she helped her family go from rags to riches. She’s exhausted and living a life carrying the men of her life on her back. Through their performance, we see the sacrifice that has led the Lakers to the legacy they are today. The great actress of all time explodes with power and majesty in every frame, even as she shuffles and stumbles through the scenes as a woman who comes to terms with death.
In his two-decade career, Harris has portrayed villains with little complexity beyond their money-related motivations. In the performance of Haywood, he found a vehicle to use his heart-rending acting skills. Of all the basketball players portrayed in this series, Harris’ Haywood is the greatest tour de force. We cheer for crack-addict Haywood, who espouses black power excellence in one scene and drug-addicted desperation in the next. The scene in the dressing room where Kareem confronts Abdul-Jabbar Haywood with the news that he has been fired is heartbreaking. Knowing that Haywood would be expelled before the Lakers reached the promised land gives him a Moses-like gravitas as a complicated and flawed veteran who fell victim to all the bounty Los Angeles had to offer. It’s also an unheeded warning for young Star Magic, who watches one of his teammates succumb to LA’s excesses while beginning his own relationship with the city’s sins.
As the series comes to an end, it’s best not to take this series as truth, but as a forewarning that all that glitters is not gold. As well as winning time relies on spectacle in its slick editing, all is not as it seems in the Showtime epic. Beneath the bright lights of Hollywood lurks a dark side that can twist even the most accepted truths. Those involved have the right to argue how their story is told. The audience should be thankful they survived.