Winning Time has plenty to entertain everyone – from depressed Lakers fans to b-ball novices

Chronicling a fascinating period in basketball – and some of its greatest stories – is Adam McKay’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynastystreaming on Neon from March 8 (also on Sky Go March 8 and on SoHo from March 15). Letting John C. Reilly show off his dramatic and comedic chops, it’s an R-rated, no-holds-barred, reputations-be-damned look back at 1980s L.A., writes James Nokise.

In 2022, the Los Angles Lakers are having a pretty embarrassing season. They look a shadow of the team that won their seventeenth championship just two years ago and not a single player, especially LeBron James, appears to be enjoying themselves. Even his record 56 points over the weekend looked less an act of dominance as much as one of defiance.

Thankfully for Lakers fans, HBO has come along with Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a fast and fun, dramatic new series looking at the origins of LA’s legendary “Showtime” basketball, which revolutionised the modern game back in the 1980s.

In that time when the game was not truly global yet, before Michael Jordan asserted his domination of the NBA, the two biggest names in basketball were Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Their rivalry through the decade became must-watch sporting television, and between them they won 8 championships (Johnson 5, Bird 3) and took part in every Finals series of the decade.

Up until the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, there was a strong case to make for the most devastating moment in Lakers franchise history being the HIV diagnosis of Magic Johnson. His subsequent retirement, the media frenzy that surrounded it, and the way in which it brought the NBA’s issues with homophobia, and a lack of knowledge around STIs, to the fore was a low point for the league.

Winning Time is based on the best selling book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by sports journalist Jeff Pearlman. Adapting it are Max Borestein, who wrote Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island (and continues to contribute to the MonsterVerse series they’re part of), and Rodney Barnes, best known for Everybody Hates Chris and cult comedy The Boondocks. “Godzilla meets The Boondocks” is a somewhat crazy, yet not inaccurate, description of the spirit of the show. There are paralleled family dynamics, multi-million dollar egos, and the fate of a city’s fans at stake. Throw in a healthy amount of Ted Lasso-ish male archetype deconstruction, and the show strikes a captivating chord.

Executive producer Adam McKay, the “entertain you while educating you” director of The Big Short, Vice and Don’t Look Up, has his creative fingerprints all over this series’ design. His trademark editing, graphics, and fourth wall breaking tricks are in play, which perfectly suits explaining the complicated sports entrepreneurship legacy to a wider viewership. It’s almost cynical how he inserts sex into the narrative to keep the audience engaged, but for this particular story, and its dramatic conclusion, it actually makes sense. The 1980s Lakers made basketball “sexy”, and exploring the many philosophies behind not just the change in the game, but all the encompassing experience, leads to some inevitable tragic but comedic misadventures.

Anyone thinking Winning Time is another entertaining, if somewhat glorifying, retelling of basketball history, a la 2020’s documentary series of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance, will be in for a surprise. This is an R-rated, no-holds-barred, reputations-be-damned look back at 1980s Los Angeles, with the highs and lows that entails. But within that circus, there is an incredible collection of titanic characters who somehow take an NBA being out-rated on TV by bowling, and lay the foundation for the global billion dollar sports behemoth.

For depressed Lakers fans, it also has the added incentive of watching two of their greats (Johnson and Kareem “The Captain” Abdul-Jabbar) go through trials and tribulations before triumph. It’s hard to have spoilers about historical events, but if you don’t know about Magic Johnson’s rookie season, then just know it is one of the greatest stories in sports folk lore.

Much like the famous “Showtime” offence that the Lakers ran, Winning Time moves quickly between the large ensemble of characters, never sticking for long with one of the main players before jumping to another. If there is a point guard to this ensemble, then it is John C. Reilly as Lakers owner Dr Jerry Buss. The millionaire playboy philanthropist is a perfect role for him, allowing Reilly’s dramatic and comedic chops to both get a full workout. Newcomers Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes work great together as the irrepressible Magic and deep thinking Kareem. It’s hard enough casting for characters that are larger than life, but especially so when they’re 6ft 9 and 7ft 2.

This isn’t a boys’ club either, with Sally Field, Tamera Tomakili, Gabby Hoffman and Hadley Robinson stealing scenes as matriarch Jessie Buss, Earletha “Cookie” Johnson, venue managing pioneer Claire Rothaman, Jeanie Buss (Jerry’s daughter and current Lakers owner).

Reilly is more a ringmaster than narrator but, like Johnson’s playmaking, he has everyone lifting their game. Whether it’s respect for the real-life inspirations, the script, McKay, or a combination of all three, Winning Time features a number of star turns, some putting in career-best work.

It’s the type of show to make a viewer want to double-check 40-year-old recordings of basketball highlights on YouTube after each episode. Even basketball fans will be wanting to fact check online and ask “did that really happen?”. It is a long time since the events depicted occurred, long enough for multiple accounts to have been documented over the decades. Though, with the particular “insights” that the show gives into the Buss family, it’s possible everyone involved in Winning Time will receive lifetime bans from Lakers games.

Should that be the case, then fans might want to re-watch that LeBron 56-point game. If they zoom in close, sitting front court, they’ll see John C. Reilly, cheering the Lakers on. He’s either an incredible method actor, or a trolling comedic genius. You decide.

The “Showtime” Lakers won their final championship in 88. Kareem retired the next season. That’s a decade’s worth of stories, and if Winning Time can get as much out of each year as they’ve got out of this first one, they might have a dynasty of their own.