A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Acceptable Loss,” coming up just as soon as I wear some pants with my suit…
The season finale is called “Promised Land,” and its penultimate episode this week takes the Lakers all the way to the brink of such a place. They are four wins away from the NBA championship that would rescue Jerry Buss’ financially strapped operation and legitimize everything he and his brain trust have done to shake up the league in the past year.
Not everyone gets to make it to the promised land, though, whether it’s the story of Moses in the desert or these Showtime Lakers. By the time “Acceptable Loss” concludes, three key figures are left behind. Jack McKinney fails to reclaim his position as head coach once Buss realizes the ongoing extent of his cognitive impairment and chooses to stick with the Westhead-Riley duo over him. Spencer Haywood gets cut in a team vote after coming to the Forum high despite promising Kareem he would stay clean through the playoffs. And Jessie Buss’ long, colorful life comes to an end while her son’s team is celebrating a victory over the reigning NBA champion Seattle Supersonics. Life’ll kill ya if you’re not too careful. Or even when you are.
It is at once an incredibly busy episode and one of the show’s most effective ones, because the time has been taken to establish the key figures and conflicts so we understand the pain associated with all three acceptable losses.
Jeff Pearlman’s book opens with the author interviewing Jack McKinney, who lived nearly 40 years past the events of this NBA season. It’s a tragic little vignette, as the retired coach struggles to answer fairly basic questions about this team he shaped but did not get to finish the job with. (He is surprised — appropriately enough, given the structure of this episode — to be reminded that he ever coached Spencer Haywood.) The genius of Showtime — the constant fast breaks, the dual point guard offense decades before other teams began to regularly try it — was all his. If this season has done nothing else positive, it has hopefully restored his place in the legend of Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the rest.
But the season, and this episode, also acknowledges the messiness of his desire to reclaim the head coaching position he lost when his bicycle flipped over. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with his belief that the job should be his again once he was healthy, no matter how well the team had done under Paul and Pat. On the other, it is hard to argue that Jack actually is healthy. He gets lost walking through the bowels of the Forum. His vision and memory both come and go. When Jerry Buss — after trying and failing to outsource the decision to Jerry West — shows up at the McKinney household to declare that he’s chosen Jack over Paul and Pat, Jack doesn’t even recognize him, sending Buss fleeing to his car before things can get worse. It’s an ignoble end to what should have been the crowning achievement of Jack’s career, but there’s no way he was in condition to coach a team on the verge of a title(*).
(*) McKinney coached the Indiana Pacers for the next four seasons before his career came to an end in 1984 after a brief stint with the then-Kansas City Kings. His faculties never returned in their entirety: There were accounts both during and after that time of players doing things like writing their names on their sneakers so he could properly identify them during practices.
Also not in condition to participate in the Finals: Spencer Haywood, who tries and fails to quit cocaine cold turkey at Kareem’s behest. Haywood hasn’t been as prominent this season as other players like Kareem, Magic, or even Norm Nixon. But when you have an actor as good and nuanced as Wood Harris, you can get a lot out of a little. The writers and Harris did a good job of tracking Haywood’s downfall due to age, his accidental feud with Paul Westhead, and his drug addiction. (Cocaine was a scourge of the league in this period, with the careers of other star players like John Lucas, David Thompson, and Bernard King all being altered or outright ended over their drug use.) It’s not presented as a simple binary, where Haywood turns to cocaine to deal with his marginalization from the lineup, then is able to stay clean when he starts playing again and playing well. Addiction is more pernicious and complicated than that, as we see here. After Kareem’s scolding, Haywood is able to white-knuckle it, and he balls out in the earlier playoff rounds, providing the veteran muscle next to Kareem that Jack McKinney wanted all along. But even individual and team success aren’t enough to keep that monkey off his back. Haywood relapses in front of his captain, and it’s Kareem who ultimately casts the deciding vote to kick him off the team rather than let him sit quietly on the end of the bench and then go into rehab after the Finals.
Throughout the episode, whenever Haywood is on the verge of using, we see quick glimpses of what appears to be a white overseer on a plantation. After the vote goes against him, Haywood explains those visions to Kareem: They’re from his childhood in Mississippi, on what may as well have been a plantation even though his parents were technically sharecroppers. The field boss was a light-skinned Black man named Quinn who took pleasure in suggesting young Spencer would spend his entire life tilling these fields. Haywood transcended that prediction, and along the way forever changed the path to the NBA, but there is physically leaving a place and there is mentally leaving it. Given those hardships — and the broader trauma of being Black in a country and world where even Haywood’s mother admitted that God just loved white people more — is it any wonder that Haywood turned to drugs?
