The True Story Behind HBO’s Winning Time

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Warning: This story contains spoilers for Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

Sex, drugs, and basketball. HBO’s new docudrama Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, premiering March 6, is based on Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 best-seller Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Like the book, the 10-part limited series, produced by Adam McKay, offers a no-holds-barred look at the hedonistic sports team that defined the decade of excess.

The show stars John C. Reilly as the late Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, a flamboyant self-made millionaire who was a chemist and real-estate mogul before becoming the architect of the “Showtime” Lakers, as the team was commonly called. Buss was eager to capitalize off the team’s proximity to Hollywood, turning the courtside experience into “Disneyland meets the Playboy Club at the Oscars,” as Winning Time puts it. He was surrounded by stars on the court, too, including Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Winning Time offers an unvarnished and sometimes unflattering look at the players, coaches, and personnel that helped the Lakers win five championships in the ‘80s. Perhaps that’s why none of them participated in the making of the series. (“I’m not looking forward to it. I’m going to leave it at that,” Johnson told TMZ in December 2021.) Ultimately, Winning Time is a love letter to Jerry Buss, one of the greatest innovators that any sport has ever seen—as well as one of the most eccentric.

Keep reading to find out what the show gets right and wrong about the Lakers:

Did Jerry West not want to draft Magic Johnson because of his smile?

In Winning Time, Lakers head coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) is convinced that the team shouldn’t draft Magic with its No. 1 pick, but should instead go with Sidney Moncrief, who West considered to be a better scorer. He also thought Magic was too happy-go-lucky for the NBA, telling Buss, “He smiles too much.”

It’s true that West, who was head coach from 1976-79, disagreed with the team’s decision to draft Johnson. But it’s unclear whether Johnson’s megawatt smile had anything to do with it.

West believed that Johnson, who’s 6 ft. 9 in, was too tall to be a successful NBA point guard, and he wasn’t convinced he could shoot. That’s why West wanted to pick a sharpshooter like Moncrief, who was drafted fifth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, Johnson’s height ended up being one of his strengths as a player. And plenty of people liked his toothy grin.

Did Jerry Buss invent courtside seating?

The Winning Time premiere begins with Jerry comparing basketball to “great sex” as he lounges around the Playboy Mansion. As he leaves Hugh Hefner’s love palace, he looks into the camera and says he’s going to buy the struggling Los Angeles Lakers franchise and make the team the hottest ticket in town. In real life, Buss, a staple at the Playboy Mansion and a close friend of Hefner’s, had a reputation for being a playboy himself. (Deadspin’s obituary for Buss was titled “Jerry Buss, Surrounded By Boobs: A Tribute to the NBA’s Greatest Owner Ever.”) But he was also a skilled businessman who quickly realized he could sell the glamor of Hollywood to basketball fans. That included creating the exclusive Forum Club, a celebrity destination located inside the Forum Arena, where the Lakers played, and the Laker Girls, the dance squad that helped kickstart Paula Abdul’s career.

Courtside seating always existed, but Buss was the one who realized those floor seats reserved for the media were prime real estate for anyone who wanted to be seen. He started charging extra for the “beachfront property,” his daughter Jeanie Buss, the current president of the Lakers, told the New York Times in 2021, attracting celebrities like Jack Nicholson. (The courtside area later became known as “the Nicholson seats.”)

Getting courtside tickets to the Lakers, which reportedly now sell for up to $5,000, is all about who you know—but not even Buss could secure a permanent spot on the floor during his 34 years as owner. When the Lakers moved from the Forum to the Staples Center (which is now the Arena) in 1999, he tried to lock in four courtside seats but couldn’t convince any longtime ticket holders to sell to him. That didn’t surprise John Black, the Lakers’ vice president of public relations, who told The Sports Network in 2014: “I mean, people leave those seats in their wills.”

Did Magic Johnson have to bring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a glass of orange juice every morning?

In episode 2, Magic (Quincy Isaiah) is tasked with bringing Kareem (Solomon Hughes), the team’s captain, a glass of orange juice and the newspaper every morning during training camp in Palm Springs. In his book, Pearlman wrote that each year Lakers veterans “adopted” a rookie during training camp. Abdul-Jabbar picked Johnson, who he tasked with bringing him a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and that morning’s edition of the New York Times.

While it doesn’t seem like Johnson had any trouble fulfilling his duties, Winning Time does accurately portray the ways that the two players often butted heads. “It took about five minutes for Kareem and Magic to form a strong relationship on the court,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1987. “It took about five years for them to establish a relationship off the court.”

