'Winning Time' Recap: The Story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Rolling Stone
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‘Winning Time’ Recap: The Captain and the Kid

A spotlight episode on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar traces his evolution to activist — and how he made peace with Magic

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A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Pieces of a Man,” coming up just as soon as my weasel watches this…

Though Magic Johnson was the flashy new addition to this Lakers roster, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the face of the team. He was perhaps the greatest college basketball player ever, was the first overall pick in the draft a decade before Magic, had already won an NBA title in Milwaukee, and had been in Los Angeles since 1975. He sparred with Bruce Lee both in real life and on the big screen, and acted more frequently throughout the Seventies than you might expect from a seven-foot-one man with an extremely stilted line delivery. (Here he is as “Man Stuck In Car” in a 1974 episode of the paramedic drama Emergency!) He was a big deal, one of the cornerstones of the NBA in those years. But those also happened to be a period during which interest in the NBA plummeted. There were a variety of reasons for that, but one was that the game simply wasn’t very entertaining to watch for a while. And as Jack McKinney’s first film session illustrated in last week’s episode, the plodding, deliberate play of dominant big men like Kareem was a huge factor in the game’s aesthetic issues.

But Kareem was a divisive figure for off-court reasons as well. He followed in the tradition of activist Sixties athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown by boycotting the 1968 Olympics to protest racism in America. And, like Ali, he converted to Islam and took on a new name (though he was still going by Lew Alcindor until 1971). He also had a personality that both fans and many teammates took as aloof, if not outright disdainful. Wilt Chamberlain (who played center for the Lakers a few years before Kareem came over in a trade) liked to say that “nobody loves Goliath,” and Kareem was a particularly unlovable Goliath, which did not help a league that was bleeding fans for much of his reign.

“Pieces of a Man” positions Kareem in direct spiritual opposition to Magic. Kareem is by this point in the story old, by basketball standards, with joints that ache and hair that’s rapidly thinning; Magic is young and full of energy. Kareem views basketball primarily as a public platform that allows him to speak out on the social and political issues he cares more about; Magic lives to play. Kareem also has no interest in entertaining the crowd, and admits to a fellow Muslim that he feels like a clown; putting on a show so people will love him is what Magic cares about the most.

It’s a conflicting approach to life and the game that would take these two years to work out in real life. Winning Time does not attempt to solve the life issue in the course of an hour, though it does let the star duo work through a lot of their basketball issues.

Like the show’s Jerry West-centric second episode, “Pieces of a Man” opens with a flashback to its central character’s early years, as we see Kareem at a mosque in 1968 announcing his conversion and his new name. Though much of the hour concerns itself with present-day issues for the Lakers — Jack McKinney and Paul Westhead’s anxiety about whether their system will work, Claire Rothman scrambling to get the Forum ready in time for the 1979 home opener — we keep getting glimpses of the younger Kareem. We see Jack watching game film of his center with UCLA and the Bucks, but we also see the teenage Kareem wrestling with the fact that his father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., is a member of the NYPD, particularly in the aftermath of white cop Thomas Gilligan shooting and killing a young Black man named James Powell under extremely questionable circumstances. (Powell’s death kicked off the Harlem uprising of 1964.) In the present, Kareem talks with his girlfriend Cheryl (Sarah Ramos from Parenthood) about planning to retire after this season once his finances are in order.

Kareem does not seem comfortable anywhere, not even with the team of which he is the captain. The franchise trades for veteran power forward Spencer Haywood (played by Wood Harris) shortly before the season-opening game against the then-San Diego Clippers. You can see Kareem finding a kindred spirit in Haywood, who is not only close in age, but also a revolutionary in his own way, having sued the NBA to abolish the old rule that players were ineligible to enter the league until four years after their high school class graduated. Neither seems to fit in on a roster full of young, energetic players who are less concerned with the larger world around them. (When Norm Nixon suggests that small forward Jamaal Wilkes — another Muslim convert who changed the name he played under at UCLA — might be able to get through to Kareem, Jamaal dismisses the link, suggesting that unlike the captain, he doesn’t want to die in a holy war.)

