A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Is That All There Is?” coming up just as soon as you come back with a real business plan…
Among the many conflicts that Winning Time established in its series premiere was incumbent Lakers coach Jerry West’s opposition to drafting Magic Johnson with the first overall pick. West mostly argued in basketball terms regarding his belief that a six-foot-nine man handling the ball as much as a point guard (a position traditionally played by guys at least a half a foot shorter) would become a turnover machine in the pros. But West — who Winning Time introduced with the chyron “Has never been happy” — also came right out and said that he didn’t trust Magic because “he smiles too much,” adding, “This is a man’s game, and he’s soft.” Here in 1979, West is still revered as a giant of the sport — the model for the NBA logo itself; the only man to ever win a Finals MVP trophy in a losing cause; the greatest Los Angeles Laker to date — but he is also a miserable, profane sonuvabitch, temperamentally unsuited to coach a walking ray of sunshine like Magic, or to work for an owner as gregarious and fun-loving as Jerry Buss. Long before he resigns his position in the episode’s closing seconds, it’s clear that this is an untenable situation for all parties.
The reality is more complicated. News accounts prior to Jerry Buss’ official purchase of the team said that West was likely to be fired or resign upon the ownership change, for instance. (Buss on West in The New York Times in late May of 1979: “I know Jerry is not as enamored with coaching as he thought he would be. I don’t know that my presence is going to change this.”) And various NBA lifers, like esteemed basketball reporter Marc Stein, have spent the past week pushing back on the show’s characterization of West as a relentlessly miserable, profane rage-aholic. As often happens in a fictionalized account of a true story, embellishments are made and personality traits are exaggerated to generate conflict. The real West was skeptical about drafting Magic, and he has talked extensively over his lifetime about his difficulty finding satisfaction and joy in his many accomplishments. Dramatic license is taken all the time in docudramas, especially ones like this that exist in a heightened state of reality.
The question is less about whether the show is being fair to Jerry West than about whether this take on him — which is at the center of “That’s All There Is” — is interesting enough to be worth the deviations from reality. That’s a tricky question to answer. Yes, Jason Clarke’s performance can be pretty broad, at times bordering on hillbilly cosplay. Even within these two episodes, though, Winning Time has established itself as a show with room for a wide range of performance styles, from Gaby Hoffmann’s relatively understated Claire, to something huge like what Clarke is doing, to something in between like John C. Reilly as our other main Jerry(*). And Clarke is often really funny in this role — particularly in the sequence this week where West tries sweet-talking Norm Nixon about their mutual mistrust of Magic, cut together with flashbacks to all the times West cursed out Norm in practices for being not worthy of playing point guard for him.
(*) Because the show has two prominent Jerrys — with a third one coming up next week — we will use last names as often as possible here. But if there’s a reference just to “Jerry,” it will be about Buss.
But those bigger comic elements to the performance can clash with this week’s attempt to dig under the angry surface and figure out how West got this way. There are flashbacks to his childhood in West Virginia, where he and his parents were grieving the death of his older brother, David, in the Korean War. We see a glimpse of him in 1972 after winning the NBA title he’d been denied for so long, still so numb and miserable that he fits right in with a group of mourners at a wake later that night. And when his once and future boss Bill Sharman comes by the house to look for him in the summer of ’79, West is curled up on the floor in his underwear, his usual anhedonia curdled into pure nihilism, rambling on about how we all inevitably become worm food. The show tries to play the scene for both dark comedy and insightful drama, but never quite splits the difference.
This week, Adam McKay yields the directorial reigns to one of his Don’t Look Up stars, Jonah Hill, who maintains the thoroughly coked-up style McKay deployed in the premiere. It remains an attention-getting approach that can at times be a distracting one. Would a slightly more restrained take on Jerry West, for instance, have struck a better balance between absurdity and pathos? Still, some of the tricks Hill deploys here work very well, particularly in pitting the show’s two central characters against this week’s antagonists.
