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‘Winning Time’ began as the seminal book on the Showtime Lakers; it’s Hollywood now

Author Jeff Pearlman attends the premiere of HBO's "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty."
Author Jeff Pearlman attends the premiere of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty” at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in L.A. on March 2.
(Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images)
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Jeff Pearlman wouldn’t believe it. His book becoming — actually becoming — a television series? For real? Nope. No way.

He wasn’t falling for it when the visionary showed up at his doorstep from across the country with a big tomato, a block of chocolate, and non-alcoholic wine on Easter Sunday in 2014. Not when the big-shot Hollywood director and producer invited him to his house to talk about the possibility in 2018. Not when HBO sent him the contracts soon after.

He had other books optioned before. Nothing ever happened. He figured his 496-page ode to the 1980s Showtime Lakers was destined for the same fate. He learned to suppress his hopes.

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“I inherited that from my dad,” Pearlman said in his backyard in Orange County last weekend. “This whole, ‘Think the worst and then you don’t be disappointed.’”

Behind HBO’s ‘Winning Time’: The real story of Magic Johnson, Jerry Buss and the 1980s Lakers, and how they changed the NBA and America.

March 1, 2022

Pearlman was wrong this time. On Wednesday, he attended the premiere for the show he never thought possible at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. He walked the purple carpet with his two children. Hollywood heavyweights orbited them. Pearlman could call it a dream come true, but that’d be a lie; his dream was to write for Sports Illustrated. He checked that off two decades ago. This was another stratosphere.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is scheduled to premiere Sunday on HBO. It was shot with a distinct 1980s feel and occasionally knocks down the fourth wall.

John C. Reilly plays Jerry Buss. Adrien Brody is Pat Riley. Quincy Isaiah, a former college football player from Michigan, was unearthed to portray Magic Johnson. The 6-foot-11 Solomon Hughes, a former Cal basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter before diving into academia, channels Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his first professional acting performance. DeVaughn Nixon plays his father — Norm Nixon, the Lakers’ former All-Star guard. Adam McKay — whose credits include “The Big Short,” “Succession,” and “Anchorman” — oversaw the project.

The show, Pearlman emphasizes, is a drama based on his book — not a documentary. He said he wasn’t involved much in its production beyond serving as a glorified verifier of “certain information” and an extra for a scene.

“I’m always like, ‘It’s not my show,’” said Pearlman, 49. “It’s based on my book. It’s a big difference.”

Inside the grueling training regimen Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes endured to play Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Winning Time.”

March 2, 2022

Pearlman devoted two years to the book. The first year and a half was spent on research and interviewing about 350 people. He used the final six months to write. The book was released in March 2014. Less than two months later, a man named Jim Hecht appeared at his family’s house in New Rochelle, N.Y., with an idea.

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Hecht grew up in Southern California a loyal Lakers fan. One of his first memories at age 6 was waiting two hours with his father at the Westminster Mall to take a photo with Magic Johnson. . The photo has been on his desk for a decade. He devoured Pearlman’s book in one day.

He was convinced there was a TV show there.

“It’s his book,” Hecht said. “He says it’s my vision but the vision was on a page that he wrote. To me it read like a movie treatment. I just thought it had to happen. I don’t know what made me think that.”

Hecht shopped it around without success until scoring a meeting with McKay four years later. Pearlman said he was so unfamiliar with McKay that he had to Google him. It soon became real. Not everyone was thrilled.

Johnson, who didn’t speak to Pearlman for the book, has said he isn’t looking forward to it. Pearlman said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was instrumental for both his Lakers books and forged a friendship — she even visited his class at Chapman University twice to speak. Yet Pearlman said she cut him off once the show was in the works.

“It’s a love letter to the Lakers,” Pearlman said. “It really is. I’m sure she’s very worried about how her dad is going to be portrayed because her dad definitely had a reputation as a kind of a little bit of a womanizer. And it’s certainly part of the Jerry Buss portrayal and should be. But, man, I think John C. Reilly plays him amazing. It’s more homage than it is mocking or ridiculing.

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“And Magic … If Magic watches this show and isn’t blown away by him, something’s wrong with him. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The show’s first season will cover the Lakers’ 1979-1980 championship campaign during Johnson’s rookie season. A second season is being written, but it hasn’t been picked up for television yet.

The series could theoretically cover nearly three decades of Lakers basketball. Pearlman’s book on the Showtime period ends with Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991. His second book on the Lakers — “Three-Ring Circus” — spans the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal years and was also optioned by HBO just in case.

Pearlman grew up a world away from Los Angeles in Mahopac, a rural town in upstate in New York. He would watch the Lakers on national television mesmerized by them. The Forum. The palm trees. The Laker Girls. The fast-break brand of basketball. Nostalgia spawns most of his books and nostalgia drove his desire to write about the Lakers.

So when he’s asked if he’ll write another Lakers book to complete the trilogy — one about the LeBron Era spiraling into a disaster this season — he scoffs.

Jeff Pearlman talks about “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” which he started writing before Bryant’s death.

Sept. 25, 2020

“I have no nostalgia for LeBron,” Pearlman said. “Maybe I can muster some. I moved to California. I don’t know. And they also suck. Who’s going to want to relive this period?”

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Pearlman wants to make one other thing clear: He didn’t move to California to pursue Hollywood interests. He convinced his wife to move because he hated the cold.

“I’ve had an opportunity to be involved a little bit, but I don’t work in Hollywood,” Pearlman said. “I’m just a writer.”

He was more than a writer for a day in October 2019 when he and his wife, Catherine, arrived on set as extras. They were given a parking space. They went to costume for 1970s garb and makeup for the final touches. Their trailer was for Jeff Perlman and the mistake didn’t matter.

“We don’t deserve any of this treatment,” Pearlman said. “They’re just being nice, right?”

McKay took a break from calling shots to introduce Pearlman to everyone. Everyone clapped. The Pearlmans chatted with actors. They made cameos. The back of Jeff’s head makes an appearance as a reporter at a news conference in the first episode. Catherine plays a secretary in a scene. Her laughing line made the final cut.

“The whole day was freaking the best,” Pearlman said. “It was the best day. Better than our wedding. The most magical day ever. It was like going to Hollywood fantasy camp.”

His skepticism finally evaporated that day. What he refused to believe was possible happens for the world to see Sunday.

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VIDEO | 07:00
LA Times Today: Meet the Kareem of HBO Lakers drama, “Winning Time”

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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