When “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” opened with a scene set right before Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) publicly revealing his positive HIV diagnosis, it wasn’t clear how far the series would go before it looped back around to the early ’90s. Although series co-creator Max Borenstein hoped that the HBO series would have multiple seasons to tell the story of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, all that narrative real estate was far from a guarantee. That faith was officially paid off by HBO when it announced the series’ Season 2 renewal back in early April.
“There’s this bargain with the audience that if they give you their time, you’re going to do your very best to tell them this long form story that will hopefully ultimately cohere. In our case, we very much know where we’re going,” Borenstein said. “It’s on us to do our very best to make it worthy of continuing. Everyone crosses their fingers and takes a breath and takes the plunge.”
Even with diligent planning, there’s a little luck along the way too. “Promised Land,” the season-capping Episode 10 directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, centers on Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. It’s a tiny moment, but “Winning Time” recreates an almost-miraculous halfcourt shot by Magic Johnson that nearly drops in as the buzzer sounds. It flies by in a blink, which isn’t all that much quicker than it took to capture once the cameras were rolling.
“I couldn’t believe they got it. Basically, it looks identical. And it’s not CGI. That was one of their first takes,” Borenstein said. “That’s one of those things where you just thank the movie gods and don’t question it. You put great, talented people who know what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve. And then, once the things like that happen, it’s like a blessing.”
Taking a break from he and the show’s writers planning out the series’ sophomore season, Borenstein spoke with IndieWire about the response to the show and how certain elements were always meant to shift going forward. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
At what point did you know that Game 6 was the endpoint, or at least the emotional crest for this season?
What’s really exciting about this show is using it as an exploration of these characters, rather than just trying to hit the marks of what would be the Wikipedia page of what happened over the course of the ’80s. It was obvious that the end of the first season, since so much happens, would be the end of their first season, 1979-80. The challenge was: How do you leave the drama hanging? On the surface, in the typical sports movie way, everything resolves itself so neatly, wrapped up a little bow, and they win the championship. But as we started to dig into these characters, it became clear that while they do win, winning the championship is not the end of the sports story that we’re telling. Most sports stories that have been told on film are essentially stories that end with a win or a loss. This is a story of a dynasty. A win or a loss, it happens at a moment in time. So the idea of finding a way to win the championship without burning out the energy of what makes us excited about the series, that really was the challenge in this final episode.
The Larry Bird (Sean Small) that exists in this series is filtered through Magic’s perception in this season. But it seems like that last moment of him out practicing in the backyard after the Finals hints that this character might grow to be more of his own person as this show goes along.
Anyone who knows the story of these two guys, has seen the documentaries or read about them, knows that what starts out as an intense bitter resentment and rivalry ultimately became very, very deep complicated friendship. In a way, they were the only two guys who really understood each other and so they were very uniquely bonded.
In our show, hopefully we have an opportunity to get there. Getting to face the Celtics is like the White Walkers in “Game of Thrones.” They flirt with it for quite a while in this iteration of the dynasty and then only eventually get there. When they do, it becomes a rivalry for the ages. And so this is the hint that he’s more than just the villain, that there’s an internal presence there, and that he’s every bit as competitive and driven as Magic Johnson. Hopefully we have an opportunity to get to that place where we get to explore the beginnings of their friendship and get into Larry’s POV, which is certainly part of our ambition eventually.
Late in the season, you show Kareem and Magic practicing the baby sky hook. That’s going to come back in a big way a few years down the line. What is it like to plant those kinds of seeds and know that for a percentage of the people watching, they know exactly why you’re doing that?
It does have a similarity to a well-known novel or story where, you know, people are able to go, “Oh, I see…” Whether it be that or Pat Riley’s haircut or his Armani suit, there’s a number of things that have a kind of genre quality. When Pat Riley puts on the suit and flips back his hair, I want people to cheer the way they would if it was Batman or Superman or any other hero. I think there’s something really fun about being able to set up and play with audience’s expectations.
