Tonight’s 10th and final episode of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty begins with the kind of adversity the team and owner Jerry Buss have overcome all through this charmed ’79-’80 NBA season. In the final moments of Game 5 of the finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar launches his patented sky hook, only to land wrong and severely sprain his ankle. The HOF center, dominant to this point, shrugs off the pain and wills the Lakers to being a win away from the NBA title. Magic Johnson, meanwhile, learns he has lost Rookie of the Year to his rival Larry Bird, who materializes in Magic’s apartment in a vision, meant to tear away at the Laker star’s confidence.
And Jerry Buss, fresh from burying his mother, tells long-suffering daughter Jeanie that he needs a favor from her in working up a succession plan. He wants her to help him figure out which of his sons should be heir apparent. After caring for his grandmother and proving herself in the Lakers power structure, Jeanie is crushed. These problems are minor compared to those of Spencer Haywood, the power forward kicked to the curb by Coach Paul Westhead over his crack cocaine addiction. Junkies are his companions now as he deludes himself into thinking Abdul-Jabbar’s injury will have his old team begging him to return. When that doesn’t happen, his notion to press his junkie friends to murder Coach Westhead is a go.
Who knew there was this level of behind the scenes drama in the construction of the Lakers Showtime dynasty? It is just part of the intricate tapestry of a remarkable 10-episode first season. Sure, the drama has taken creative liberties that raised the ire of the real Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West, but who would imagine we’d care about a long forgotten season and championship round that didn’t involve Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, as Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers upset Boston to make it to the finals?
Westhead (Jason Segel) is visited by his former best friend Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), the journeyman coach who choreographed the freewheeling Showtime offense for the Lakers, only to scramble his brains and nearly die from a high speed fall off a bicycle. While the two men had a falling out when Westhead helped thwart McKinney’s attempt to rush his recovery and take back his coaching job for the playoffs, McKinney gives Westhead the blueprint to beat the Julius Erving Sixers even with Abdul-Jabbar out. Letts’ performance as the tragic figure of McKinney has been one of the highlights of the season and might well put the playwright/actor in awards contention.
Next, Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) tells Magic (Quincy Isaiah) he won’t be coming back for the rest of the finals. After explaining how Magic’s infectious charms changed an old star’s cynical mindset, he demands that Johnson step up and bring home the title and gives Magic his jersey to rally the team. On the team plane, the coaches are uptight as are the players. Until Magic comes aboard with a boom box and brimming with confidence and Kareem’s jersey, as he tells them he’s playing center, despite giving up a half foot to his rival center. When Westhead opens the diagram left him by McKinney, the former coach also recommended Magic as center. Things might just be okay in Lakers land.
Dr. Buss brings his two sons with him to crappy seats given him by the 76ers. There to greet him is nemesis Red Auerbach of the Celtics, who tells him the Lakers will lose, and that his Celtics player Bird won Rookie of the Year, his coach Bill Fitch won coach of the year and Auerbach won top executive. Says Buss: “isn’t that something? You guys have won everything that doesn’t count.”
Abdul-Jabbar can’t bear to watch the game, but his girlfriend talks him into it. And high strung Lakers consultant Jerry West hits the bottle – Pepto Bismol — he wanders around the catacombs of the arena in Philly, as he can’t bear to watch in the gym. Johnson is feeling none of this pressure as he smiles while walking past 76ers superstar Julius Erving. “What are you smiling about, young blood,” he asks. “Guess I can’t believe I’m about to take a ring from Dr. J,” the 20-year old Magic answers. Game on.
Cut to Bird’s home in French Lick, Indiana. He’s watching with family. “Shut the f*ck up,” Bird says in quieting a relative who makes a racial comment. “He’s there, and I ain’t.” As the Lakers build a lead, commissioner-in-waiting tells Buss he’s leaving to get Commissioner Larry O’Brien to fly in by helicopter and oh, yeah, they’ll have to bring the championship trophy, indication nobody expected the Lakers to be competitive without Abdul-Jabbar.
