We reviewed HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty last week, and we’ll be recapping each episode this season. Spoiler-filled thoughts on the series premiere, “The Swan,” coming up just as soon as I enjoy my sanddab…
“The Swan” begins a dozen years after the events of the rest of the episode. Earvin Johnson Jr., better known to the world as Magic, is sitting in a doctor’s office, anxiously rubbing his hands, whispering inaudibly to himself. As he exits, the nurses and other staff gaze on him sadly, as if he were a dead man walking — which, as far as anyone rightly believed on November 5, 1991, he was. Magic had just been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which at the time was a death sentence. Two days later, he would announce his retirement from the NBA due to his condition, shocking not only the basketball world, but the world at large. It wasn’t just that AIDS was still largely believed to be a plague on the gay community, and that Magic was straight as far as anyone knew(*). It was that Magic Johnson was as famous and beloved for his exuberant life force as he was for his ability to throw no-look passes. Leaving aside what little we knew back then about Magic’s personal life, it seemed unfathomable that a man filled with so much energy and positive spirit could be so close to death.
(*) Give or take various juvenile, homophobic jokes about Magic kissing pal Isiah Thomas on the cheek at center court before tip-off of the 1988 NBA Finals.
Magic, of course, is still with us, as advancements in medical treatments for HIV have kept him alive and well 30-plus years later. (He even briefly played for the Lakers again in 1996.) It’s an unconventional choice to kick off this series, even in an era where too many shows default to in medias res openings. It’s very far removed in time from the series’ present-day action, nor does it exactly represent the end of the Showtime Lakers. (Their final title was a few years earlier, several key players had already moved on, and Magic had already begun to slow down as a player.) It’s not even the opening to Jeff Pearlman’s book (Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s) on which Winning Time is based. So why have creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, plus executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay, chosen to start here?
Maybe it’s to remind us that even people who transcend their chosen field, who are almost instantly among the very best ever to do what they do, are not invulnerable. Success can be fleeting, and every good time has to end eventually.
This show, though, is mostly about the start of a good time, and “The Swan” tells two stories in parallel: Jerry Buss negotiating to buy the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke, and Magic Johnson preparing to be chosen first overall in the draft by this same team. In some ways, Jerry and Magic are two very different men. One is white, one is Black. One is middle-aged, the other barely an adult. One is a wealthy (if cash-poor) real-estate mogul, the other is waiting for his first big payday after growing up in modest circumstances. But they are also kindred spirits, in particular when it comes to their irrepressible personalities. They seem to be smiling at every moment, tend to treat bad news as a mild inconvenience at best, and both have an eye for the ladies.
They are also played by actors of varying experience. John C. Reilly is a former Oscar nominee with credits dating back to the late Eighties, while Quincy Isaiah’s only acting job before this was in a student film. Yet they work so well here, both together and apart, as we see each man travel the route that will team them up as the two faces of this basketball team.
The Jerry scenes are a delight, and “The Swan” smartly contrasts him with the old-money arrogance of Cooke (played by Michael O’Keefe). Cooke wears a blazer and a tie; Buss frayed jeans and a shirt open to the navel. Jerry enjoys hanging out with Magic, while Cooke barely bothers to disguise his contempt for the Black players who make his team possible, referring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by his former name, Lew Alcindor, and simply calling Magic “boy” when he grows frustrated with their negotiation over the player’s rookie contract. Buss certainly has his own issues regarding women, but he’s not a hostile pig like Cooke, as Forum executive Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) can see before helping Jerry close the deal while Cooke is trying to screw him over. Jerry compares himself to a swan in that process — complete grace above the water and frantic paddling below — though he’s not nearly as graceful as he seems. (The combover alone creates far more problems than it solves, first impression-wise, even in a time before Michael Jordan made it more acceptable to embrace baldness.) Nonetheless, he’s able to outmaneuver Cooke and buy the team.
