The question many people had before tuning into the premiere of HBO’s Winning Time was if Magic Johnson would be watching it. In so many words, he responded by saying “I’m not gon’ be here.” Winning Time: The Rise of The Lakers Dynasty has now been canceled after its second season. They cite lower viewership and high production costs as their reasoning.
The hit series chronicled the Lakers’ rise to prominence in the 1980s. At the helm of this success was the trailblazing owner of the Lakers, Dr. Jerry Buss. It was he who made the call to draft Hall of Fame point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson. From this point, a host of events transpire on and off the court with the eccentricities of the 1980s as the backdrop.
The 80s was a decade synonymous with excess. There’s a sense of freedom and opulence that exudes from that period. The short-lived show took a more detailed look at the goings-on of the time through the eyes of Lakers players and brass. Magic Johnson comes along as one of the NBA’s “next big things” and is thrown into a world of superstardom. A huge theme of this series was to illustrate Johnson adjusting to newfound fame after humble beginnings.
I thought Winning Time did an amazing job at that, with help from Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and The Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty Of The 1980s. Much of Pearlman’s book took on new life in the two seasons that Winning Time ran. With that, stories are told in Winning Time that I don’t think the Lakers players of the 80s ever thought would be revisited — onscreen at least.
So that leads us here, and my feeling is that regardless of what went on with Magic Johnson in during that time, he should feel differently about the show. Johnson, as well as many of his other teammates, took the stance that much of the series’ details were exaggerated or flat-out untrue. Well, many except one; Spencer Haywood appreciated his depiction in the series.
Spencer Haywood’s battle with drug addiction was a big theme in season one of Winning Time. It was a graphic detailing one could internalize as a risk of tarnishing a legacy. Haywood leans into it and sees it more as recognition of his journey. That sentiment is the light I had hoped Johnson would see it in as well. The Lakers’ current president Jeanie Buss has even shown appreciation for the series recently.
Like most content on television, there are dramatizations. You have to fill in the spaces of fact with other content to help weave the events together. That is simply the nature of the “beast.” Johnson stated that what we see depicted in Winning Time was “not even close” to reality. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said as much in so many words too. But Buss and Haywood seem to think that there are far more accurate portrayals in this series than not.
Winning Time delves graphically into how compulsive Johnson’s sexual appetite was at that time. As someone who touted not having an addiction to substances, it was clear in that era, what his vice was. There are portrayals of him wanting to maintain a relationship with his wife Cookie while managing life on the road. I do think as viewers, we do have empathy for indiscretion. But as with all things, there are limits.
In season one, Johnson gets another woman pregnant while still trying to keep Cookie. There are several scenes that depict Magic as the object of most women’s eyes. And he is seen indulging at copious levels. It’s a stark contrast to how most view Johnson after his 1991 HIV diagnosis announcement.
In my lifetime, I’ve known Johnson to be more of a business mogul than anything. His philanthropy as it pertains to HIV awareness and research is unparalleled. He is someone who has clearly evolved since his younger years, which we all should. But I don’t think he has taken kindly to his story being told without his input. Although he has detailed some of his past escapades in early 90s interviews and books.
But for someone like me, I appreciate seeing both sides. Older generations have a way of wanting to hide some of the slackness of their past. But sharing those experiences can sometimes serve as a cautionary tale. To me, Winning Time was a coming-of-age story of a player and executive in Dr. Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson. I marvel at what a full life Johnson has lived and the number of lives that he positively impacted after going through life’s experiences. My hope for viewers is that they continue to see Magic for what he truly has been ultimately. It’s also my hope that Magic one day watches the series and continues to see himself exactly the same way: as a champion.