The teams are tied 60-60 at the half. In the locker room, co-coach Pat Riley is given by an assistant the results of Magic Johnson’s losing rookie of the year vote. Coach Westhead gives his customary halftime Shakespeare speech, with Riley underscoring, “Let’s kill those f*ckers.” The Lakers come out breathing fire, but cannot shake the 76ers, despite Magic’s clinic in no-look passes, playmaking, shooting and rebounding. West is melting down even as the Lakers are up 10 at the end of the third quarter. Cut to Spencer Haywood, who is smoking crack and sweating profusely. After a dog-tired Magic throws an errant pass that brings the 76ers within one point with the clock running down, the star calls time out and limps to the bench, exhausted. Things don’t look good. Westhead asks for two minutes to glory, but Riley has something better. He tells Magic, 63-3. “Huh,” Magic says. “The rookie vote,” Riley says. “Bird won, 63-3.” That brings Johnson to his feet, the trademark smile gone from his face. It’s like Riley gave him a B-12 shot.
A Magic pass finds teammate Michael Cooper in ideal position for a score, but he’s fouled hard and rendered unconscious. Cooper staggers to his feet and sinks both free throws to put the Lakers up three. Norm Nixon steals the inbounds pass, gets the ball to Magic who sets the dagger with a thunderous dunk. The clock runs out and the Lakers win the 1980 NBA Championship.
Buss enjoys a moment to reflect on keeping his promise to his mother (Sally Field), and Abdul-Jabbar waits for the call that will present him with the NBA Finals MVP after carrying the team on his back the first four games. In the tunnel, David Stern tells Magic that the league wants him to accept MVP, as the visionary Stern sees the entire NBA rising on the shoulders of Johnson and Bird. West, meanwhile, is coronated the Lakers next GM by Bill Sharman, as storylines for Season 2 solidify.
One touching epitaph: instead of sulking about not winning MVP, Abdul-Jabbar knocks on the door of his former teammate Spencer Haywood, who is armed and in a crack-induced tailspin. Abdul-Jabbar helps Haywood see the light, in a real MVP moment.
The last word goes to Buss, who after naming Claire Rothman his new treasurer and vice president, stares at the camera and renews his fixations about swans. Previously, he described how, above the water, the animal is the height of grace but under the surface, there is furious paddling going on that nobody sees. At the start of the finale, he talks about how, just before they die, swans deliver a melodic song, a swan song. Staring at the camera Buss says, “I went through 80 million dollars this season. I got a few thousand left in the bank, a fresh credit line, and the best team in basketball. Swan song? Watch me paddle, motherf*cker.”
Now, a review of the season and a look at next season with EP and showrunner Max Borenstein.
DEADLINE: I want you to take us through the finale, and also how you’ve processed the critical comments of former Lakes greats like Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. West asked for a retraction of his depiction as a high-strung executive; Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column saying that among other things, that the show was boring and the characters were cardboard, and that he didn’t tell the young actor in his Airplane! movie scene to “go f*ck himself” when the kid asked for an autograph. He wrote that he never said that to any kid, and it undermined his kid-directed charitable endeavors. And there’s a letter to the editor in the LA Times from the Airplane! filmmakers denying that happened. But it’s clear that what you did was extrapolate info from the Jeff Pearlman book the series was based on. Right on page 39, his teammate Kurt Rambis’ wife Linda, who was involved in the organization, says, “’Some little kid would ask for an autograph and he’d say, ‘Go f*ck yourself,’” said Linda Rambis, who worked as the vice president and general manager of Forum tennis during the early 1980s. “But Kareem was, otherwise, an incredible professional.” Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player who’s regarded as greatest GM of his era, was portrayed by Jason Clarke as a man who, when he won a championship ring, could only focus on all the ones he didn’t win when the Boston Celtics dynasty knocked off his Lakers, year after year. He might not have thrown his trophy at a window, but it seemed from here this was not a conveyance of ridicule as much as someone who became a great player and GM because his drive to win was so strong it became all-consuming…
MAX BORENSTEIN: Thank you.
DEADLINE: Anything you want to say to answer those critics, who made the Showtime Lakers happen?
