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Lakers Drama 'Winning Time' Sets Out to Be the 'Friday Night Lights' of Basketball

"It's an origin story of the modern NBA," says showrunner Max Borenstein.
by Scott Huver — 
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From left to right: Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes in 'Winning Time'

WarnerMedia

Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, the creative team behind Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, HBO's fast-paced, irreverent and unexpectedly moving sports bio-dramedy depicting the halcyon days of the Los Angeles Lakers fabled "Showtime" era of the 1980s, are living out their childhood dreams a little more literally than most. 

San Fernando Valley native Borenstein, best known for working on the screenplays for the recent MonsterVerse films featuring King Kong and Godzilla, was a devoted Lakers fan as a child, watching games on television — and on one glorious occasion "I went to one game at The Forum in the later '80s, sat where my head was basically — as, I recall it anyway — touching the beams and the rafters," he tells Metacritic.

Hecht, a veteran of television animation, was a 6-year-old living in Orange County when Ervin "Magic" Johnson joined the team in 1979 and signaled the team's reinvention under the guidance of colorful team owner Jerry Buss. 

"My favorite days on the planet were when we went up the 405 to go to The Forum and watch a Laker game," he recalls. "I was the kid that would wait outside the locker room for autographs afterwards. That time in my life, that time in L.A., that time in the NBA, those guys in this town is a perfect storm to create a thing in a kid's life that will never be beaten or replaced." 

Four decades later, they've assembled a dream team of actors both seasoned and ready for their breakout moment. 

When it comes to the former, John C. Reilly plays the hardscrabble-but-hard-to-resist visionary Buss, Adrien Brody plays transformative head coach Pat Riley, Jason Clarke is temperamental Laker legend Jerry West, Sally Field is Buss' business-shrewd mother Jessie, Jason Segl and Tracy Letts portray interim coaches who paved the way for the team to gel, and Gaby Hoffman plays a canny front-office marketer. When it comes to the latter, Quincy Isaiah plays the charismatic Johnson, Solomon Hughes portrays the brooding intellectual center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and DeVaughn Nixon plays his real-life father Norm Nixon. And they are just the start.

"We had green screen on the Forum set, but even with it, it disappeared because we had stands filled with these actors and background players in period costume," previews Borenstein. "And it was surreal. You felt like you were there. Even with all the cameras and everything, it was like you were transported." 

That sense of joy was crucial for Hecht, who says he came to project trying to work his way out of a personal and professional crisis that included battling depression and addiction. 

"I was just in a really dark place," he says. "I had this realization that I needed a shift in my life and in my work. I needed to stop trying to find stuff that I liked and only find stuff that I loved. I needed to stop trying to create stuff that I thought other people wanted to see and try to make the show that I would want to see." 

Inspiration struck when Hecht discovered sports journalist Jeff Pearlman's meticulously assembled 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, which he devoured in one sitting. "I called my agent and I was like, 'I want to do this. I want to do Friday Night Lights for the Lakers in the '80s,'" he says. "And he was like, 'Jim, this is the thing that's going to be written on your gravestone.'" 

"Nobody's done a series about a real sports team before, to my knowledge," Hecht continues. "They've done movies — Hoosiers and 42 or whatever — but nobody has followed them over the course of a dynasty — 10, 12 years." 

Hecht's vision found a major champion in another lifelong Lakers fan, comedy writer-director-turned-prestige-filmmaker Adam McKay, who recently picked up his seventh and eighth Oscar nominations (for Don't Look Up) and is also apart of the producing team on the Emmy-winning Succession). McKay signed on to executive produce and push the project forward, ultimately bringing Hecht together with Borenstein. 

Borenstein, who serves as showrunner, notes that he has "always wanted to tell a story about L.A. because I think it gets a bad rep of having no history, and I think it's this central part of America's cultural legacy to the world. For a long time I thought about different versions of it and of how I could kind of access that story, and what the avenue and what the lens would be." 

Reading Showtime (originally planned to be the show title but later tweaked to Winning Time for the series to avoid brand confusion with HBO's pay cable rival), Borenstein says he "suddenly realized, 'Oh wow, this is the lens.' And the more we dug in and the more we really looked at it that way, it's an origin story of the modern NBA. It's the moment where Lakers basketball transformed not only the NBA, but culture. And it's the moment where L.A. had another massive cultural impact on the country, and ultimately globally, in a way that's been just a joy to be able to unpack and unfurl." 

Borenstein says that McKay's creative input, which includes setting the tone and style of series by directing the pilot episode and inserting his signature comic sensibility and anarchic techniques like having characters break the fourth wall, was vital to capturing the excitement that characterized the Showtime era.

"Being able to capture some of the style and flair and fun and irreverence of the Showtime basketball years, which was a moment where sports became entertainment, that lent itself to that style where we could really do whatever we wanted — like the world was our oyster," Borenstein explains.

That means if they want to break live-action format to include an animated sequence, they can. They also break the fourth wall from time to time to speak directly to the audience. But they only stylize scenes in these ways if there is a reason to, Borenstein says. "Only if they enriched character or revealed something other than what was just straightforwardly being spoken. Because you can't get away with a draw like a real HBO drama series that doesn't delve deep into character." 

"We have such an embarrassment of riches with this cast, that it was our goal not just to hit the big marks of where we know that Wikipedia story of the Lakers goes," he continues, "but really to dive deep, and to allow us audience into those rooms and into those psyches that the casual fan, or even a real longtime fan, wouldn't necessarily have access to." 

The story not only provided the creators a window into that particular moment in time in the '80s, but it also offered an opportunity to reflect on the current culture, says Hecht.  

"All these ideas about race and culture and society and entertainment and sports were just completely in flux, being reexamined and held up to the light [to see] what works and what doesn't and why, and people had to take deeper looks at themselves," he explains. "Now we're in a similar moment where a lot of people that think they had things figured out and get defensive when they find out they don't. Societal factors again have been thrown into the air, and everything's been held up to the light and questioned and changing in a really cool and interesting challenging way for us as people and as society." 

Borenstein says that, as excitement for the series has built, the creators are eagerly looking at the opportunity to explore even more aspects of the Lakers' dynastic years, including the period encompassing the late Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and coach Phil Jackson

"The show is a continuing drama, and we'll continue it as long as we're given the opportunity to continue it," Borenstein says.

While Winning Time doesn't have any official endorsement from the Lakers organization or the players that it spotlights, Hecht and Borenstein — who have season tickets to the team's regular season games — are hoping that the real-world figures recognize the reverence they hope the show conveys. 

"It must be so strange to have a movie or television show made about one's life," acknowledges Borenstein. "This one has been made with such affection and appreciation for everything that all these people accomplished."

But, he adds with a laugh, "really, we just want not get kicked out" of our seats.

Winning Time premieres March 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.