HBO’s Lakers Series Has Courtside Seat to the Team’s ’80s Drama and Debauchery

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about that
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IT’S GOT ALL the elements of a boffo TV drama. Passion. Hubris. Betrayal. Heartbreak. And that’s just what was happening off camera.

Whatever else viewers might make of HBO’s upcoming Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a ten-part docudrama that supposedly unveils the true personalities and inner turmoil behind L.A.’s favorite basketball team during its so-called “Showtime” years of the 1980s—you know, when it won five NBA championships—it’s hard to imagine anything on the screen being as compelling as the commotions going on behind it. This, after all, is the project that split up one of the most productive and formidable bromances in recent comedy history, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, the duo behind such 2000s classics as Anchorman, Stepbrothers, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (not to mention the current HBO hit Succession).

But more on that bitter breakup later. First, its star-studded casting: Oscar winner Adrien Brody plays former Laker coach Pat Riley; Jason Segel portrays Riley’s predecessor, Paul Westhead; Jason Clarke is Jerry West, the team’s mercurial manager; and John C. Reilly and Sally Field are the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his mother, Jessie. But for the most conspicuous roles—Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—McKay cast two relative newcomers. Six-foot-three Quincy Isaiah plays Johnson, and six-foot-eleven Solomon Hughes portrays Abdul-Jabbar. 

“The Lakers were the center of my basketball universe,” says Hughes, 42, who earlier in his career had a brief stint as a Harlem Globetrotter. “For any kid growing up in Southern California, there were the Lakers and then there was everybody else.”

Sadly, Hughes never got to meet Abdul-Jabbar or any of the other Lakers while preparing for his role. In fact, the Lakers wanted absolutely nothing to do with this series, likely because they were aware of the source material on which it’s based: Winning Time is adapted from veteran journalist Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 best-seller Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, which rips the lid off the excesses and all-star hedonism that dominated the Lakers during that time. In Pearlman’s telling, cocaine was nearly as plentiful in the locker room as Gatorade, and egos were as big as any of the players. Riley starts out as a modest but scrappy coach but evolves into a world-class prima donna, West is an expletive-spouting jerk, and Buss is an irredeemable womanizer (indeed, the opening scene of the pilot shows him in bed with a naked young woman inside the Playboy Mansion). As for Johnson, his sexual exploits were almost as famous as his no-look passes, while Abdul-Jabbar is portrayed as an aloof misanthrope who treats his fans appallingly. 

Not at all surprisingly, a representative for Abdul-Jabbar declined to comment about the show, while emails to Johnson’s spokesperson were not returned. “I’m not looking forward to it. I’m going to leave it at that,” Johnson told TMZ in December when asked if he planned to watch the show, adding that he and Buss’s widow, current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, were working on competing Lakers shows of their own (including a front-office comedy that Mindy Kaling is reportedly producing for Netflix). As for the Lakers organization itself, all a publicist would say was, “We aren’t supporting nor are we involved with this project.”

For McKay, who is producing and directing the series, controversy is hardly a stranger (he took some flack from critics for his recent, massive Netflix hit, Don’t Look Up). But this time, the backstage drama over the production really hit home. Originally, he was considering casting Ferrell as Buss—Ferrell is a huge Laker fan who often can be spotted sitting courtside at games—but then changed his mind and cast Reilly in the role, supposedly because Reilly looked more like Buss. “The truth is,” McKay recently told Vanity Fair, “ the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic. And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss. And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.”

Fair enough, except that McKay neglected to mention to his old friend and producing partner that he was cutting him from the series. Ferrell was so hurt when he finally learned—from Reilly, a longtime friend—that he’d been dropped, he hasn’t spoken to McKay since. “I should have called him, and I didn’t,” McKay admitted. “I fucked up on how I handled that. It’s the old thing to keep your side of the street clean. I should have just done everything by the book.” 

The last time the two did speak was to break up their production company, Gary Sanchez. “Basically, [it] was like, ‘Have a good life,’ ” McKay said. “And I’m like, ‘Fuck, Ferrell’s never going to talk to me again.’ So it ended not well.”

As for Isaiah and Hughes, their careers as actors will, to a large degree, depend on how Winning Time is received by viewers, not to mention Lakers fans. Isaiah, who attends a regular pickup game with friends in Van Nuys, is anticipating at least a little push back on the court. 

“I imagine they’ll try me a little more at the end of the day,” he says. “I just hope they don’t expect me to be as good as Magic. I mean, I can do a thing here or there, but Magic—he was something.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pulls down a rebound against the Washington Bullets, circa 1977
Then Lakers assistant coach Pat Riley (left) on the sidelines with Lakers manager Jerry West during a 1979 game
Then Lakers assistant coach Pat Riley (left) on the sidelines with Lakers manager Jerry West during a 1979 game
Flanked by NBA commissioner David Stern (left) and legendary Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson holds the NBA Most Valuable Player trophy for the 1987 season
John C. Reilly (left) as Buss, with Quincy Isaiah as Johnson and Jason Clarke as West.
Actor Solomon Hughes, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, re-creates a scene from Airplane! (SOLOMON HUGHES: GROOMING BY HEE SOO KWON; QUINCY ISAIAH: HAIR BY DARONN CAR AT BLEND LA)

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