Winning Time (HBO Max) - Adam McKay takes on the Showtime Lakers era

Oh my lord, yes.

This is the project that apparently killed McKay’s relationship with Will Ferrell.

McKay wanted to pivot to more serious, or at least more topical stuff, while Ferrell did not.

But untangling the partnership with Ferrell was going to be complicated. For one, they shared the same manager, Jimmy Miller, who McKay began to see as an impediment to his career. “Everything kept steering back towards, ‘Well, when are you going to work with Will?’” he says. “And then finally I was like, ‘Jimmy, come on. Clearly I’m going in a different direction. Hopefully, it’s no hard feelings.’”

“I’ve learned some lessons,” McKay adds. “It’s always hard feelings.”

In 2019, Ferrell and McKay finally released a joint statement announcing their split, saying, “The two of us will always work together creatively and always be friends. And we recognize we are lucky as hell to end this venture as such.” But it wasn’t exactly true. The last time they talked was a curt phone conversation agreeing to break up. “I said, ‘Well, I mean, we’re splitting up the company,’” recounts McKay. “And he basically was like, ‘Yeah, we are,’ and basically was like, ‘Have a good life.’ And I’m like, ‘Fuck, Ferrell’s never going to talk to me again.’ So it ended not well.”

But that was just the end of their business partnership—the break in the friendship came next. McKay had been making an HBO limited series about the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team in the 1980s based on the book Showtime and Ferrell, a huge Lakers fan, had his heart set on the role of Jerry Buss, the legendary ’80s-era team owner. After Gary Sanchez dissolved, however, the Lakers show moved under McKay’s new production banner, Hyperobject Industries. And Ferrell, it turns out, was never McKay’s first choice. “The truth is, the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic,” he says. “And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss. And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.”

The person McKay wanted for Buss was John C. Reilly, who looks more like the real thing, and who is Ferrell’s best friend. McKay hesitated. “Didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” he says flatly. “Wanted to be respectful.”

In the end he cast Reilly in the role anyway—without telling Ferrell first. Ferrell was infuriated. “I should have called him and I didn’t,” says McKay. “And Reilly did, of course, because Reilly, he’s a stand-up guy.”

McKay says he’s written emails to Ferrell, attempting a rapprochement, but has never heard back. “I fucked up on how I handled that,” McKay laments. “It’s the old thing of keep your side of the street clean. I should have just done everything by the book.”

“In my head, I was like, ‘We’ll let all this blow over. Six months to a year, we’ll sit down, we’ll laugh about it and go, It’s all business junk, who gives a shit? We worked together for 25 years. Are we really going to let this go away?’” But Ferrell, he continues, “took it as a way deeper hurt than I ever imagined and I tried to reach out to him, and I reminded him of some slights that were thrown my way that were never apologized for.”

I don’t struggle to believe that Ferrell is a spoiled prima donna.

Fuck the Lakers, but anything with that much of a “Boogie Nights” vibe is probably worth watching.

It helps that all the people who are characters in it are basically disowning it, which is how you know it’s mostly true.

I loooooved the first episode. It’s pure Adam McKay through and through, and I can’t believe that John C. Reilly was the backup choice, because he is 100% having a ball in the roll. The actor playing Magic Johnson is also fantastic.

My only complaint is that HBO Max was having serious, serious video compression issues. I’m not sure if it’s the codec is having issues with the way the series looks (it’s got that 70s film grain everywhere), or what have you, but half the time it was low-rez, and then would suddenly sharpen to high-res in the middle of a scene, and then revert back to fuzzy low-rez.

Holy cow, that first episode was awesome!

Donald Sterling
Second Worst “Donald” of the '80s

Yeah, this was a great time. I was a little worried with all that cutesie breaking the fourth wall stuff at the beginning, but they eased up on that and it just got really fun.

Whoever that guy is playing Jerry West is really something…he’s just constantly seething.

That’s the Aussie great Jason Clarke! Aka, John Connor in Terminator Genisys and the CIA dude in Zero Dark Thirty!

