The Year of Magic Thinking

AS THE NEW YORK YANKEES remain baseball’s Unavoidable Fact, even when mediocre, so have the Los Angeles Lakers been nearly impossible for basketball fans to escape, despite having just completed one of their most maladroit seasons in recent memory. (For the benefit of those who neither know nor care, this year’s edition finished 33–49, even with reigning-if-aging superstar-in-chief LeBron James on the roster.) The reasons for the Lakers’ omnipresence are not obscure: even casual sports fans know how dominant the Lakers franchise has been in the global pop-cultural psyche since the 1980s, when a team once acknowledged by fans as a perennial also-ran was transformed into a gold-and-purple dynasty billboarded as the “Showtime” Lakers, both for their breathtaking quick-strike offense, anchored by the brilliant, charismatic point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson, that raced for five National Basketball Association championships and for the franchise’s glamorous hauteur orchestrated by Dr. Jerry Buss, the sybaritic hustler-visionary who bought the Lakers in 1979 and eventually realized a Brave New Dreamworld at his Great Western Forum arena in Inglewood, complete with strategically seated Hollywood royalty and an exclusive, super-deluxe nightclub loosely drawn from Buss’s friend and role model Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. Though the “Showtime” era ended after Johnson’s stunning retirement in 1991, following his announcement that he’d contracted HIV, the Lakers have won six more NBA titles since the turn of the century, solidifying the team’s stature—and mystique.

As the chatterbox cognoscenti of the sporting press performed ham-handed autopsies on the 2021–22 Lakers this past spring, both HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a ten-episode fictionalized history of the “Showtime” Lakers’ origins, and Apple TV’s They Call Me Magic, a four-part documentary profile of the complicated and still-magnetic culture hero and business magnate Earvin Johnson, were making their respective, almost concurrent paths through the streams and clouds of global television. One sensed the mischief of the basketball gods at work. “It’s always about the Lakers, even when they suck!” a fellow hoops aficionado groused. Indeed.

Adapted from Jeff Pearlman’s similarly cheeky if more authoritative 2014 chronicle, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, Winning Time has delighted enough viewers to create a buzz for successive seasons, the whole of which could someday comprise a grand epic, a jock-and-glitz equivalent to The Crown, only with more sex, hook shots, and old-school funk tracks. The series has also ticked off journalists, historians, and most of the still-breathing, real-life players on whom the series is based. Some also complain that the show behaves more like a freewheeling soap opera than a straightforward docudrama; never mind the disclaimers at the close of each episode insisting that it is “a dramatization of certain facts and events” with “events and characters [who] have been fictionalized, modified, or composited for dramatic purposes.”

Such qualifiers haven’t kept distinguished author and Sherlock Holmes enthusiast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in another life the team’s moody, nonpareil center in its ’80s glory, from dismissing the series as “dull,” or his fellow Lakers great Jerry West from demanding some form of retraction for the series’ over-the-top depiction of him as a combustible Yosemite Sam in double knits. (West is so integral to the league that he is known as “The Logo”—the NBA’s insignia is based on his silhouette.) Australian actor Jason Clarke brings such rabid intensity to portraying the West Virginia–born West as profane, deeply embittered, and tightly wound that you almost buy the scene at the end of Winning Time’s first episode, in which a most-valuable-player trophy is hurled through a glass window in West’s office. West’s grievances with the show are understandable, especially if you’ve read his 2011 memoir West by West, in which he submits detailed revelations of his struggles with depression. But that flying-trophy scene works on its own terms as part of the workplace-comedy vibe Winning Time aims for along with its Dynasty-Dallas prime-time-soap trappings.

