A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Invisible Man,” coming up just as soon as I blame the dramatist in me…
“Invisible Man” takes its title from a conversation Magic and Kareem have prior to the Lakers’ season-defining road game against their arch-rivals, the Boston Celtics. Magic has spent much of the hour seething at the pedestal upon which sports reporters and fans have placed Boston’s star rookie, Larry Bird (played by Sean Patrick Small). Everything Bird does is a credit to his brains, his work ethic, and his will to win, where everything Magic does gets dismissed as expected. A bit of this is the vaunted Celtic magic, where a player on a team with such an illustrious championship history gets more credit than one on a franchise with a long history of losing to the other one. But a whole lot of it is the Great White Hope of it all. Years later, Magic’s friend Isiah Thomas would get himself in trouble for claiming Bird got too much attention simply because of the color of his skin. Here, though, the issue isn’t that Bird is undeserving of acclaim, but that Magic was just as great, and in very similar ways. Both were six-foot-nine guys with limited athleticism and superhuman court vision, who transformed the way offense was played by combining their height with games otherwise befitting smaller men. Not all of their strengths overlapped — Bird was a better shooter, Magic a better ball-handler and passer — but they were for the most part a perfect rivalry. One Black, one white. One on each coast, assigned to two longtime opponents. One gregarious, one almost violently antisocial. (When Bird scowls his way onto the screen for the first time, a can of Bud in his hand, the introductory chyron simply reads “You know my fuckin’ name.”) Yet despite all the ways they were evenly matched — and the fact that Magic’s team beat Larry’s in the NCAA championship game the year before — one was widely assumed to be better than the other.
So by the time the Lakers get to the haunted, uncomfortable, unapologetically hostile confines of Boston Garden, Magic is well and truly sick of hearing about how much better Larry is, and vents to Kareem about it. The Lakers captain has his own history of being underappreciated by the basketball-watching public(*), which he discusses in a poignant scene with Earvin Johnson Sr. while the team is enjoying a party at Magic’s family home in Michigan. In Boston, Kareem compares Magic’s situation to Invisible Man, which Magic assumes is a reference to one of the movies (the Claude Rains version, most likely) adapting H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel The Invisible Man. But the captain is instead alluding to the acclaimed book by Ralph Ellison, about the struggle and indignities that come with being Black in America. Magic is at worst Bird’s equal — Bird’s rookie stats are a bit better, but Magic’s are great, too, and he has the college title, and he’s the engine of the most entertaining offense the league has ever seen — yet is an afterthought for the presumed coronation of Larry Legend. Kareem attempts to teach Magic to stop seeking the approval he’s not getting, arguing that the white establishment’s relative silence on the year he’s having is “not invisibility; that’s power.”
(*) Some of Kareem’s unpopularity stemmed from Islamophobia, but some stemmed from his reputation for being aloof and hard to get along with — a.k.a. the exact same traits that inspired hosannahs regarding Larry Bird’s basketball ruthlessness.
While Magic is wrestling with comparisons to Bird, interim coach Paul Westhead is struggling with his own feelings of invisibility. The good vibes from the first few games after Jack McKinney’s bicycle accident have faded, the Lakers are scuffling, and Jerry West is angling to replace him with old teammate Elgin Baylor (played in a cameo by Orlando “Yes, everyone in Hollywood really is in this show” Jones). Instead, it’s another early-Seventies Lakers alum who comes to Paul’s rescue. Pat Riley, who has already been acting as an unofficial assistant coach from his position at the announcers’ table, is invited to do the job for real, and his pugnacious, ultracompetitive attitude proves the perfect complement for Westhead’s more reserved tactical intelligence. When the duo get wind of the attempt to hire Baylor, Paul acts defeated, where Pat just gets mad, and hurls his new boss into the shower to wake him the hell up and convince him that he can coach this team. This is a sports drama staple because it pretty much always works — arguably the only great scene of Friday Night Lights Season Two involves a similar dynamic — and it does so here.
Magic’s resentment of Bird and Paul’s fight for his job neatly dovetail in Boston. Jerry Buss is there, too, trying to take his mind off Jessie being diagnosed with cancer (which caused several small strokes that were in turn responsible for her memory problems), and hoping to stick it to Red Auerbach. (Red has pre-emptively placed Jerry and Bill Sharman way up in the cheap seats.) It is an ugly environment all around, including an usher who gifts Jerry with a vegetable — “Just like your coach!” — but also the ideal setting for the rookie coach and rookie point guard to prove themselves.
As Boston runs up a big lead thanks to some questionable hometown officiating — described in amusingly opposite fashion by Chick Hearn and his Boston counterpart, Johnny Most — Pat decides to fire up both the team and Paul by getting himself kicked out of the game yelling at the refs. (This is also a sports drama staple, most famously in Hoosiers.) As the normally shy Paul leads his team in a repeated “Fuck Boston!” chant in the huddle, the Lakers find their mojo and begin to chip away at the Celtics’ lead, until Magic hits Michael Cooper for the rim-rattling winning basket. It’s a big, reassuring win for the Lakers, and a public defeat for the Celtics. (Auerbach looks stunned watching from the sideline.)
Like a lot of Winning Time, “Invisible Man” bends the historical record, and at times outright breaks it. In real life, Pat Riley was hired to assist Paul Westhead back in mid-November, not long after Jack McKinney’s accident, rather than Westhead coaching solo for months. (Also, Jeff Pearlman writes that the Jerrys wanted to hire Elgin Baylor not to replace Westhead, but to take the assistant job that Westhead instead insisted on giving to Riley. Though perhaps Westhead feared that if Baylor was next to him on the bench, he’d be easier to promote.) The Lakers blew out the Pistons in Detroit, and not vice versa. And while they did pull off a stirring comeback in Boston two nights later, Magic didn’t play particularly well, scoring only one point in 21 minutes of action, while Norm Nixon sunk the game-winning free throws in the closing seconds.
Do all these changes matter? Certainly to basketball die-hards. (A national NBA writer literally texted me as I was completing the previous paragraph to complain about all the things previous episodes have gotten wrong in his eyes.) But every docudrama has to stretch the truth at various points, even ones made by more sober-minded creative teams. And the stories here — including more Johnson family drama, and more Magic-Cookie turmoil — intersect very effectively over the course of the road trip. Plus, the Boston game is a very well-executed bit of fake-hoops action. We’re now in the home stretch of this first season (HBO recently ordered a second), and the momentum for both the Westhead-run Lakers and Winning Time as a whole are building nicely.