Haywood responds to being kicked off the team by visiting a sketchy friend who has lots of guns. When the man asks whom Spencer wants him to kill, his cocaine-addled answer is both simple and insane: “The Lakers.” We’ll see how this resolves in the finale — and no, Winning Time did not invent the idea of Haywood trying to hire an assassin — but the only person to die this week does so of natural causes, with Jerry Buss pulling the plug on Jessie after he finally accepts that she is not coming back from all the damage the cancer has done to her.
It takes a while for him to understand this, because the same overgrown-child qualities that serve him so well in other aspects of his life blind him to the possibility here. If he is old enough to have a mother die of cancer, the mental math seems to go, then he’s now too old to act the way that he always has. He loves Jessie too much for that, but he also loves his Peter Pan existence too much, so he responds angrily whenever Claire, Jessie’s doctor, or anyone else suggests he should be preparing for her death and making other decisions accordingly. (He refuses, for instance, to let Claire simply hire Jeanie as a full-time marketing associate because he wants her caring for her grandmother for what he is convinced will be a long time.) But however much he lashes out at the world, Jerry can see that his time with his mom is running out, and he arranges one last escapade for three generations of the Buss clan, as he, Jessie, and Jeanie break into an old mansion he and Jessie often visited in their younger years. It’s a reminder of the colorful relationship the two had, and how very unlike the standard mother-son dynamic it could be, and he seems to think the power of those memories may be enough to get her through the playoffs so she can see her son hoist the championship trophy. Instead, she collapses moments after promising to stick around that long, and Jerry watches the rest of the Western Conference playoffs from her hospital room as he works up the nerve to admit defeat and let the doctors turn off her life support.
The story of the show has expanded so much over the course of this season that it can be easy to forget what a crucial part John C. Reilly has been throughout. But he, Sally Field, and Hadley Robinson are just wonderful here, in the good moments and the bad. Winning Time understands that Jerry turned the Lakers into a family business (Jeanie still runs them today, although things have not gone well the last couple of years). Even happy families can’t have everything, and right as Jerry Buss is approaching the idea of the thing he thought he wanted most, he first has to lose his beloved parent. It’s incredibly bittersweet, and a potent conclusion to an episode setting us up for some huge drama as Magic’s Lakers take on his idol’s 76ers. If you know how this championship series went, you know the finale will not lack for exciting incident. But nor did “Acceptable Loss.”
Some other thoughts:
* When a song is used in memorable fashion in a movie or TV show, there’s always the question of whether it should be retired from future use. I will probably always think of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in association with the foot-chase scene from early in the pilot to The Americans, but I don’t know that that show should own the song forever and ever. (The same episode, after all, also uses Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which arguably should have been retired after Miami Vice used it.) All of which is to say that “Acceptable Loss” makes very good use of “Tusk” as the montage music for the Lakers’ run through the Western Conference playoffs, up through the well-earned moment when the stoic Kareem, after much prodding from Magic, finally allows himself to smile at the notion of his first trip back to the Finals in since being traded from Milwaukee to the Lakers. I’ll allow it.
* The actual Showtime Lakers have stepped up their attacks on Winning Time in recent weeks. Jerry West has demanded an apology and a retraction for the series’ portrayal of him as a profane rage-aholic, and has threatened to somehow take his grievance to the Supreme Court. And renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dabbled in TV criticism with an essay saying the series “isn’t just deliberately dishonest, it’s drearily dull.” If I were one of the figures being dramatized here, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it either. But the difference between Winning Time and nearly every other docudrama that has premiered this spring — and there have been a lot of those — is that its subjects are not only incredibly famous, but have prominent members of the media who covered them back in the day and are now available to support the argument that a lot of this is heavily fictionalized. This is the way docudrama has always worked — bending the broader framework of a true event to tell a thematically interesting story — and it’s rare that the subjects have a big enough platform to fire back the way West and his allies so consistently have.
* But while on the subject of the real events versus the show, several of the incidents presented here were in some ways even more dramatic than how the episode depicts them. Jack McKinney, for instance, found out he wasn’t getting his job back not directly from either of the Jerrys, but from his son, John, who got a call from a reporter after Buss announced the decision to the media without bothering to inform Jack first. Spencer Haywood, meanwhile, actually was still on the roster when the Finals began, though he barely played due to his problems. And his resentment over that boiled over into a fight with rookie guard Brad Holland that resulted in Paul Westhead suspending him for the rest of the series.
* Finally, I’ve singled out both Julianne Nicholson and Gillian Jacobs as members of the larger ensemble who seem wildly overqualified to play small dutiful-wife roles here. With this one, they at least each get a spicy monologue to tear into: Nicholson as Cranny McKinney gets fed up with Jack risking his health for the sake of his job, Jacobs as Chris Riley assures Pat that if the Lakers choose Jack over him and Paul, that’s the team’s mistake and not his. Neither is quite as meaty a speech as Haywood’s tale of his childhood, but on the whole both actresses can at least come out of the season having reminded people that they can do a lot more than stand in the background looking beatific and supportive.