Granted, the series doesn’t give you time to think much about what it’s adding or leaving out, and that’s probably for the best. It double-dog-dares you not to be entertained by its flash, gaudiness, and headlong velocity, even as it’s running amok. Speaking of Dynasty, there’s a point in the eighth episode when Jessie Buss (Sally Field), the cantankerous, ailing mother to Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), asks her son to change the channel on the new TV he gave her because she’d rather watch Dynasty “to see what’s happening.” At which point, you’re so accustomed to seeing Reilly’s Buss break the fourth wall that you expect him to say, “Can’t watch Dynasty now, Ma, because it’s not even supposed to be on the air until next year!” No sense in crying “Gotcha!” here because, like it or not, anachronisms and gaffes are among the things you must accommodate when taking in Winning Time’s wildly discursive storytelling.

As Pearlman’s book, along with both the HBO and Apple series, reminds its audience, the Lakers’ transformation all but dragged the NBA out of its deepest direst pit augured at the close of the ’70s. Game attendance and TV ratings were down, the latter so low that prime-time playoff games weren’t even aired live. White people complained of being alienated from a predominantly Black sport that had by then become notorious for its coyote-ugly slugfests. As the real Jerry West, far more composed and ruminative than his Winning Time persona, recalls in They Call Me Magic, things reached such a low point that NBA game coverage was consigned to “the last page of the newspaper.”

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, season 1, episode 8, 2022. Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). Warrick Page/HBO.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, season 1, episode 8, 2022. Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). Warrick Page/HBO.

If you were around and aware back then of how this all really happened (and how it all turned out), you may get whiplash from all the if-only-they-knew hindsight the series ladles upon the narrative. How many bankers, league wise guys, and other smug doubters does one need to see over several episodes insisting that Buss doesn’t know what he’s doing and that his dreams are destined to faceplant on the Forum’s floor? Even more, it seems, than the number of Wall Street smoothies who either ignored or were dead wrong about the storm warnings over subprime mortgages before the 2008 crash as chronicled in 2015’s The Big Short, which was written and directed by Winning Time co–executive producer Adam McKay. As with that picture, the series augments its story line with multimedia flashbacks and digressions comprising smirky subtitles, vintage film clips, and animated sequences redolent of clunky Saturday-morning TV fare, as in episode four when Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), the ill-starred hoops guru hired by Buss, describes his plans to emphasize speed, timing, and spontaneity. This lecture spins into a montage of jump cuts beneath which McKinney elaborates upon his plans with a classical-music-vs.-jazz analogy. In classic basketball, the “X’s and O’s”—like the notes in classical music—are all in place, “and all the players are supposed to do is hit their cues, [which] makes a pretty melody, but it’s the same song every time and everybody in the building knows exactly where it’s going.” In up-tempo jazzlike b-ball, “you put the music in the players’ hands. . . . You keep them moving, improvising, so they can flow, like flocks of birds and butterflies. Because what seems or sounds like chaos is actually the symphony of Mother Nature. Everything unpredictable has underlying patterns.”

Or . . . you could lean closer to the analogy Reilly’s Buss throws out at the very beginning of Winning Time’s first episode, as he swaggers into view, exposed chest hair brushed to a thoroughbred’s glossy sheen, waxing about basketball being a metaphor for sex (or was it the other way around?). We don’t know for sure whether the real Jerry Buss, who died in 2013, said such things. But as with everything and everybody in the series, you take for granted that it’s something he could have said, and Reilly, a character actor’s character actor given his biggest opportunity to shine, makes Buss into a riveting compound of globe-straddling colossus and vulnerable man-child, dominant and self-assured one minute, faltering and petulant the next. As with the rest of Winning Time’s characters, Reilly’s Buss is more an artist’s rendering than a literal portrait—and within the context of workplace comedy, a strikingly persuasive one.

In contrast to Buss, Magic Johnson’s incandescent public profile is far more vivid in collective memory, and if Quincy Isaiah did nothing else but capture, with almost eerie precision, Johnson’s eighty-watt grin in Winning Time, he’d have earned his money. But Isaiah also conjures the tempered steel and avid intelligence beneath the amiable exterior that neither his team nor the sports industrial complex apprehended when Johnson entered the league. (Indeed, from its start, the show makes much about how back in the NBA’s pre-Magic era, Black players were considered “natural” athletes who neither wanted nor needed to hustle, while intelligence, grit, and hard work were qualities assigned almost exclusively to white players like Larry Bird, played here by Sean Patrick Small with grunts and glowers that by themselves make up a kind of reverse stereotype.)

