As a fan of Winning Time, the HBO drama starring John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffman and a slew of promising up-and-coming actors that chronicles the fast-breaking, fast-living 1980s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, I was aware that the ratings for the show weren’t great. Jeff Pearlman, the author whose book about the Lakers dynasty the show was based on, had taken to social media over the past few weeks, and warned that Winning Time needed more eyeballs to survive. An eventual cancellation would not have come as a shock.
But watching a cancellation in real time sure did.
I’m no TV historian. But I struggle to remember ever seeing a show that basically announced “this thing is dead” as it aired. Usually, word trickles out before a season finale that the plug has been pulled. Or an announcement follows days or weeks after. So when I saw what I figured was the last scene of Winning Time’s second season on the evening of Sept. 17—Magic Johnson sitting forlorn in a disgusting old Boston Garden shower, after losing Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals to his blood rival, Larry Bird—I held out hope that the show would live on. No way HBO could end Winning Time with a Lakers loss, right?
Wrong. Seconds later, the show cut to a tacked-on scene featuring Reilly as chest-hair-sporting Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Hadley Robinson as his daughter, current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, sitting at halfcourt of an empty Great Western Forum. They toasted their good fortune to still own a juggernaut that was the Lakers. “We f-cking own this!” they shout. Okaaay. Then, the gut punch: title cards explaining the future accomplishments and tribulations of main characters like Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Jeanie Buss, and others. Information that, for one thing, is very well known to even casual sports fans, which had to make up the great majority of Winning Time’s viewing audience. And what’s worse, it was information that, sure as Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, signaled a series ending. For if Winning Time were to continue, why would the producers write the ending for each character on the screen?
Feeling a mix of confusion, betrayal, and apprehension—not ideal emotions after watching your favorite Sunday night show, before the work week—I joined thousands of other fans in Googling something along the lines of “Winning Time canceled.” Did I miss something during the week? Turns out, no. Because there they were, embargoed articles released around 10 PM eastern time, right as Winning Time was ending, officially confirming the cancellation.
Now I was just angry. Hey, HBO: I didn’t watch a scripted show about my favorite sport, basketball, to get angry.
Others shared such frustration. “Wtf HBO?” wrote one social media user. “HBO Cancelled ‘Winning Time’ in the Hackiest Way Possible,” read one headline. Someone started a change.org petition to save the show.
It was a crushing ending for a show that deserved better. While the creative team behind Winning Time has expressed sincere gratitude to HBO for their support for the series, they couldn’t mask their disappointment. Over the last week or so, word spread to the Winning Time producers that the show was indeed ending. Despite a passionate fan base and critical kudos, the ratings could not support the expensive budget needed to recreate 1980s basketball arenas, locker rooms, and front offices (not to mention the Busses’ former sprawling home, the Pickfair estate). HBO suggested to the Winning Time creative team, while the show was still in production back in January, to consider shooting an alternative ending that sort of wrapped up the show, in case cancellation was inevitable. That’s why the scene with the Busses, and the title cards, were added. The version shared with critics earlier this summer ended Season 2 at the conclusion of the ‘84 Finals, with Johnson in the shower.
Winning Time co-creator Max Borenstein has called Season 2 the show’s “Empire Strikes Back” season. While the first season ended with a Lakers championship victory in 1980, this time, the Dark Side—the Boston Celtics—prevailed. “I understand why there was a desire, given the sort of Sophie's choice of where we were at, to put a bit of a button on it,” says Borenstein. “Personally, my preference would have been to end this show in the way we conceived the season. I love Magic in the shower. Ending on a pure emotion is a good ending. Even if it's a sh-tty emotion.”
The show’s other creator, Jim Hecht, had to console his wife, who broke down in tears after the finale aired. He explained to his stepchildren, who are 12 and 11, what cancellation means.
“I’m writing a Tupac book right now,” says Pearlman. “If my last chapter ended with a celebration of Biggie, that would be a very weird way to end the Tupac book. That’s how I kind of thought of it. You’re ending the series with the Celtics winning the title? That’s insane. But it’s way above my pay grade.”
An HBO spokesperson did not respond to TIME’s request to speak to CEO Casey Bloys.
The decision reflects the sad realities of modern media. Warner Bros. Discovery, HBO’s parent company, lost 1.8 million streaming subscribers from April 1 to June 30, the period in which the streamer Max, which combined the offerings of HBO Max and Discovery+, launched. Warner Bros. Discovery stock is down 24% since Feb. 1. From the get-go, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has shown a proclivity for cutting programming, angering fans and subscribers by even shelving highly anticipated projects like a Batgirl movie that would have been the first major superhero film starring a Latina actor.
The ongoing Hollywood actors and writers strikes also helped torpedo Winning Time. Marquee names like John C. Reilly and breakout performers like Quincy Isaiah, who portrayed Magic Johnson with expert charisma, could not raise awareness of the show most of this summer due to SAG rules against promoting struck work. “I probably was the biggest mouthpiece for the show,” says Pearlman. “And that’s horrible.”
Winning Time had so many more stories to mine: the Lakers’ victories over the Celtics in 1985 and 1987, the rise of Michael Jordan in Chicago, Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement in 1989, Riley’s exit in 1990, and Johnson’s shocking HIV diagnosis in 1991. And it featured a young, diverse cast with which to mine them. “We have a slew of young Black actors and actresses,” says Pearlman. “We actually had a show with an enormously diverse cast playing enormously diverse roles. That was really important and really cool.”
The show traced the modern era of player empowerment to Johnson. He and Buss formed more of a partnership than the typical employee-employer relationship. Johnson was pilloried for demanding a trade in 1981, as he chafed under Lakers coach Paul Westhead. But Johnson prevailed: Buss fired Westhead, Riley took over, and Los Angeles kept winning titles. In today’s NBA, players increasingly call the shots on where they work and who they work with. “Even though this show is about the past, it still touches on the zeitgeist of today,” says Winning Time executive producer and writer Rodney Barnes. “As a writer of color, it’s rare you get the opportunity to talk about history and the present at the same time.”
That opportunity is now gone, unless another streamer or network revives Winning Time. “Netflix Needs To Pick Up Winning Time,” wrote NBA agent Nate Jones on X. The show’s creators won’t dismiss that possibility. “In a world where Frasier is about to premiere a new season, the long-term view is the best view to take,” says Borenstein.
Perhaps some of the outrage over Winning Time’s cancellation will compel more viewers to check it out on Max: strong binge numbers could make the case for a resurrection. “Things have a tendency on Winning Time to work out better than I’ve planned them,” says Hecht. “We’ve had to go back to square one a bazillion times. Somehow, some way, HBO not continuing with the series at this time will end up being better for the show. I just have a feeling things always work out for Winning Time.”
Here’s hoping that’s more than wishful thinking. Lakers fans especially can do their part. Watch Winning Time for the first time, if you haven’t done so. Even give it a rewatch on Max.
“I would say this to Lakers fans directly,” says Hecht. “If you don’t watch, the Celtics win.”
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