In HBO’s ‘Winning Time,’ The Lakers Are Underdogs on Their Way to Greatness

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Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes in 'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.' (Warrick Page/HBO)

With 17 championship victories since 1949, the Lakers are to the NBA what the Dallas Cowboys are to the NFL: America’s team.

But HBO’s new dramatic miniseries Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty takes us back to a time before the Lakers were loved (and hated) the world over. This was before basketball was “hip, young, and sexy,” as legendary Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly) puts it at the beginning of the first episode.

Premiering on March 6, Winning Time begins in 1979, when the music was great and the haircuts were terrible. Directed by executive producer Adam McKay, the pilot has a vintage look to it, like it was shot on filmgrainy frames and all. The style works well with the sparkly, smoke-filled aesthetic of Los Angeles at the turn of the decade. Winning Time has a lot of the trappings of McKay’s other darkly comedic work dealing with real-world plots, such as Vice and The Big Short. Buss often breaks the fourth wall, and McKay lavishes the viewer with stylized montages of real-life historical context. His unconventional approach works well to explain the rise of the NBA and the Lakers to their current heights.

The central plot of the pilot revolves around Buss raising the funds to buy the Lakers from the previous team owner while Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) decides whether to enter the NBA draft or return to college.

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The two main characters have great chemistry. Reilly is the freewheeling, ever-optimistic Buss, who compares basketball to great sex: “It’s always moving, it’s rhythmic, it’s up close and personal.” And Isaiah is a wide-eyed, smooth-talking Johnson, who isn’t quite “Magic” yet, though he already has the signature smile.

It’s Isaiah’s performance as the basketball legend that anchors the show and lends it some of it’s more meaningful moments. Despite his confident demeanor, you can tell the 19-year-old Magic is insecure as he contemplates how much his life will change if he goes pro. Winning Time’s pilot has a lot to comment on when it comes to how race, class and gender intersected at this formative time in the NBA’s history, when the association was in danger of going bankrupt. However, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are plenty of funny moments provided by a tightly-written script. A scene that pokes fun at the racially coded language used to compare Magic to his rival and friend Larry Bird stands out, and the antics of the hot-headed Lakers head coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) are appropriately petulant.

The episode moves right along, like the Showtime Lakers on a fast break, making the hour-long runtime feel almost too short. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy this show. Magic’s story has classic fish-out-of-water and coming-of-age story elements as the budding star navigates anxieties and fears surrounding the prospect of fame.

The show promises a stylized glimpse into ’80s Hollywood, with portrayals of Paula Abdul (Carina Conti), Jack Nicholson (Max E. Williams) and Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) still to come. It will be interesting to see how Winning Time handles the portrayal of Magic’s AIDS diagnosis in 1991, and to witness how this early version of Magic evolves into the man who became the face of the Lakers franchise.

This is ultimately a show about a player, an organization—a whole sport, even—on the verge of greatness. After the first episode, it feels like Winning Time itself may also be on the verge of something big.

Winning Time premieres Sunday, March 6 at 9pm with subsequent episodes airing every Sunday on HBO Max.