Magic entering the league is not quite the Old Money-versus-New Money battle(*) of Cooke and Buss, but Earvin Jr. is treated as something of a lightning rod. Lakers coach Jerry West thinks Magic is too tall to play point guard, even though the kid just helped win a college national championship at that position. In racially-coded language, the press treats him as an inferior player to his white college rival Larry Bird. Cooke seems uncomfortable with Magic’s flamboyant game and personalty. The team’s incumbent point guard, Norm Nixon (played well by the real Norm’s son, DeVaughn), feels rightly threatened by the prospect of a famous rookie coming in to take his spot. Even Magic’s parents, Earvin Sr. (Rob Morgan) and Christine (LisaGay Hamilton) appear to be a bit uncomfortable with their son’s professional plans: the devout Christine because she fears a basketball career will lead Earvin Jr. to wickedness, Earvin Sr. because Magic is already acting like he’s better than his old man. And his girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) breaks up with him rather than attempt a long-distance relationship once he’s playing in L.A.
(*) Who’s up for a Winning Time/Gilded Age crossover? I’d watch the hell out of Bertha Russell not only talking trash with Norm Nixon, but seeing who can wear the fancier coat while doing so.
When Magic and Norm wind up at the same white party — appropriately thrown by Donald Sterling, who would later buy the Clippers and even later be kicked out of the NBA for being too openly racist to be ignored — Norm challenges his would-be usurper to a game of one-on-one, in hopes of scaring Magic back to another year at Michigan State. It’s an unfair contest: Magic had otherworldly court sense and playmaking ability, but he was a middling athlete by NBA standards, and one-on-one wouldn’t play to his strengths, especially against a smaller and quicker opponent like this. Losing to Norm leaves him more humbled and sullen than we would expect, and it takes one more bit of Jerry Buss salesmanship — manipulating events so that Magic will wander onto the empty Forum court to imagine himself starring in real games there — to change his mind. With that, the two men with the perma-smiles have joined forces, and Buss gets to celebrate by lying down on the center court logo, screaming, “I fucking own this!” over and over again.
It is not a spoiler to say this will be far from the last time either Jerry or Magic will get to party on and around this court. But this is a charming start to their journey, regardless of how it will one day end.
Some other thoughts:
* I wrote about McKay’s various stylistic tics in that review on Thursday, so I won’t rehash the complaints here. Suffice it to say, though, the show does not calm down from here, which is good news if you love the different devices, and the cost of doing business if you don’t.
* Solomon Hughes is introduced as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the best possible way, in a recreation of Kareem’s classic cameo in Airplane!, which remains one of the all-time great examples of an athlete spoofing himself in a movie or show, if not the greatest. To add to the joke, we see Kareem being even meaner to “Joey” in real life than he is while playing co-pilot Roger Murdock.
* Prior to Magic’s arrival, the Lakers won only a single championship during their time in L.A. (after five wins back in Minneapolis), in 1972. The head coach for that team was Bill Sharman, who here (played by the always reliable Brett Cullen) serves as the team’s general manager. And its star player was Jerry West, who is introduced here (as played by Jason Clarke, swapping out his native Australian accent for a West Virginia growl) as a spectacularly profane, self-loathing man so tightly wound it’s a wonder he doesn’t constantly spring off the ground.
* Regarding Magic’s oft-discussed height, Google lists Quincy Isaiah as six feet three (which often but not always, for actors, means an inch or two shorter), which is much more of a traditional point guard height than the real Magic’s six-foot-nine-inch stature. The show plays with forced perspective at times to create the illusion of him being a bit taller, but this fictionalized Magic never seems as superhumanly large as the real guy. Isaiah’s good, though, and at a certain point you have to sacrifice certain physical details if you want to get the best performance possible.
* Finally, the 1979 NBA draft was one of two times in the Showtime dynasty when the team got the top pick despite having made the playoffs the season before. In this case, it was because the NBA’s rules at the time required any team signing a player in free agency to send a future first-round pick to that player’s former team. So because the Jazz signed Lakers forward Gail Goodrich in 1976, they had to forfeit their pick three years later after being the worst team in the league (and as they were about to move from New Orleans to Salt Lake City). In 1982, the Lakers had literally won an NBA championship 22 days before they were able to take James Worthy first overall thanks to a trade with Cleveland in February of 1980. Sometimes, you’re good, sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes, you’re both.