Borenstein: As you know from talking to me and the other cast [we did the Deadline TV Contenders panel with Quincy Isaiah and John C. Reilly], the show has been made with such a great deal of fandom and affection for everyone involved. I’m a huge Lakers fan, everyone portraying every one of these characters is just an enormous admirer of everything these people have accomplished. And it’s also a show that’s been made with such a great deal of research. One of the great things about telling a story about people who have lived their lives in the public eye is that they have told their own story, in almost every case. The only person who doesn’t have a biography or an autobiography is Jerry Buss. Everybody else has told their own story, beautifully and eloquently.
Jerry West’s book West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read by an athlete about his journey, which is beautiful and was a really wonderful resource for us. Among many, many other books, including Kareem’s book. We’ve really drawn on all of that, and the other thing that I think is becoming clear as people have watched almost the entire season is that we’re telling an epic journey. From where these characters began in 1979, when we first meet them, compared to where they are today. They were not yet fully formed. Jerry West and Pat Riley had retired from playing, but each had yet to discover his second act when we met them, and at that moment in their lives, they have no idea what that second act will bring.
We as fans know that Pat Riley’s going to become this iconic coach with the slicked back hair and the Armani suits. But that’s in the future. We know that Jerry West is going to become one of if not the greatest general managers in all of sports, but that too is in the future. None of these characters have yet become the statuary outside the arena which they now are. It has been a joy to watch how audiences respond to the surprises when they meet Pat Riley and he’s got shaggy hair and a mustache. I had the same, wait a minute, that’s not Pat Riley reaction, at the beginning. Adrien Brody read the scripts and I sent him some scenes when we were first talking about this. He said, wait a minute, Pat Riley has hair and the Armani and like that’s what he was excited about. He needed photographic evidence, and I showed him, look, this is how he started. I talked him through Pat’s slow burn, tantric process and that he’d feel the satisfaction of watching this person start to become the legend. It became clearer to audiences that this was an origin story for these iconic figures, for the league, and for a culturally transformative moment in our collective American culture.
DEADLINE: Doesn’t it bother you a bit that the subjects of your series are critical? To tell an entertaining story that keeps viewers going for 10 episodes, do you have to abandon the idea that everyone you depict has to love it, and everything depicted must be something that happened just like that?
BORENSTEIN: This is a long process I first went through in Worth, the film about Kenneth Feinberg, the special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. He was not a public person, he was a private citizen, a lawyer who stepped into the public eye who did this thing, and here we were adapting his story. It was a decade long courtship to get him to a place of being comfortable with the idea that we were going to take his story, and dramatize it. Trying to be as faithful as we could to the sort of capital key truth of it, but it was challenging for him to wrap his head around what often seemed like minutia to me, but mattered to him because it was his life. I can only imagine how weird it would be to have a movie or show made of any part of my own life. I know that it would be an odd, uncomfortable experience, and I would never deem to judge anyone’s response to that. All I know is from our end, the good faith with which we are approaching it as fans and admirers. In my case, I’m deeply moved by everything that these people have accomplished, and the thing that moves me most is that they’re human beings who weren’t born legends and icons. They had to struggle with, as we all do, the wounds of their pasts, and all these different things in order to achieve what they did. That is what makes them heroic and inspiring. We’ve approached it in that manner, and with such a tremendous amount of research. Three years of reading not only the books that are written about it, and their own books, but also we had a researcher who has pulled every article off of LexisNexis from every periodical and every daily covering this team. A lot of the great nuggets implanted in the show, people have not even really commented on…I think we’re going to, at some point, maybe between seasons, just for the fun of it, show people where so much of this comes from. Little things like Paul Westhead having a kidney stone in that first game back to Philadelphia, where he comes from, that’s a fact, and we found that when we were reading these articles about the game. It was in none of the books. Paul Westhead since has written his own book, and he talks about it, but you know it was one of these things that was lost to time and then, we found it, and you realize, wow, what an incredible externalization of the anguish that he was going through in that moment in his conflict with [Jack] McKinney, his mentor. There are countless things like that that we found through this research that are these little gifts that the true story gives you, and then it’s incumbent on the dramatist to say, okay, we can’t have every fact, we have to pick and choose, and sometimes streamline and make those facts work for the larger story. To tell the story of the history rather than simply reciting the moment-to-moment.
