The dark side of the ‘showtime’ of Magic Johnson and the Lakers

behind every smile Earvin Magic Johnson there was a stab in the back. Every skyhook (hook shot that he executed perfectly) of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hid a cockfight. And every move of those Los Angeles Lakers of the eighties caused a convulsion in the NBA that only had a similar response with the arrival, years later, of Michael Jordan to the basketball league. That 1979-1980 season, basketball, and in extension American professional sports, took a gigantic leap: in conception, in the sale of the show to the public and in stars. It was the first time of many things, a historical moment of which HBO Max takes audiovisual record in Victory Time: The Lakers Dynasty, series of 10 episodes (of which the press has seen eight), and that gets involved in sex, parties, drugs, fun, rivalries and, luckily and also, basketball.

Although the creators of the series are Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, among its promoters is Adam McKay (The Vice of Power, The Big Bet, Don’t Look Up), who participates as executive producer and director of the first episode. His style fits with the tone of the series: fictional images are mixed with real ones, the histrionics of the protagonists draws from that of previous McKay characters and almost all of them speak directly to the camera, underlining the importance or the folly of the moment. Winning Time: The Lakers Dynasty a few months ago a show that already gave enough of a show. And incidentally, he manages to ensure that anyone who doesn’t know about basketball also enjoys the plot, in the style of Halt and Catch Fire, that delved into the emotional relationship between four people beyond being a series about computing, computers and the internet.

Jerry Buss (John. C. Reilly), Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Jerry West (Jason Clarke), in the series ‘Time of victory: the dynasty of the Lakers’.

In 1979 an era began in American sports. It was the year in which a shady real estate businessman, the doctor —in chemistry, something he repeated with pride— jerry buss bought the Lakers, an NBA franchise that hadn’t fully realized its potential. The city’s hockey team, the Forum (mythical stadium located in Inglewood, one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles) and the Chrysler building in New York also entered the sale. But Buss—brilliantly brought to life by John C. Reilly, alternating his facets of clown and sad hoodlum with that of prophet and leader—coveted the Lakers.

At that time the team only played one way: baseline, drive to the opposite basket and pass to Abdul-Jabbar, the great center of the time, to score. Led by the coach jerry west —legendary figure of basketball, his silhouette is the one that makes up the NBA logo—, the team lacked grace. Right in the city of cinema, entertainment, show business. Buss decided to get West out of the way and push the election into the draft (drawing for the best college players) by Earvin Magic Johnson, a 2.06-meter player capable of playing any position and with a devilish pace… but the Lakers’ coaching staff believed he wouldn’t fit their scheme. The series is set in that season, based on the book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, by Jeff Pearlman, from which the first five chapters have taken advantage, those focused on the 1979-1980 season (hence there may be more installments of victory time, as is intuited in its first sequence, in which Magic Johnson discovers, five years later, that he has contracted HIV).

Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), in a game against the Boston Celtics in 'Time to Win: The Lakers Dynasty'
Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), in a game against the Boston Celtics in ‘Time to Win: The Lakers Dynasty’

It was the first year for Buss, the first for Johnson, the first for the showtime (the Lakers game based on the blazing-fast show), the first year that ESPN began broadcasting—which helped sell the sport as television entertainment—the first with cheerleaders in Los Angeles (led by choreographer Paula Abdul), that of the return of celebrities, such as Jack Nicholson, to the first row of seats on the court, that of the inauguration of a private club for the stars inside the Forum, and also the first of Larry Bird, the perfect Magic antagonist. If one was African American, the other was Caucasian. If one came from an urban background, the other was quintessentially agricultural America. If one was all smiles, the other lived in introspection. If one ended up in the Lakers, the other had been chosen a year earlier (but he decided to stay one more year in college) by the Boston Celtics. If one was the friendly face, the other became the grumpy guy. The production of HBO extracts oil from that duel. Over time their relationship improved and Bird’s sour countenance softened.

Series on messianic leaders

victory time could be considered part of the current stream of series focused on striking business phenomena with study-worthy messianic leaders such as super-pumped or The Dropout. In favor of Buss it must be said that although he was a smelter, he owned a gold mine. Only a few, like David Stern (who eventually became NBA commissioner, and therefore the league’s boss), understood that this was the way to go to increase business. The series does not skimp on drugs, battles of egos – the initial clashes between Abdul-Jabbar, a religious man, a lover of jazz and with a marked political outlook, and Johnson, who did not know how to win him over to his cause, are illustrated in a very funny—and sex. Magic Johnson, who is involved in a documentary about his career that will premiere in April on Apple TV +, has assured that he will not see victory time, which underlines his ease, like that of most of the players of the time, to sleep with any woman who crossed his path. Those who discovered the NBA in the eighties as teenagers will remember an interview in the magazine basketball giants in which the journalist finished off the text with the farewell to Johnson’s talk surrounded by women.

Lakers wardrobe in the series with, in the center, Jason Segel playing coach Paul Westhead.
Lakers wardrobe in the series with, in the center, Jason Segel playing coach Paul Westhead.

And finally, victory time (and the book on which it is based) does justice to the creator of the showtime, that “take the rebound and run towards the opposite basket, and if you also do it nicely, better”. Pat Riley (great Adrien Brody), who got the tag by coaching the team to their historic wins in the ’80s, actually inherited that style. Buss, after sounding out other coaches, hired Jack McKinney, college coach who designed the offensive game. But in November 1979, while he was riding his bike, and with the Lakers in the league with a record of nine wins and four losses, a car hit McKinney. He was replaced by his assistant, the timorous Paul Westhead (Jason Segel perfectly builds that man drowning in doubt), who was in charge because of his absolute fidelity to McKinney. Riley, then embarking on a career as a sportscaster, helped Westhead, empowered him against McKinney and Buss, and became an assistant coach with almost head coach manners.

Quncy Isaiah (Magic Johnson), in a moment of the HBO Max series 'Victory Time'.
Quncy Isaiah (Magic Johnson), in a moment of the HBO Max series ‘Victory Time’.

However, the protagonists of victory time They are Buss and Johnson. The creator of the show in the shadows and the hoarder of the spotlights. There has never been a season in the NBA like 1979-1980 (the narrated in the documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan, it almost reached him), in which so many accidents, incidents, injuries, risky decisions and script twists concurred, and which ended with a happy ending, at least for Lakers fans. The team won the final against Julius Erving’s Philadelphia Sixers in Game 6, in which Johnson played center due to an injury to Abdul-Jabbar and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. A happy ending of screenwriter’s manual.

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The dark side of the ‘showtime’ of Magic Johnson and the Lakers