Exploring the Inaugural Episode of HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ Featuring the 1980s LA Lakers and Magic Johnson

“Winning Time”: A Captivating Look at the Magic Johnson Era

An HBO series by Adam McKay, titled “Winning Time,” made its debut last night, offering viewers a captivating glimpse into the rise of the iconic 1980s Showtime Lakers dynasty, with Magic Johnson taking center stage. This hour-long series, consisting of ten episodes, is based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, which chronicles the journey of the Lakers from the moment Dr. Jerry Buss acquired the team in 1979 to the heart-wrenching announcement of Magic’s premature retirement due to his HIV diagnosis in 1991.

Adam McKay: A Hollywood Visionary

Adam McKay, a renowned Hollywood director known for his notable works such as “The Big Short,” “The Anchorman,” and “Vice,” takes the helm as the showrunner of “Winning Time.” He also contributed to the current HBO hit series “Succession.” Recently, McKay directed “Don’t Look Up,” garnering a nomination for Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars. As the pilot episode’s director, McKay sets the stage for an engrossing narrative in “Winning Time,” which premiered on HBO on Sunday evening and is currently available for streaming on HBOMax.

Controversy and Unofficial Endorsement

Upon HBO’s release of the “Winning Time” trailer in December, audiences were intrigued as the show seemed to blend the auras of “Boogie Nights” and “Friday Night Lights.” However, the NBA is hesitant to associate itself with the series due to its sensitive subject matter, shedding light on the league’s vulnerability during that particular era. Consequently, the NBA has refrained from offering any form of endorsement towards the show, indicating their reluctance to embrace narratives that may challenge their image.

Episode 1: A Glimpse into Magic’s Journey

The first episode of “Winning Time” thrusts viewers into the world of real estate tycoon Dr. Buss (played by John C. Reilly), skillfully negotiating the acquisition of the Lakers and the iconic Forum from Jack Kent Cooke. Dr. Buss masterfully secures the deal by agreeing to pay half of the $67.5 million price tag in cash and the other half in real estate, including the prestigious Chrysler Building in New York City.

In this episode, we are introduced to Magic Johnson (portrayed by Quincy Isaiah), a young and talented player fresh off his triumph in the 1979 March Madness tournament, leading Michigan State to victory against Larry Bird’s Indiana State. Magic, hailing from Lansing, Michigan and the son of a garbageman, decides to pursue his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA by leaving college early.

During the 1979 NBA Draft, the Lakers secured the coveted #1 pick after winning a coin flip against the Chicago Bulls. As Magic set his sights on joining the Lakers, he initially demanded a salary of $600,000, but Jack Kent Cooke attempted to lowball him with an offer of $400,000. However, Dr. Buss recognized Magic’s immense potential and promptly extended him a contract worth $500,000 per season.

Throughout this episode, the audience catches glimpses of the enigmatic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (played by Solomon Hughes) during his time on the set of the comedy film “Airplane.” We witness a fascinating exchange between Abdul-Jabbar and his teammate Norm Nixon, the Lakers’ starting point guard at the time. As the show progresses, it becomes apparent that Nixon’s starting position will be threatened by the incoming rookie, Magic Johnson.

Quincy Isaiah, cast in his first major role, embodies Magic Johnson’s character flawlessly. With their shared Michigan roots, Isaiah brings an authentic touch to the portrayal. The talented Solomon Hughes, with his background in collegiate basketball at Cal and experience with the Harlem Globetrotters, skillfully takes on the role of Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Notably, DeVaughn Nixon portrays his own father, Norm Nixon, in a unique yet fitting casting choice.

While “Winning Time” introduces us to Dr. Buss and Magic Johnson, it leaves us eagerly awaiting the arrival of the rest of the Lakers roster and the beloved coach Pat Riley (played by Adrien Brody). These key figures will surely play pivotal roles in the series’ upcoming episodes, further immersing viewers in the compelling narrative of the Showtime Lakers.

The Real-Life Magic and Abdul-Jabbar

Both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the legends at the heart of the “Winning Time” storyline, have expressed skepticism about the Hollywood portrayal of their lives and have not officially endorsed the series. However, fans can look forward to another production set to premiere on Apple+ next month. Apple+ will unveil a four-part documentary series dedicated solely to unraveling the captivating story of Magic Johnson’s life and career.


“Winning Time” offers audiences a thrilling and captivating journey back to the Magic Johnson era, providing a window into the rise of the iconic Showtime Lakers dynasty. With a strong emphasis on historical accuracy, engaging storytelling, and a stellar cast, the series promises to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. As the episodes unfold, we can look forward to delving deeper into the triumphs and challenges faced by the Lakers during this transformational period in NBA history.


1. Is “Winning Time” a completely fictional series?

No, “Winning Time” is based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, which meticulously chronicles the events surrounding the rise of the Showtime Lakers from 1979 to 1991. While creative liberties may be taken for dramatic effect, the series predominantly draws from real-life events and factual accounts.

2. Will the series explore the personal life of Magic Johnson?

While the focus of “Winning Time” primarily revolves around Magic Johnson’s career and his impact on the Lakers, some aspects of his personal life may be touched upon. However, it’s important to note that the main emphasis of the series lies in the Lakers’ journey to greatness.

3. Are there plans to portray other notable NBA figures from that era?

Absolutely! Although the first episode introduces us to Dr. Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Winning Time” will feature an ensemble cast, including iconic players such as James Worthy, Byron Scott, and Kurt Rambis. Fans can anticipate an in-depth exploration of the entire Lakers roster during this dynamic era.

4. How many seasons are planned for “Winning Time”?

As of now, “Winning Time” is scheduled for a single season with ten episodes. However, the series’ popularity and success may lead to potential renewals and further explorations of the Lakers’ captivating story.

5. Will the series address the impact of Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis?

Absolutely. The series aims to shed light on the groundbreaking moment in NBA history when Magic Johnson announced his retirement after testing positive for HIV. It will explore the personal and societal impact of this revelation and its far-reaching effects on the sport.

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Doug I. Jones

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