Having now secured the team, Jerry Buss gets to enjoy attending the NBA’s annual owners meetings on his home turf in Beverly Hills. But being an owner and being accepted by the other owners are two different things. And when it comes to the approval of his peers — especially one he hopes will be a future rival — Buss keeps coming up short. Jerry West spent most of his playing career trying to get over a mountain occupied by the Boston Celtics — and particularly by Hall of Fame center Bill Russell and Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach, who won nine championships together in that configuration, and another two after Russell became player-coach while Auerbach focused solely on his role in the team’s front office. Auerbach is introduced in stark black and white, puffs of cigar smoke circling all around him — a figure out of basketball’s past who is eager to keep things the way they’ve always been. It is the show’s style and substance working hand in hand, especially given the relish with which Massachusetts native Michael Chiklis tears into the role of Auerbach. As Red’s sycophants use racially coded language to talk about how Black players and their style of play is responsible for the league’s low TV ratings, he agrees, insisting that “decent folks” — i.e., ones whose skin tone matches his — will cream themselves over his team’s new white savior, Larry Bird(*).
(*) The Lakers organization is not immune to racism, either, as we see the team’s longtime play-by-play man, Chick Hearn, object to the notion of trading for veteran power forward Spencer Haywood because of Haywood’s “back-to-Africa malarkey.”
Red has utter disdain for Jerry, looking at him as a rube who exists only to help maintain Red’s place at the top of the pyramid. Jerry thinks he can charm Red with his winning disposition, while Red assumes he can hustle the financially strapped Jerry out of some overpriced contracts. Neither man quite gets what he wants, but in their argument at center court at the Forum, Jerry’s confidence about the future is prophetic. The Celtics don’t exactly get erased from the history books, but the big brother-little brother relationship between the two franchises very much reversed itself after the Buss family took ownership of the Lakers(*), with L.A. winning 11 championships in the last four decades to only four for Boston, and holding a winning record in NBA Finals matchups with their archrivals. Jerry Buss proclaims himself to be the future of basketball, and he’s right.
(*) The episode also brings in the great Sally Field to play Jerry’s mother, Jessie Buss, who takes over as the Lakers’ bookkeeper to the dismay of Claire Rothman. Between Jessie doing the accounting and Jeanie dreaming up promotional ideas for Claire, the team is very much turning out to be a family business.
Back in Lansing, young Earvin Johnson Jr. tells the story of how he got the nickname Magic in the first place. He doesn’t seem to love it, and the show almost treats it like a separate identity. Superman comics often raise the question of whether Clark Kent is the real guy or Kal-El is, and Winning Time is asking the same thing of the future superstar. Is he truly Magic Johnson, the smiling people pleaser who seems comfortable in every room? Or is Magic just a guise for Earvin Johnson, who remains uncertain about his pro prospects, is already feeling the strain of people hitting him up for money, and who cannot curb his sexual appetites in the slightest. “Is That All There Is?” seems to be arguing for Earvin as the man and Magic as the myth, particularly in how he treats ex-girlfriend Cookie and her new beau, Brian, who belongs to the same church as Magic’s mother. It’s apparently not enough for Magic to sleep with every woman he can; he also has to treat Cookie like territory to be marked, publicly humiliating Brian in a pickup basketball game, at one point looming over him from behind as Hill cuts to two dogs having sex in a similar position. (The Aristocrats! Thank you, thank you. Try the veal, and don’t forget to tip your waitress.) Cookie sees through him, though, at one point assuring him that while Mrs. Johnson may act cranky when Magic gives her gifts like a fancy new bathtub, his mother still loves him — just “not as much as you love you. The rest of us just coming off the bench.”
As with the show’s depiction of Jerry West, it’s an unflattering portrait of a Hall of Famer, but not a particularly unfair one. Magic’s sexual escapades were an open secret in NBA circles for years, and then became very public after his HIV diagnosis. And the stories work compellingly in parallel. Magic is stepping into West’s shoes as the lead ball-handler and face of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Both were also paired at one point in their careers with aging Hall of Fame centers: Wilt Chamberlain for West, and Kareem for Magic.) Both have every reason to feel on top of the world, but something gnaws at each of them. Magic is much better able to hide it, so that only Cookie and his parents can see to varying degrees what he’s wrestling with, where the show’s version of Jerry West is an exposed nerve, raging at the world rather than enjoying the spoils of being The Logo. They should be a great player-coach tandem, but West ultimately recognizes that he’s not really suited to coach any team — one led by Magic Johnson in particular. So, he concludes the episode by surprising everyone but us in the audience with his plans to quit for the good of the team. Happiness lies ahead for the Lakers, but how deeply will either Magic or Jerry West be able to feel it?