Also, I did like this

I loved the first episode. My only concern right now is that they don’t reduce Larry Bird’s character to just a dumb hick.

Three episodes in and I’m completely hooked.

And if you were wondering, like I was, how it came to be that Bird and Magic both ended up making competing dynasties in the 1980s happen at two clubs that already had enjoyed some success (Lakers) and incredible success (Boston), here’s how that went down.

First, Larry Bird…
Bird originally enrolled at Indiana (as in Bobby Knight, Hoosiers, Red & White) in 1974 on a basketball scholarship, but dropped out of school after a month, citing homesickness, and inability to adjust to campus life. He went to a small tech school near his family home and worked odd jobs for a year and then re-enrolled in '75 at Indiana State (Terre Haute, Sycamores, Sky Blue uniforms). He then had to sit out a year due to having essentially “transferred” to State.

The upshot of that was that by NBA draft rules at the time, Larry Bird’s college “class” for draft eligibility was considered the 1977-1978 class – based on his initial enrollment at Indiana. And a lot of teams wanted to draft Bird after the '77-78 season, his second at Indiana State. But Bird ALSO had another year of NCAA eligibility, and he wasn’t super eager to go pro just yet. Portland and New Orleans and the Indiana Pacers all tried to get Larry to forget his senior year of college, but Bird wouldn’t commit, and they decided not to chance it in the draft.

Boston, however, was in full rebuild mode. Their roster was getting VERY old, and they were coming off some pretty mediocre seasons – terrible seasons by Celtics expectations. They’d traded an underperforming guard named Charlie Scott to the Lakers for Don Chaney, Kermit Washington, and an extra first-round pick the Lakers had acquired from a draft pick swap with Portland.

So in the 1978 draft, Boston held the #6 overall pick, as well as the #9 overall pick from Portland, via the Lakers. And so with two first round picks, the Celtics took a shot with Bird as the #6 overall. And of course, Larry wasn’t gonna sign with Boston in 1978. He and his dad accused Red Auerbach of low-balling them on a contract (which is true: Auerbach wouldn’t go over the $400k per year that he was paying Boston’s highest-paid player, Dave Cowens.)

Bird thus returns to Indiana State for the '78-79 season. After losing the championship game in the tourney to Magic Johnson and Michigan State, Boston has about 2 1/2 months to sign Bird before the 1979 draft, or Larry Legend is draft-eligible again. (Important to note: only juniors were eligible to be able to sign up until the next draft day; seniors had to be signed by the trade deadline of the season they were drafted before. This rule was changed after the Bird signing, eliminating this loophole for juniors who were drafted.) Which is incredible leverage for Bird to wield, and Auerbach finally has to relent and sign him to the richest rookie contract in NBA history to that time, $600k per year.

Next, Magic…
Magic Johnson’s path was a little more straightforward. He was an East Lansing kid who decided to go to the local university – Michigan State – so his working parents could see him play AND go to work the next day. But the Lakers…unlike Boston, the Lakers were NOT a bad team in 1979. They weren’t great, by any standard, but they were at least a playoff team and had some pieces – Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and rookie defensive specialist Michael Cooper.

So how’d a playoff team get the #1 overall pick in 1979? Well you saw the coin-flip scene in the first episode. That’s part of it. But then, how’d they get one of the top two picks in the 1979 draft? Thank the hapless New Orleans Jazz for that. In the 1970s, if you signed a designated “Veteran Free Agent” from another team, you had to compensate the team you signed the free agent from.

The Jazz decided for some reason that they were playoff contenders before the '78-79 season, and wanted some “insurance” for the creaky-kneed Pete Maravich. So they signed Lakers shooting guard Gail Goodrich, and then worked out a compensation deal with the Lakers that sent their first round pick to Los Angeles. (Problem for the Jazz: Goodrich’s knees were as bad as Pistol Pete’s by this time, and his production plummeted. And yep, Maravich’s knees didn’t hold up either, and the Jazz finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.)

