Winning new docu-drama on the flamboyant rise of the LA Lakers — and basketball itself
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
What: Miniseries, 10 episodes, 55 mins.
When: March 6, new episodes Sundays
Why you should watch: Riveting mini-series about hard-to-imagine time in the late ’70s when the NBA was a fringe sport and conservative white owners resisted the change that would ultimately transform basketball. John C. Reilly is madly convincing as eccentric Lakers owner Jerry Buss while Quincy Isaiah is magical as wide-eyed Magic Johnson
Seems almost impossible to imagine a time when basketball didn’t challenge soccer for supremacy as “the world’s game” and when the NBA had a hard time filling arena seats. But Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty captures this period, the late ’70s to early ’80s when visionary — somewhat unhinged? — new owners and flashy, super-talented players transformed the league from dowdy to dazzling.
Winning Time explores ‘80s handling of issues of race, gender and power viewed with fresh eyes in the current context. Lakers veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was often painted as a malcontent at the time, his name change and embrace of Islam ruffling feathers, but his powerful portrayal by Solomon Hughes reveals a committed activist and leader who felt justified in his grumpiness because of systemic racism.
The series features many great performances, including John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, the somewhat lovable, totally out of control visionary Lakers owner; Adrian Brody as Pat Riley, an ex-player vying for a coaching job; Jason Segel as an assistant coach; and Sally Field as Buss’s addled, accountant mother.
Quincy Isaiah is magical as Magic Johnson, wide-eyed, horny and mostly happy as he seeks to grab the spotlight he is certain has been waiting for him.
There’s an inside-joke feel to the production as characters routinely make wry “stage whispers” to the camera and they share details that feel ripped from the pages of a personal diary. This intimacy is enhanced by the retro home-movie feel, which makes some of the shots feel as if unlocked from a family archive.
There’s a beautiful, washed-out look to Winning, whose retro vibe comes wrapped in faded yellows, browns and greens. There are also slashes of red as the film occasionally jumps back into vintage film technologies, including a Super-8 look featuring the jarring effects of a film coming loose from its sprockets in a movie projector.
With many currently casting their eyes longingly back to the ’90s and imagining simpler, somewhat wilder times, Winning Time takes viewers further back to an era were accountability for many was minimal, sex and drugs were incidental and ever present, and a modern future seemed to hold endless promise. Richard Pryor and Rod Stewart show up on the Lakers party scene where real stars collide with ersatz glamour.
You don’t have to be a hardcore hoops fan to enjoy this tale of transitional transformation, but there’s enough eye-opening inside basketball to satisfy a hungry sports nerd as we see the game being turned into a flashier enterprise on and off the court. Highly recommended.