DEADLINE: Well then, a couple of surprising plot points. In the finale, Abdul-Jabbar played heroically with a badly sprained ankle in Game 5 of the finals against the 76ers. He was told he was winning the MVP award awarded by Sport magazine. But Kareem is at home for the clinching Game 6, and it’s Magic Johnson who leads the team to the championship in his rookie season. And future visionary Commissioner David Stern tells Magic, “You’re here. I told you that you and Larry Bird are the future of the NBA, and you are getting the award.” That really happen?
BORENSTEIN: Yeah, indeed. We don’t know exactly how the conversation transpired, but if I’m not mistaken, it’s a story we found Kareem telling in his book. Or it might have been in the book The Show by Roland Lazenby and David and some others, but let’s confirm that the Sport magazine writers had voted already for Kareem to win even just based on his performance in the initial five games. And then, of course, Magic had what is probably the most memorable singular performance in all of Finals history, in most any sport, and he wound up receiving the Finals MVP. Kareem felt a definite sense, I think, as he expressed that there was a decision made that because Magic was there, and because he has that charisma that it made sense. David Stern’s involvement is not something that we’re aware of, but we know that it was a league decision. And David is the man most responsible, ultimately, for transforming the NBA from what it was into what we know it to be. And we were able to take those events that we learned about and dramatize it in the way that keys up the beginning of the Magic/Bird era that is the step towards Michael Jordan. And that’s the moment that the genie’s out of the bottle and the world changes.
DEADLINE: One thing that wasn’t exactly true came when Spencer Haywood, the troubled power forward kicked to the curb during the playoffs by Coach Paul Westhead because he was smoking crack, planned to have the coach murdered. I read in the book that the plot was undone when Haywood’s mother called him, realized his state of mind and that he was planning to do something dangerous, and threatened to send the police to his home if he didn’t knock it off and get help. Instead, you had Abdul-Jabbar come to Haywood’s house, convince his former teammate to put down the gun, and tell him he still believed in Haywood. Touching scene. What rules did you set for invention when you set out to tell this fact-based story?
BORENSTEIN: Well, one of the challenges in the art of dramatization is, there are no strict rules. It’s a constant judgement call, and you know we have a few sorts of stars that we serve. We did a tremendous amount of research to know the facts, and we couldn’t even if we wanted to, get behind closed doors to know what transpires. We can’t show 80 games, so we have to make choices in service of a larger truth. You’re telling the simplified version of events that’s going to hopefully get at the spirit of the truth rather than necessarily a reportage of the facts. Docudramas have done that forever. Where we’ve made those choices, it’s always our intent to find a way to really capture that spirit of the truth.
I was just reading this beautiful thing that David Milch wrote about writing, where he talks about Deadwood and quotes Melville and talks about the difference between the reportage of facts and finding what Melville called the truth, is oftentimes filling in the shape beneath the iceberg of the facts that poke above. The way we look at it is, the tips of the iceberg are the key important incidents; who won what games in the Finals, who got traded and didn’t get traded, and what kind of people the characters were. Then it’s incumbent on us to try to find the story that can connect those tips of the iceberg by filling in what’s underneath the water. Sometimes, those are things that we’ll never know. Like, I’ll never know the conversation between Magic Johnson and Pat Riley before that game. I know that they say they talked, and then you read what they each write about it, and it’s a little bit different as it would be…
DEADLINE: You mean when Riley tells Magic in those final moments how lopsided was the Rookie of the Year vote won by rival Larry Bird, 63-3, and it gives the tired star a dose of jet fuel to finish the game and the 76ers…
BORENSTEIN: Some of it is just the inherent opaque capacity of what went on, with 10 different things happening. We have to choose one because we can’t bore the audience. We know that in reality Spencer Haywood’s mother called him and that was the reason why he called off the hit, but we also know that he had a relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and based on what their characters are and based on Kareem’s compassion for him as a human being and as a fellow traveler of his generation in the NBA, we imagined our way into a scene that felt true and plausible, even if it wasn’t exactly the way that that moment went down in reality. That’s all part of the toolkit of it, and we’re really proud of the choices we made. Ultimately, it is on us to set our barometer.