And that’s how the Lakers had the #1 overall pick – Gail Goodrich. Magic entered the draft on the NBA’s “hardship clause” after his junior year at Michigan State, and as you see in the show, Jerry Buss was able to woo him away from his senior year in college. (And Buss was also able to to talk Jerry West out of wanting to draft Sidney Moncrief, too – though Moncrief is a hall of famer in his own right.)

BTW, the Chicago Bulls, who lost that coin toss to the Lakers, selected Dave Greenwood with the #2 overall pick. Greenwood was a serviceable power forward who made the 1979 all-rookie team, but never made an all star team and kind hung on for a decade as a journeyman post player. They passed on Moncrief who was the only future hall of famer besides Magic in a pretty woeful draft class.

Yeah, the show is fantastic, and a great look at the Association back when it was teetering on the brink of relevancy.

I never knew for a long time why I had to listen to my Sonics win the championship on the radio. It’s because they tape delayed the tv broadcast of the Finals.

Spent a ton of time trying to figure out who the actor playing Jerry Tarkanian was, because he looked so goddamn familiar.

And holy shit! SLATER!!

Catch ya later.

Now I’m all the more excited to start watching this!

I started reading the book it’s based on, and it’s terrific too. And I’m struck by how much the series – which McKay clearly telegraphs as taking liberties with the truth – actually ends up fairly close to the truth.

For filmed entertainment, you have to make some concessions. Jerry West didn’t throw shit around and have tantrums. But by the time Dr. Buss bought the Lakers, West was so drowning in stress that he knew he had to step away as head coach. So how do you show West buckling under stress in brief snippets of screen time? Well, you have him act out the way his character does in the series.

There’s a lot of that here. The series has a bunch of factual tentpoles and mile markers it needs to get to, and it will get there. But it’s going to need to bend a few facts to make that happen. (The end of episode 3 is another one; the murder of Victor Weiss didn’t exactly happen in the order of events depicted, but you get to the major point – body in the trunk of a car, murdered execution-style by what were probably organized crime figures.)

And Quincy Isaiah was just some one in a million casting luck.

BTW, if you’re a diehard, the first game of the Showtime era is on Youtube. :)

I’m a little worried about how slow its progressing. We are 3 episodes in and haven’t even gotten to the first game of the first season. Feels like they are going to have to squeeze a lot in to get to the bookend of the hiv announcement.

I once got to shake magics hand outside the forum club. Only because he forgot his gym bag and had to try to get back in by pulling up to the entrance away from the crowd. I was 17 years old and my friend and I drove to the forum hoping to get cheap last minute tickets. It was sold out but after half time we caught a door when somebody was leaving out one of the side club level exits and snuck in. This was in 1994 when magic had a brief 14 game coaching stint.

Some of the McKay fourth-wall-breaking exposition isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m in love with the performances! Ditto those few instances in the episodes where the filmstock shifts to that imperfect late 70s TV quality footage - it effectively captures how the era was mediated in a manner that few period pieces manage to pull off.

I think the sub-title of the show “The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” may give a hint as to where the focus of the show is, for sure. But then, as you mention, that sure makes it weird that the first episode starts with the way it does.

For me, I’m OK with where this focus on the show is now. I challenge anyone to name a crazier “What hugely impactful moment is happening TODAY!?!?” story in all of sport than the six months that commence with Jerry Buss getting into buying the Lakers and Paul Westhead some how ending up as coach and plucking Pat Riley from the broadcast booth to be his lone assistant. Or you can extend it out the full year and include Spencer Haywood going from being valuable power forward piece at season’s start to “So coked out we’ve gotta do something” suspension before the team takes on the Sixers and wins the championship in Magic and Buss’s first year (Beating Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma and the hated defending champ Supersonics in an 8-thousand seat gym along the way.)

All right, episode 4 and we finally get to see the team playing some ball. I had a mix of dread and anticipation because watching actors try to play sports can be pretty tough but I think the all did a decent job. Some nice edits helped the magic passes and Kareem sky hooks look decent.

Coop only had a few minutes of screen time and just a couple of lines but I think they did an awesome job of capturing him. Glad they threw in the line about his vertical too, lots of folks remember him for threes but dude could fly.

Best episode yet.