Johnson admitted to the Times that “it was hard to get through to Kareem” during their first years as teammates. Abdul-Jabbar agreed that both men failed to put in the effort to become friends, but “there was never any conflict or anything like that. It just took a while before we got to know each other.” Some argue that each player was jockeying for control of the team, leading to conflict. In 1981, while Abdul-Jabbar was out with a foot injury, Johnson told reporters, “When he leaves, you’ll be able to see the real Magic show.” (In response, Abdul-Jabbar told the media, “I’m not dead yet. The reports of my demise have been greatly overrated.”)

Eventually, though, the pair became close, and Abdul-Jabbar appeared with Johnson during the 1991 press conference in which he revealed he was retiring from basketball after being diagnosed with HIV.

Despite Abdul-Jabbar not picking Johnson as his favorite teammate of all-time—that honor went to James Worthy—the two have stayed close. In 2020, Johnson tweeted that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest college player of all-time. “I would have to agree as my college years were incredible,” Abdul-Jabbar responded. “But playing for The Lakers and having you as my teammate was a G.O.A.T friendship.”

Did Spencer Haywood really circumcise himself?

In episode 5, Spencer Haywood (played by Wood Harris) joins the Lakers and immediately causes a stir over a rumor that he circumcised himself as a kid with a “rock and a razor.” After a few of his teammates try to get a closer look at his much-discussed member, Spencer confirms the chatter. “I grabbed it, I held it down like a copperhead snake, I did the deed,” he proudly explains to his new teammates.

While it may sound like an urban legend, Haywood revealed in his 1992 autobiography, Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery, that, as a teenager growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1950s, he removed his own foreskin after his brother convinced him that self-circumcision was the only way to avoid insanity.

Did a mob hit and a bicycle accident lead to Pat Riley becoming the Lakers coach?

Pat Riley, played by Adrien Brody, is one of the most renowned coaches in basketball, but Winning Time demonstrates how a few unlucky breaks for others ultimately earned him his first head-coaching position.

The HBO series mostly sticks to the facts. After West stepped down as head coach in 1979, Buss wanted to hire University of Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian, better known as “Tark the Shark.” But Tarkanian turned down the position after his agent and close friend Victor Weiss was killed. The police believed he was a victim of an organized mob hit; no one was ever arrested for his murder.

The Lakers then moved on to their next choice, Jack McKinney, the highly regarded assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers, to take over the 1979-80 season. Unfortunately, McKinney’s time with the Lakers was cut short after he was in a horrific bicycle accident in 1979 that left him in a coma for three days. His assistant, Paul Westhead, a former high school English teacher who often quoted Shakespeare, took over for the remainder of the season. Westhead hired Riley to be his assistant coach. The pair led the Lakers to a championship in 1980, but the following year, Westhead was fired and Riley was chosen to take over the team.

Under Riley’s leadership, the Lakers went on to win championships in 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. Riley told in 2020 that Jerry Buss’ confidence in him as a new coach “saved my basketball life, or redirected it in a way that I never realized that I was going to be where I am today.”

Did Magic Johnson turn down a chance to become the face of Nike?

In episode 6, Nike co-founder Phil Knight pitches Magic on a deal to sign with his new sneaker brand: “We need more than a smile on the poster, we need a partner.” Since Nike can’t offer Magic $80,000 a year, like other companies could, Knight says he’ll give Magic stock options instead. Magic turns down the opportunity and goes with Converse.

Nike did indeed offer to pay Johnson in stock if he signed with the company—and that decision continues to haunt him. “I didn’t know anything about stock. I’m from the inner city,” Johnson said on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2019. “We don’t know about stocks, [but] boy, did I make a mistake. I’m still kicking myself. Every time I’m in a Nike Store, I get mad. I could have been making money off of everybody buying Nikes right now.” According to an estimate in Winning Time, Johnson lost out on an estimated $5.2 billion by not taking the Nike deal.

Did Spencer Haywood try to kill his former coach?

Haywood’s time with the Lakers ended abruptly due to cocaine use. He was fired by Westhead midway through the 1980 NBA Finals after he fell asleep on the bench. Haywood later revealed that he was so angry at Westhead, he hired a mobster to harm him. “It was not a [murder] plot per se that you went and sat outside his house waiting for him to come out. They’re more like, you know, ‘Spike his drink’ or ‘Spike his car’ or something,” Haywood told Deadspin in 2014.

Haywood claimed that he never actually attempted to hurt Westhead, “but it was an evil intent,” he continued. “I know my God is watching me at this time. And I really went off my rocker.” In that same interview, the retired basketball star said that he now believes the Lakers organization was trying to help him by suspending him.

Haywood was given his 1980 championship ring by friend and former teammate Abdul-Jabbar in 1988. Four years later, the Lakers agreed to pay him half of what he would have earned during that playoff run.

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