DEADLINE: So, Riley motivated Magic by telling him the MVP vote at just the right moment? That wasn’t in Pearlman’s book.
BORENSTEIN: It did happen. Now, the moment that we dramatize it, off the top of my head, I want to say it may have happened slightly earlier in the game, but that is 100% true that the vote was 63 to 3 and that Magic, when he found out, it became his motivating factor. It was one of those little tidbits that is a gift. The thing that’s so special about this show and the reason I feel so blessed to have lucked into it, is that it’s like adapting the great American novel. The story is so rich, it’s such a cross section of incredible figures from high and low and different facets of American life, and they’re involved in these tips of the iceberg incidents that have become part of our cultural consciousness. But underneath the water, there’s so many other fascinating aspects of the connective tissue that people don’t know.
DEADLINE: There are certainly connections to movies like Boogie Nights, in that you captured the essence of a time and place that in this #MeToo moment would never be tolerated. The sex, the cocaine of the ‘80s, which were all over Pearlman’s book as many of these young athletes and team owner Jerry Buss were enthusiastic participants in the decadence of the moment. It sets the story beyond the 30 for 30 docus that appeal to hardcore sports fans. This is less about results on the basketball court and grabs onto a cultural zeitgeist moment. What was your eureka moment, that you realized the story had the potential to fulfill that?
BORENSTEIN: There’s a few of them. I think on the cultural level, you hit the nail on the head about the period. It was a moment of transformation in our culture in the ‘80s. The ‘70s were this holdover of the ‘60s and that free love era and the leftist politics. The ‘70s with this sort of moment of transition, and you know what we know of the ‘80s has kind of given us so much of what our current world is, for better and for worse, politically, the Me generation stuff, and culturally, a lot of this sort of transformation in America. You could tell the story through several different lenses. It’s not an accident this team is in LA, in Hollywood, this quintessential modern American city. To me, New York is almost like if you took a European city and put it on steroids, whereas, LA is an American city that shouldn’t exist. It’s only a sheer act of willpower to take this place in the desert and turn it into a city because someone decides, I want to. And here Jerry Buss, this quintessential American guy who remakes himself. He comes from Wyoming from the dust bowl, from the bread lines. He comes out to Los Angeles, falls in love with the dream of sunshine and palm trees and Hollywood, and he can’t buy a movie studio because he can’t afford it, he can’t buy a baseball team or a football team because he can’t afford it, so he buys into basketball. And he turns basketball into something that combines Hollywood and sports in a way that it never had been done before. That creates a new idea of what culture and entertainment can be, and he does it because his personality is one that’s Gatsby-like in the positives and the negatives or in the foibles, and a willpower that is incredibly inspiring.
It also has its seeds of complexity and sometimes darkness that make you think about other American hucksters, P.T. Barnum and people like that, these great men and women who transform the world, but are one step away from pulling a fast one. That’s what America is all about. Wish fulfillment, with complexity.
On the character level, for me, the eureka moment was finding the personal connection and common denominator with all of the characters. When you look at it from the outside in, you go, these are the greatest athletes ever to play the game. How do I connect to that and where can I find a foothold in these incredible athletes that I can understand being the person I am, and most people are. We admire it, but it’s such a rarified stratosphere, but when you look at Magic Johnson and Jerry West, for example, it’s two utterly dissimilar characters on the face of it. As he says in his book, Jerry West is the tormented man who, like you pointed out, won a championship but all he can think of are the times that he lost because that’s his personality. He desperately wishes he could do that over, he can’t step foot in the Boston Garden, and he’s this haunted basketball genius. Magic Johnson is also a genius in basketball, but on the surface, a guy that, because his smile, charisma, and star power, these characters couldn’t be more dissimilar. But one of my favorite scenes comes at the end of Episode Eight. West had been skeptical of drafting Magic early on partly because not knowing if he had the hardness and the killer instincts that West believes a real champion needs. Magic said, you still think I’m soft? West says, no f*cking way. You hide it with that smile because we have a different surface, but underneath, you have same killer instinct I have, and that’s the same common denominator that Larry Bird has. It’s the reason why, ultimately, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson become the dearest of friends. It’s a common denominator for every one of these characters, including Claire Rothman, Jeanie Buss and Jerry Buss. They all have a drive inside them to achieve something that is, you can call it immortality. They might be happier people if they simply enjoyed their lives, but there’s something inside them, different kinds of damage and wounds that play a role.
