LOS ANGELES — Ask anyone involved with HBO’s new series “Winning Time,” and they’ll tell you that the story of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rise to fame circa the early '80s is both timely and timeless.
For one thing, everyone loves the story of an underdog determined to prove the world wrong. That was apparent in the team itself at the time, and the team’s late owner Jerry Buss. While the Lakers are the textbook definition of the NBA establishment today, this was not the case back then.
“Everybody loves the story of a winner, and everyone loves stories where people are underdogs and believe in themselves and they succeed,” John C. Reilly, who plays Jerry Buss in the series, told NBC News in a recent Zoom interview.
For another, history repeats itself. In the late '70s and early '80s, when the Showtime Lakers helped popularize basketball further (they made it sexier and cooler), the racial politics of the league were thought to be sinking it. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson were at the forefront of melding on-the-court razzle-dazzle with off-the-court activism.
Nowadays, it’s typical for NBA stars to dominate on the court and off, where they help shed light on racial injustice, especially in recent years following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“This is a story about the moment where basketball transformed culture,” Max Borenstein, who co-created the series with Jim Hecht, said in a Zoom interview. “It had been like the fourth or fifth most popular sport... (now) we live in its wake globally. It’s also a moment of transformation in America that speaks pivotally to the moment we’re in today. You can see in the cross section that this show presents themes of class, gender, race. You can see both how far we’ve come and how much is still very similar.”
The series, which is based on the book “Showtime” by journalist Jeff Pearlman, was brought to life with help from Oscar winner Adam McKay (“Don’t Look Up,” "The Big Short"), who is among the show’s executive producers.
Hecht said he never sought to make a timely show. “I tried to tell this story eight years ago when I first read the book,” he said over Zoom. “But there are countless reasons why it makes more sense now than it would have made in 2014 when the book came out.
“I think prevalent among those reasons is we’re having a national conversation about race,” he said. “We always have been, but in the wake of George Floyd that was kind of heightened. I think our series really takes a real look at those issues.”
Depicting NBA legends onscreen, re-creating the ‘80s
The series stars a mix of newcomers, including Quincy Isaiah (as Earvin “Magic” Johnson) and Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), as well as big names including John C. Reilly, Sally Field (as Jessie Buss), Adrien Brody (as Pat Riley), Jason Clarke (as Jerry West) and Jason Segel (as Paul Westhead).
For the actors, it was an opportunity to show the larger-than-life characters in a different light. “I feel like this era in basketball is the birth of a whole new style of playing and it brought so much excitement to the game,” Brody said. “And the transformation of the Lakers into becoming this amazing team … and the complexity of their lives. I think the ‘80s and coming out of the tail end of the ‘70s, it was such a wild and different time. So different. It’s fascinating to watch that and to inhabit characters within that time.”
Many think about the NBA as a league of superstars, which is true. But many of these superstars are often “involved in global and political conversations,” added Clarke, which shows “the importance of the league.”
“I think this show is a brilliant exploration of its beginnings in terms of what it became in regards to sports and entertainment,” he said. “Sometimes the '80s get overlooked … but there was so much change. This is a very human relatable story about how we navigate change.”
Many of the series stars reiterated that the show isn’t just about basketball.
“It’s not about being famous or being a basketball player really,” said Gaby Hoffmann, who plays Claire Rothman, general manager of the Forum. “It’s about being human. What drives you, what scares you. And how you navigate that.”
A non-Lakers endorsed story
In December, when the trailer was released, Lakers star LeBron James tweeted “WOW!!!!”
“I can’t wait for this!” he wrote. “The myth, The man, The LEGEND! Dr. Buss and his magic man Magic Johnson!”
Despite the enthusiasm of the current Lakers' stars, the real-life subjects of the show were not involved in the show’s development.
Actor DeVaughn Nixon, who plays his father, Norm Nixon, in the series, has the closest connection to the Showtime Lakers.
“I watched these people and I met most of these players on the Showtime Lakers,” he said in a Zoom interview. “So for me to be part of something like this, it was an honor, and an honor to play my dad.”
A spokesperson for the Lakers did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment regarding the show.
Other projects that portray the Lakers are currently in the works. Jeanie Buss is collaborating with Mindy Kaling on a Netflix workplace comedy inspired by the front office of the Los Angeles Lakers. And Johnson has his own docuseries coming out on Apple TV.
Rodney Barnes, who serves as an executive producer and co-wrote 9 out of the 10 episodes, said the series was “never intended to be disparaging in any way or messing up anyone’s legacy in any way shape or form.
“Because we love these guys,” he said in a Zoom interview. “They are iconic to us.”
When asked why now was the right time to tell this story, Field simply asked: “Why not now?”
“I think (the show) is relevant in a lot of ways,” she said. “And besides that it’s just flat- out fun and entertainment.”
The series debuts on HBO on Sunday.