With the season finale of Winning Time, HBO has the exact same problem that NBA execs, sportswriters, and basketball fans had back in 1980. Instead of the wildly anticipated rematch of college rivals and All-Star rookies Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that the league (and the show) has been teasing for months, Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers instead faced the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals. Removed from all other contexts, it was still a fine match-up between an aging great (Julius “Dr. J” Erving) and the flashy rookie who idolized him. But needing more theatrics for its climactic episode, the show builds the finale around two real-life incidents that fall short of actual drama when stretched out for an hourlong season finale.
“Promised Land” begins in the second half of game five of the NBA finals, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lands awkwardly after a shot and severely sprains his ankle. As the shell-shocked Lakers quickly give up their lead to the Sixers, Abdul-Jabbar ignores the advice of the team doctor and returns in the fourth quarter to lead the Lakers to victory and get within one more win for the NBA championship. But when he whispers to Magic to help him walk off the court, it becomes clear that the Lakers’ captain won’t be able to take the court in game six, let alone fly across the country to Philadelphia.
The next morning in Jerry Buss’s office, Claire Rothman, in her biggest character arc moment of the series, tells Buss good financial news as opposed to bad. But Buss and his anxious business partner Frank Mariani can’t pay off Great Western right away. That’s because Buss’s late mother was the team’s treasurer, and until he appoints a replacement, nothing can be signed. So he brings in his beloved daughter and devoted (unpaid) employee Jeanie into his office to discuss the position. He tells Jeanie it was so nice seeing her with her brothers at Grandma’s funeral and that it made him realize he wants to establish the Lakers as a family business. But Jeanie, expecting her promotion, instantly deflates when her father tasks her with showing her two brothers around the Forum and letting him know which son’s interest is piqued the most.
With Kareem unofficially out for game six, there’s a slight chance for Spencer Haywood to join the team. At least that’s what he tells his two drug addict buddies, one of whom is the boa constrictor-owning weirdo who lent a bloodthirsty Haywood a gun in the previous episode. The hit on the Lakers (which Laker? All of them?) Is off, he tells them, as he jumps on the phone with his agent, hoping for good news. But after cutting the call short, he tells them the hit is back on. In a similar, albeit less drug-induced delirium, Magic hallucinates Larry Bird in his living room, where the two trade barbs over Bird winning the Rookie of the Year Award.
As Magic arrives at LAX, he’s met by Kareem’s girlfriend Cheryl Pistono, who tells him that the big man wants to chat in secret before the team flies off to Philly. In the short-term parking lot, Magic becomes the first to know that Kareem’s injury will knock him out of the series. But of even more importance, Kareem tells the rookie that at the start of this season, he was just going through the motions and cashing checks for as long as his body could take it, but along came this cocky rookie with a smile as wide as Kareem’s wingspan to reinvigorate the fire within him. When Magic gets on the plane, he tells his teammates that everything will be alright because he’s going to start at center for game six. Coach Paul Westhead and assistant coach Pat Riley worry about the gambit, but earlier in the episode, former coach Jack McKinney apologized to Westhead in the form of hand-written game notes. And these notes, which account for a scenario where Abdul-Jabbar is injured, match up precisely with the new plan.
While Magic is his usual arrogant self, literally everyone else – including Commissioner Larry O’Brien, who doesn’t even show up to game six – thinks that a game seven is inevitable. When the Lakers jump to an early lead, that no-show becomes a headache for deputy commissioner David Stern who places a panicked call to get O’Brien on a helicopter from NYC to Philadelphia to save the league the embarrassment of its boss missing the championship trophy ceremony. By halftime, the Sixers manage to tie the game up, and an already-winded Magic asks a team employee to find out the Rookie of the Year vote total for motivation. However, Riley intercepts the delivery and tears it up before it reaches Magic.
As Kareem watches the second half from home, Winning Time, as if playing on Kareem’s bad ankle, limps to its conclusion. An inherent problem with the show is that it can only stretch reality so much, and the reality of game six is that the Lakers easily ran away with the second half and won the game by 16 points. So to introduce some much-needed drama, Magic Johnson starts to run out of gas until Riley lets him know that Larry Bird won the Rookie of the Year vote by a ludicrous 60 first-place votes to Magic’s three. That slight induces a second wind from Magic, who then leads the Lakers to victory in a quick montage that’s just long enough to allow Commissioner O’Brien to fly into the City of Brotherly Love.
Back at his house, Kareem, riddled with guilt over his decision to kick Spencer Haywood off the team, is cheered up by Cheryl, who tells him that he’ll be taking a phone call on live TV to accept his much-deserved NBA Finals MVP Award. But when Magic is met in the hallway by David Stern, the future NBA Commissioner with big plans for the league, slyly suggests to the rookie that he accept the award due to his heroic game six performance. After Kareem watches Magic take the award he should’ve won, the captain drives over to Spencer Haywood’s house in one of the most frustrating scenes of the show.
While I agree with Jerry West (who’s threatened to take the show to the Supreme Court) that his depiction is ludicrous, I don’t blame the show for taking certain liberties with the rest of its real-life characters. It’s a fictional television show, not a glossy docuseries endorsed by Magic Johnson and the Lakers organization. So when Winning Time was gifted an incredible real-life moment – a coked-out, recently-cut Spencer Haywood hiring two friends to kill coach Paul Westhead before having a come-to-Jesus moment – why did they remove Westhead from the equation? What was the point of having Haywood and Westhead passively-aggressively spar for several episodes after the interim coach, mishearing a comment by Haywood, benched his starting power forward? It’s bad enough that they literally introduce Chekhov’s Gun in episode nine only to not fire it in episode ten. But here was a golden opportunity for Winning Time: The one time they didn’t have to rewrite history to increase the drama in a manner that makes sense for its characters. Instead, they blew a gimme lay-up, drew a flagrant two foul trying to grab their own missed shot, knocked some poor kid’s popcorn out of his hands, and then for good measure, slipped all over the puke of a drunk courtside fan.
So instead, the show’s big dramatic climax is a corny confrontation between a maudlin, gun-toting Haywood and crisis negotiator Abdul-Jabbar, who successfully pleads with Haywood to think about his daughter before making any rash choices. The next morning, as the rest of the Lakers return to Los Angeles for their celebration in The Forum’s parking lots, Jerry Buss surprises Rothman by giving her the job of Treasurer and Vice President over Jeanie or her two brothers. Cue one more straight-to-camera speech by Jerry Buss that references yet another monologue from the pilot, who then thankfully cuts it short since he has a victory parade to attend.
• Breaking-the-Fourth-Wall Expository Revelation of the Episode: Except for monologues by Jerry Buss to start and end the episode, there’s no real Adam McKay – mandated breaking of the fourth wall in this episode. This is a shame because I was starting to enjoy how close Winning Time came to Magic Johnson’s Twitter account, which has been lampooned for years for insight like this.
• Winning Time‘s opening credits, with its real and fake b-roll of cliched’ 80s LA imagery, was never going to join the pantheon of Great HBO Intros. But the song choice has confounded me all season. Of all the iconic songs they could’ve chosen to set the mood of the 1980s (or any era in Los Angeles), they went with Philadelphia rapper Black Thought’s guest verse from Oakland group the Coup’s “My Favorite Mutiny,” a 2006 track with a very mid-aughts beat.
• The show never really explains why Jerry West sticks around after he quits coaching the team in episode two. After resigning, West stayed in the organization as a scout and unofficial consultant for the team. In 1982, he became the team’s GM and stuck with them until the end of the 2000 season, when he clashed with coach (and Jeanie Buss’s then-boyfriend) Phil Jackson.