Pat Riley’s father was a would-be baseball player, who had one hit in the majors, and then spent his life coaching minor league ball just hoping to get back to the big show. He never got there, and Pat Riley carries that generational burden with him so that his success as a coach, ultimately, was fulfilling some of his father’s thwarted ambitions.
Jerry Buss, he had this single mother who took him to Hollywood, to LA, for the first time, but they couldn’t afford it. She winds up in a horrible marriage with his abusive alcoholic step-father. That childhood wound drove him to become this tycoon, the master of this dynasty. Every character has this thing driving them, that made me say, they’re not just athletes, they’re artists. I can relate to that, as a writer. You’re doing something irrational that I hope will fulfill me, and yet, there’s pain and difficulty and torment in all of it. I think everyone on some level can relate to things like that, and it was finding that little common denominator, to me, that suddenly makes it like, sure, they happen to be basketball players, but you could take any other different lens and see a cross section of incredible personalities. That to me is what it’s really about.
DEADLINE: Let’s take Dr. Jerry Buss, who’s played by John C. Reilly. In the closing moments, he chooses Claire Rothman to be his treasurer, the woman who was a punching bag for previous team owner Jack Kent Cooke. So Buss is in some ways an empowerer of women. And yet, today he might be looked at as a pathetic figure, an inveterate womanizer with a comb-over and a shirt open to his naval, dating girls barely old enough to drive. Also, he doesn’t see the potential in his daughter Jeanie, who in the finale is told to help him figure out which of his sons should be his successor, even though she has earned her way by cleaning up his every mess. How to explain the dichotomy in this guy who was this smart poker player, NBA Hall of Fame visionary owner, but who has this lack of self-awareness and blind spots, especially where it comes to his own daughter?
BORENSTEIN: Well, it’s that question of how to explain the fundamental complexity and the irreducible complexity of human nature. It’s one of the things that are so beautiful about him as a character. And the ability to set a show not today but in recent memory because it’s frees you to be able to tell the truth in that way about people. I don’t think it’s changed, personally. I think people are complicated and you know a guy like Jerry Buss empowered women in many ways in his work, and he had a reputation as a playboy. In that era, you know, certainly, the mores were different and weren’t judged the way we judge now, for better and for worse. But that was who he was, and to be able to explore that honestly as sometimes hypocritical…he may be hypocritical, but who isn’t? In this day and age, when you’re telling a contemporary story where the mores have changed, it would be a statement to be Jerry Buss, to have a younger woman on your arm frequently. You’d be making a choice that says something.
Whereas, back then, for better or worse, that playboy lifestyle was so common. The beauty of looking back on that story and telling it today is, we can shine a light on the complexity of it without judgement. It’s up to the audience to judge and say, oh, that’s something we don’t agree with, but this is something that we love about this guy, and if we were to tell the story of our grandparents, honestly, it would be that story, and when our children tell our story, if they did so honestly, you’d have those moments, as well. Because the world evolves. What we’re trying to do is shine a light and hold up a mirror to America in this transformative moment. It would be not only a creative mistake but also a lie to reduce out or clean up some of the darker spots. Better to tell it with warts and all and showing this cross section of Americans, as human beings, who both have their own occasional personal foibles but also cultural foibles where you say something that today is off color but at the time, and a time within living conscious memory for us, people said things like that. To pretend like we didn’t, I think does a greater disservice to actually fixing the problems.
DEADLINE: When you guys took this to John C. Reilly and you presented this complicated figure, what qualities grabbed him and made him say yes?
