If the 1980s was the unquestioned decade of glamor and decadence, the Lakers of Dr. Jerry Buss and Pat Riley, of Magic and Kareem, of Jack Nicholson and Paula Abdul’s dance squad, clearly took center stage as the living embodiment of a sports world and league desperate for such an entertainment infusion.
That, after all, was the heyday of “Showtime,” even if there was no way HBO was about to name its shiny new series depicting the glitzy, transformative era of the NBA and America after one of its rival networks.
The aptly star-studded and wildly entertaining “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” will make its debut Sunday night. The 10-episode initial season, the first eight episodes of which were screened by The Post, delivers a winning formula befitting the rise and dramatic foibles of a team that won five league titles and reached the NBA Finals eight times over a 10-year span .
The Lakers’ rivalry with the Celtics — and specifically that of transcendent point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson against longtime foil Larry Bird — vaulted the league to new financial heights and popularity, and set the stage for the eras to follow, featuring Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“Absolutely. It’s a dynasty story. It’s the story of an American dynasty,” showrunner Max Borenstein said Friday in a phone interview. “We don’t have royalty in this country. We have celebrity.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty HBO Max
“And in the case of the NBA, this is the moment for a fourth- or fifth-tier league, because of the alchemy of the drafting of Magic in LA and the drafting of Bird in Boston, and the very specific vision of Jerry Buss of what sports could be if it was combined with the sex and entertainment of a Hollywood-style show, transformed the league and really transformed sports.”
The show, which is based on the 2014 book by Jeff Pearlman entitled “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” begins with Johnson at Cedars Sinai Hospital in 1991 being informed of his HIV diagnosis.
The ensuing flashback for the remainder of Season 1 immediately leads you to believe that the show’s producers plan on sticking around for more than one TV campaign. The story immediately reverts to 1979 and the hard-partying playboy Buss’ pursuit of purchasing the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke and his recruitment of Johnson — the 6-foot-9 point guard for NCAA champion Michigan State—– with the first-overall pick of that year’s draft.
Oscar winner Adam McKay directed the pilot episode, and fans unmistakably will note a visual style reminiscent of his acclaimed films “The Big Short,” “Vice” and 2021’s “Don’t Look Up.” Others, including Jonah Hill, took over the directorial reins thereafter, but Borenstein and the writing crew continued to advance the various intersecting plotlines with the McKay trademark of characters breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewers.
Adrien Brody as Pat ReilyWarrick Page/HBO
The cast is an incredible mix of unknown actors playing superstars Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and accomplished A-listers in supporting roles, such as Sally Field as Buss’ mother Jessie, Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach and Adrien Brody as Riley, who opens Season 1 as a down-on-his-luck former player long before his transformation to a slicked-hair, Armani-wearing front man later in the decade.
Riley takes a gig as a TV analyst before moving onto the coaching staff under Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) when team legend Jerry West’s (Jason Clarke) initial replacement as head coach, Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), is sidelined after just 14 games following a serious bicycle accident.
Still, it is comedic and dramatic veteran John C. Reilly — with a diverse résumé featuring memorable roles in films as varied as “Chicago” and “Step Brothers” — who stepped into the lead role of Jerry Buss after the initially cast backed Michael Shannon out.
The Laker GirlsHBO Max
Reilly’s Buss serves as the central figure and narrator of the series, far more than any of the team’s players, and Buss’ relationships with the prominent women in the cast — his mother, his daughter and eventual successor Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) and innovative forum general manager Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) — provide some of the show’s most priceless and memorable interactions.
“The greatest blessing that could have ever happened to us was finding our way to John C. Reilly,” Borenstein said. “I loved him as a fan for years in both comedies and dramas, but this role gives him the opportunity to pull out all the stops.”
Norm Nixon’s son, DeVaughn Nixon, also ably portrays his father, the team’s point guard before Johnson arrived, while personal favorite Wood Harris (“Remember the Titans,” “The Wire”) provides a meaty supporting performance as imported former Knicks big man and eventual Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood.
Of course, one recurrent criticism of many sports-related shows or movies is that the game sequences don’t always feel authentic. (The soccer scenes in “Ted Lasso” certainly come to mind).
“Winning Time” takes a look at the “Showtime” Lakers of the 80s.HBO Max
Any shortcomings with the on-court scenes do not feel as pertinent, however, because Hughes, a 6-foot-11 former center at Cal, as the surly and cerebral Kareem and Isaiah as the effervescent Magic capture their off-court personalities in impressive detail, right down to the latter’s infectious smile.
To that end, while the opening credits note that some of the events are fictionalized or composited for time-frame purposes, Borenstein stressed “we want to say to the audience that we took great pains to follow the truth, and that in fact what our biggest rule.”
Thus, Johnson’s infidelities and his on-again, off-again relationship with his hometown girlfriend and eventual wife, Cookie, are not at all swept under the rug, nor is the reason why UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane of “Dazed and Confused” fame) turned down the Lakers’ gig before McKinney was hired to replace West.
“This story certainly is a thing that we wanted to explore, warts and all, the aspects of this town and of celebrity and fame and wealth, and all the flip side to it. It’s something that’s very personal to me,” said Borenstein, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. “I hope people like it and we get an opportunity to make that second season.
“We’ll do everything we can to make it worthy to keep going. I think we can really tell an American epic, a dynasty story that continues to be every bit as compelling.”