Isaiah so scarily evokes Johnson’s patter, grace, and resolve that you want to switch between his portrayal and the Real Deal in Rick Famuyiwa’s They Call Me Magic for contrast. As its title indicates, this more grounded and authorized (by its subject) series places in its foreground the divide between the Earvin Johnson raised by working-class Black parents in Lansing, Michigan, and the Magic Johnson who became a global entity of such magnitude that he managed to grow far beyond the team and the sport he helped rescue from near irrelevance.

They Call Me Magic emphasizes breadth over depth in unfurling its version of Earvin/Magic’s life story from childhood through the steady rise of his legend as a player in high school and at Michigan State University, where he helped win an NCAA championship in that crucial year of 1979 and thus set in motion the career-long rivalry with the era’s other dominant player, Larry Bird (who is among the many other on-camera interview subjects throughout the series’ four installments). The range of talking heads is dauntingly vast—West, Abdul-Jabbar, and coaches Pat Riley and Paul Westhead, along with Barack Obama, Snoop Dogg, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, Anthony Fauci, Arsenio Hall, and, most prominently, Johnson’s wife, Cookie, whose own steel and grace come through in her recollections of waiting for him to finally tie the knot after their lengthy and (if the scenes between them conceived for Winning Time are even halfway true) tumultuous love affair.

They married not long before Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, the discovery, announcement, and reverberations of which take up all of They Call Me Magic’s third installment, bringing back rueful memories of how a stunned world believed such a finding constituted a death sentence. (At the time, it did.) Johnson not only survived but thrived in the wake of his Worst Day Ever, and his efforts to transform the way those with HIV are perceived, helped, and ultimately accepted by society now make up the most heroic chapter in Johnson’s (often-seemingly) charmed life. The fourth and final installment of They Call Me Magicfocuses on Johnson’s many business triumphs, including his part-ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The whole story amounts to a slow, ascending arc of triumph over adversity, and while Johnson’s storytelling is as entertaining, supple, and generous with detail as you’d expect, you come away with the uneasy sensation of watching an infomercial for a global conglomerate: Magic, Incorporated. It’s not that he’s not forthcoming with some of his own flaws and misfires. (That damned Magic Hour talk show he tried back in 1998 led a very short life and deserved to, which is acknowledged here by everybody except him.) The series inspires without illuminating anything profound about Magic Johnson beyond his being almost as good at living his life as he was at playing his game.

Maybe that’s enough. But despite some critics’ insistence that the facts in They Call Me Magic are more legitimate than the fictionalizing in Winning Time, I keep thinking of a scene near the climax of the HBO series’ eighth episode, when Clarke’s West is commiserating with Isaiah’s Earvin over a hard loss in the middle of the rookie’s first season. West is rambling once again over past championship losses and how his onetime teammate, the great Wilt Chamberlain, subverted his own will to win with his desire to be liked. To which Johnson glumly asks whether his own ingratiating personality was the reason West was so vehemently against drafting him for the Lakers. A strange look, sheepish and appraising, crosses West’s face—a silent acknowledgment that this young player has figured him out coupled with the realization that he just may be as special as everybody else believes. It’s probable, even likely, that this exchange never happened, and there’s nothing in They Call Me Magic that suggests it did. But even if the scene is one of Winning Time’s “fictionalized” moments, I think it somehow feels more like “real life”—whatever that may be—than some of the hagiography in They Call Me Magic.

Gene Seymour reviewed Robert Lipsyte’s SportsWorld in the fall 2018 Bookforum and roots for the 76ers in his Philadelphia hometown.