BORENSTEIN: John has been an incredible actor in the 80 odd movies he’s done. What this role offered him was an opportunity to do everything that he does brilliantly. He’s great comedically, improvisationally, and dramatically, but he gets to do all those things and he’s sexy, too. He’s really the full package in the show, able to take the absurdity of the style of Jerry Buss, and pull it off. In a way that makes you say, I get why people are attracted to him because he’s got so much charisma. Even though the comb-over is technically absurd, who gives a shit? He’s a bad ass, and his charisma is charming. The thing John really responded to right away when we first started talking about the role was, there’s a lot about him and Dr. Buss that are very, very different. John is a family man; not that Buss wasn’t, but you know, John’s not a playboy type. And yet, he’s a guy who did not expect to become a major movie star from where he came from, with every doubter who said, you know, that, nah, you’re not, you don’t look like a movie star, you’re never going to be a movie star, you’re from Chicago, who are you? He had developed a chip on his shoulder about that, that drives him, and it’s driven him to be John C. Reilly. If you look at Jerry Buss, that unsinkable spirit, that irrepressible optimism, in the face of every conceivable obstacle, the flipside of that optimism is there’s a fire inside and there’s a chip on his shoulder, and a desire to rub the doubters nose in their doubt. That’s what’s at the core of Jerry Buss; it’s a real American quality, because America is the culture of reinvention. For all its faults, this is the country where people can come and change their station in life in a way that’s just not been the case historically anywhere, especially in the 20th century. That’s the great promise of America, and Jerry Buss is the quintessential embodiment of that. With one more click in the wrong direction he becomes a hustler; instead, it’s just this unflinching, unflappable belief in one’s self. I’m sure in the privacy at night, that fades and there’s insecurity, and there’s all those things we all feel, and that’s what we’re trying to show. John has been so brilliant at that. He’s fearless about showing the foibles, the moments of vulnerability and insecurity or obliviousness, and yet, at the same time, there’s a heart that is so lovable and so inherently winning about this character that even in moments where he does things that make you cringe…whether they be because they’re not politically correct and aligned with our mores, or the inability for him to see past wanting his sons to inherit his fortune rather than his daughter. Those are places where he’s tied down by his generation, by different aspects, but you still love him, as you should, in the way that you would love any human being who had flaws. I think he brings that off just so magnificently.
DEADLINE: You got renewed for a second season here. There’s plenty in the book. It’s history so not exactly a spoiler alert, but Paul Westhead will slow down the Lakers attack and earn his way out of town; Pat Riley will become the fashion superstar coach, and then become such a control freak his players hate him and he gets his ticket out of town. And the hedonistic Lakers lifestyle catches up to Magic Johnson. Right after he finally weds his longtime soulmate Cookie, he has to announce that he has the AIDS virus. That was the end of Showtime, even as it created a whole different triumph for him in creating awareness of that horrible disease that had been viewed as a death sentence, confined mostly to the gay community. And we haven’t scratched to specter of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, the next Lakers dynasty. Where do you go with this?
BORENSTEIN: It’s all these things that one thinks of as an artist, in terms of what this story can be. It’s such an American epic that can take you through a decade, and as you say with Shaq and Kobe, two decades. The life of Jerry Buss, and the growth of Jeanie Buss, who winds up ultimately in a power struggle with her brothers, after her father’s death, becoming the head of the organization and a brilliant owner in her own right. It’s just such an incredible story.
This next season? What we discovered when we thought about the show is, this must be a miniseries but it just became clear that if you did that, you would only have room for the highlights. There are shows and things I’ve seen that do a thing like that with some true story stuff, but what was so compelling about this to me were these themes that we’re talking about and these characters, the way that they transform and the way that Pat Riley goes from being a color commentator to ultimately becoming this driven, controlling coach, one of the greats, but who as you say, burns out his own welcome in LA. That is a slow burn, a long arc, that’s something that you couldn’t make a great movie about all of this because you don’t have the real estate, and you can’t make a great miniseries about it. The only way to get there is to do it as a continuing drama that has the real estate and the runway to really serve these arcs. I hope we’re given the opportunity to continue to tell that story long enough to do it right, but we’re not going to adjust our pace to try to speed it up to the point where we lose the purpose. We’re making every active creation as an act of faith, and right now, we’re so fortunate to have this incredible cast, to have this network behind us, and to have fans who are appreciating it. So yeah, this next season is going to be, you know, taking the same pace that this first season did, roughly, to tell the next piece of the story. Which involves Paul Westhead and Pat Riley, and a struggle Magic has that next year, and Jerry West’s next step in the direction of becoming the general manager. There’s a lot of transitional stuff that starts to happen in that next season. We’re not going to jump way ahead because, for us, the best version of this is able to continue to really mine the richness, and keep operating in good faith and cross our fingers that we get to do it for a few more years so that we can finally get to all the things you’re talking about. Which would be a dream come true because I think it’s one of those worthy stories that actually has that potential. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, it doesn’t run out of steam and fuel quickly, partly because it’s not a traditional sports story about winning or losing a single season or a single game. It’s actually, it’s the story of a dynasty, and so much like The Crown, right, where you’re telling a dynasty story. We don’t have royal families but we do have celebrities and we have this franchise that is for me even more fascinating than the royal family. Because it’s American, and these are people who come from all different walks of life and achieve on the virtues and the merits of their character, and those are the same things that ultimately bring them down and humble them.