Warrick Page/HBO

Where Jerry West treated Kareem as the team’s unquestioned focus, Jack McKinney sees Magic as the engine of his fast-break offense, and Kareem as a potential roadblock. The new coach attempts to manipulate the rookie, claiming that Kareem himself has asked, “When is that young buck gonna take over?” As Cookie has talked about in past episodes, Magic loves being loved, and he goes all-in on trying to assume the mantle of the new team leader. He brings a boom box into the locker room to play “EJ the DJ,” and interrupts one of Kareem’s massages to pitch him on a new partnership — presented here as a fake Seventies cop show partnering up “Cap” and “Buck” — where he can take the veteran’s game to new heights. Kareem doesn’t want to hear any of this from either Magic or McKinney. He knows what works — he nails his prediction for his scoring output in the Clippers game — and he disdains Magic’s eagerness to please. As much as Kareem fears being a clown, he sees Magic as a more overt one. Magic is unsurprisingly hurt when Kareem suggests that he’s not acting right, and eventually their philosophical fight spills over into a physical one, with teammates needing to separate them.

But you can see throughout the episode that Kareem knows he’s losing the battles he intended to fight. The rest of the team is having fun, and when he enters the room, the vibe immediately darkens. (Much like how Magic’s mother tends to bring down the mood.) After the fight with Magic, he drives around thinking back to being booed after publicly changing his name, to Thomas Gilligan and James Powell, to images of other Black men gunned down by white cops, to Brown and Ali setting an example for him, to Martin and Malcolm and other inspirational figures gone too soon. In the episode’s emotional centerpiece, he wanders into a mosque feeling spiritually defeated, and is reminded that his new name means he is an instrument of God, and not the Almighty himself. He does not need to shoulder as heavy a burden as he thinks he does, and the lightness follows him for the remainder of the hour. Before the home opener, he finally puts his hands in with everyone else for the “Team!” chant. He gives Magic an approving nod before they run out to be introduced to the Lakers faithful, and when the game begins, we see him running the court, catching brilliant Magic passes and even throwing a few impressive outlet passes of his own. If he has not converted completely to Magic’s way of living, he has at least acknowledged that there’s more than one way to play the game they share, and it sets the Lakers off on an impressive run to start the year.

“Pieces of a Man” is an excellent spotlight on a character who looms large in Lakers legend, but who has been mostly relegated to the background so far. But the episode’s title sadly seems to apply as much to Jack McKinney as it does to the center who feels pulled in so many directions. Having proved, at least in a small sample size, that his offensive philosophy can work, Jack is granted a rare day off, and opts to meet up with Paul for some tennis. But because his wife Cranny has taken the car for the day, he decides to ride his son’s bike, and has a horrible accident that flips him over the handlebars and into the street, where he lies looking like his skull has been literally broken into pieces.

Earlier in the hour, Jerry Buss admits to Frank that he fears the Lakers will become the latest new toy he loses interest in after a short while. Jack’s accident creates such a big complication for the franchise that it unfortunately seems unlikely Jerry will have reason to grow bored anytime soon.

Warrick Page/HBO

Some other thoughts:

* There’s a fair amount of non-Kareem material this week regarding the run-up to the home opener. Claire is worried about both filling seats and appeasing Jerry Buss’s many specific and ever-shifting demands about the Forum Club. Frank quits over not being consulted about the plan to technically sell the team to Jerry’s ex-wife, and the first group of potential Laker Girls walk out when their dancing style is not appreciated. In the end, much of this works out: Claire bribes an inspector to make sure the Forum Club opens on schedule; Frank returns (in a manner suggesting he and Jerry have been through this before); and Jeanie identifies a young Paula Abdul as the foundation of a more overtly sexualized Laker Girls squad. But some trouble seems to remain for the Buss family. As happened last week, she also seems deeply conflicted about turning her dad’s grosser fantasies into the reality of the Lakers brand, but Jerry looks like a little kid on Christmas watching Paula and the new squad dance. And Jessie misses the home opener because she seems to be losing her faculties.

* Yes, Spencer Haywood really did circumcise himself, having been convinced by one of his older brothers that it was the only way to avoid insanity later in life.

* Haywood’s lawsuit against the league paved the way for college players like Magic to go pro after a season or two, and eventually for the top players to join the NBA directly from high school, including Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant, who appears briefly here in toddler form, watching from the stands as the Lakers take on his dad, Clippers big man Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.

* As he begins his broadcasting career, Pat Riley straightens out his hair and briefly attempts to push it back in the style of his father, but he hasn’t yet figured out the hair products he’ll need to create the slicked-back look that will become his signature. In the moment, the more pressing issue is that Chick Hearn keeps a tight rein on his new partner, with an obnoxious gesture of closing his fist whenever he needs Pat to shut up — which is often.

* Finally, in the background of the early scene at Kareem’s house is a news report about Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, including promises to “Make America great again.” This was, indeed, one of Reagan’s campaign slogans.

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