At the same time, you’re asking people to be patient with you, because we’re not starting at an obvious place. For example, with Pat, we’re starting a few years before he’s become the thing that everyone thinks they know him as. I think there’s a great satisfaction in then watching the evolution of how he gets from Point A to Point B. But it’s one of the fun things, being able to set that up and know there’s a certain percentage of the audience that’s now waiting for that to payoff. We want to pay it off in a way that will be a little bit surprising.
Spencer Haywood’s story becomes a big part of these last couple episodes. When you’re talking about somebody who’s facing addiction, were there particular things that you kept in mind when writing dialogue and breaking those scenes?
We really try to take all of these characters really seriously, but one of the beauties of the show is that it has this light-on-its-feet tone. At the same time, we’re using that in order to give levity to some heavy shit. In the case of Spencer Haywood, we knew that we wanted to present his drug use not simply as “Behind the Music” excess, but rather as an expression of his trauma. His autobiography is really phenomenal and I highly recommend it. He talks a lot about his childhood and growing up as a sharecropper and the traumatic experience that he had in his day-to-day life.
Once he had all the money in the world and was married to Iman and had, from the outside, everything a man could ask for, it didn’t take away the pain. And that moment, that realization for someone who’s been through trauma, that nothing can take it away is actually a lot of times what really causes the addiction to get worse. So it was really important to us to treat that with respect. There’s always something more than just the good times going too far. In the case of Spencer Haywood, it nearly killed him and ultimately, today he’s having an incredible second act.
There are some other subjects of the show who have responded to it. If they’d had a chance to see all 10 episodes, do you think they would have responded differently?
I don’t know how odd it must be. I can only imagine how strange it would be to have any part of my life adapted for any screen, big or small. Far be it from me to judge anyone’s reaction. Frankly, if it were about me, I don’t know if I would want to actually watch it. All I can say is that it’s been made with a great deal of appreciation and respect by everyone behind the camera and in front of it. These people whose lives we’re adapting aspects of for the story, these are all people we admire greatly. For those of them who do watch, I always hope that that comes through.
But of course, as you say, we’re telling an epic, a journey. It’s not a single movie, where everything you say comes out all at once. By its nature, we are telling the origin story of all of these characters who have now gone on to become legendary, each in their own right. But when we meet them in 1979 and 1980, it’s not surprising to me that audiences have been sometimes surprised by what they’re seeing. This isn’t the Pat Riley they expected to see and this isn’t the Jerry West they think they know. It is, of course, a dramatization, and we’re not doing a documentary. So it’s something where we’re making choices and trying to tell the story of a decade in what will hopefully be a few seasons of television.
It’s also a very, very heavily researched show. Not only did we read Jeff Pearlman’s book, we read everything Jeff Perlman read. We read everything that we could get our hands on about this period, including newspaper articles from LexisNexis, every day, from every outlet we could find. We found extraordinary stuff. Paul Westhead’s kidney stone, that’s something that we found out about reading an article from that day in Philadelphia, and going, “Oh, my God, that’s an incredible externalization of his internal state in that moment.” But it really happened. Amongst those many, many great sources, all of these people being people who have lived in the public eye, many of them have written their own stories. That includes Kareem, that includes Jerry West, who wrote maybe my favorite memoir of the many books that we drew upon for research on the show. “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” I highly recommend it. Our work was cut out for us in terms of absorbing all of this stuff. I hope we’ve done it justice.
Along those lines, now having gone through this process of making Season 1, what’s the thing that you know now about making the show that you either you wish you would have known at the start or that you’re excited to take forward?
I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done and excited to have a second season now to continue. The greatest satisfaction has been to see the responses from fans and online and from some of the people. In the case of Jack McKinney, we got through Jeff Pearlman a heartbreakingly beautiful series of texts from his family, from his wife and daughters who watched the show. They came in skeptical, of course, but also came away just really emotionally moved and to see their father and husband finally given his due. Even Lakers fans had forgotten that name, but he really was so instrumental. Spencer Haywood has been a real supporter, too. A lot of these people had an impact that didn’t deserve to be forgotten, and so the extent to which our show has been able to shine a light on those guys has been really gratifying. And we want to do more of that.
“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” Season 1 is now available to stream on HBO Max.