DEADLINE: From that standpoint, history did you a favor by having the Philadelphia 76ers be surprise participants in the finals after upending the Celtics. The ensuing battles between the Lakers and Celtics, Magic vs Bird, and Celtics bruisers Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, it’s Rocky II.
BORENSTEIN: Exactly. One of the beautiful things about not getting that right away…we always compare it half-jokingly to the White Walkers in Game of Thrones…is we’re telling a slow burning epic. It happens to be based on fact opposed to fantasy, like in George [RR Martin]’s case with Game of Thrones, it’s still an epic. One with these incredible, beautifully dramatic builds where we know we want Magic and Bird to face each other again, and they have these little skirmishes and these teases in games that don’t really count. But they’re going to get there, and when they do, it’s not going to be satisfying immediately if we’re coming at it from Magic’s standpoint, so it’s, ultimately, you know, the more we know what gifts we have in the future, and if we’re fortunate enough to get to keep making the show, there’s just such great material to be able to be mine.
Deadline: There are so many strong performances here, from established actors like Reilly, Adrien Brody, Jason Clarke, Sally Field, Michael Chiklis, Jason Segel and Tracy Letts, to newcomers like Quincy Isaiah as Magic and Solomon Hughes as Abdul-Jabbar. I have to take my hat off to real former Lakers player Spencer Haywood (played by The Wire’s Wood Harris), who has been so open about his tortured past, how he did a self-circumcision and screwed up a shot at the title by becoming hooked on crack, and finally overcoming it and becoming a role model. It’s remarkable how honest the depiction of him is. Did he participate?
BORENSTEIN: I haven’t spoken to him. We exchanged a little bit on Twitter, but Wood Harris sought him out and he’s spoken to Wood a lot, I believe they’ve become friends. He has spoken to a few other actors like Solomon Hughes, who plays Kareem. Spencer’s such an inspiring person because he’s come through his struggles with addiction to a really incredible place of being a speaker and inspiring others to heal themselves. He wrote a wonderful book with Scott Ostler that’s incredibly candid about his upbringing and addiction that was one of the great resources that we drew on for his story. It’s really gratifying that he’s been supportive of the show, but as with all of these guys, it’s their lives, and they’re going to have the relationship to the show that they choose or that they feel comfortable with. I can’t judge it one way or another, but of course, it’s really nice to hear that from him. In the case of Jack McKinney’s family, Jeff Pearlman, who did a lot of research with them for the book and met with Jack McKinney before he passed away, he received a text from Jack’s family shortly after watching the fifth episode in which he had that bike accident that was just…you know, it really…we read it in the sound mix for a different episode, and we were all crying because it was so beautiful. He was saying how for so much of their lives, this was just such a formative moment, their father and husband, having this tragedy befall him, and it was hard for them to deal with it, emotionally. The show was at least in speaking for their father and getting his story justice and its due was at least helping give some semblance of closure. They said they were all in tears watching it.
It was really one of the most special things because a guy like Spencer Haywood, a guy like Jack McKinney, they are forgotten men in many ways in a sporting culture that wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t be what it is without them, and so being able to not just tell the stories of the people that you think you know and reveal aspects of them that you may not yet have been aware of, but to be able to tell the stories of people you don’t know and give them their appropriate flowers is really a special thing. It’s an honor to be able to do it.