Column: HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ gets some things about Showtime era right — but not Jerry West

A man in a brown sweater holding a newspaper looking upset.
Jason Clarke as Jerry West in “Winning Time.”
(Warrick Page / HBO)
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The HBO “Winning Time” series about the Lakers’ Showtime era gets some of it right.

It nails Jerry Buss’ boldness, Magic Johnson’s smile, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s aloofness.

The 10-episode series, which mangles facts and embellishes personalities, nonetheless captures the Showtime spirit and actually gets some of it right.


But it gets one thing very wrong.

It blows it with Jerry West.

It mindlessly stomps all over The Logo. It needlessly chokes on the portrayal of Mr. Clutch. It takes the most revered living basketball figure in this city and recklessly paints him in such darkness that he’s unrecognizable.

While every character in the series is an outlandish caricature of themselves and many scenes are distant versions of the truth — chill out, people, it’s Hollywood — producer Adam McKay wrongly picked the most venerable Showtime icon to turn into the ugliest of cartoons.

Actor Jason Clarke may look and sound like West — the casting for the entire show is pretty amazing — but make no mistake.

That is not Jerry West.

West is a passionately tortured and often profane competitor, but, in my dealings with him over the last 30 years, he has never been the raging lunatic that the series depicts.

The Laker great and others are angered by his depiction as a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed member of the team organization.

April 19, 2022

He would never throw a championship trophy through an office window — his Forum office had no windows.


He would never break clubs in a temper tantrum on a golf course — in public he was always, well, Mr. Clutch.

And there is no way he would be curled up on the floor in his underwear moaning over the fact that the Lakers drafted Johnson instead of Sidney Moncrief. This is a guy smart enough to trade for Kobe Bryant, remember? This is a guy cool enough to sign Shaquille O’Neal, remember? When he didn’t get his way, this is not a guy who moped, this is a guy who adjusted.

West rolling around a trash-filled room in his tighty whiteys was an early scene outrageously wrong enough to stain the entire series. It was one of many scenes that has the entire Lakers family in an uproar, everyone ripping everything about the show, Abdul-Jabber writing scathing commentary and others giving scathing quotes.

It’s a shame, because with such a cool production vibe, one might be willing to overlook the outlandish portrayals and actually enjoy this fast-paced take on Jeff Pearlman’s brilliantly detailed book, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.”

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

But the series messes with the wrong guy.

West is one of the most admired figures in the history of Los Angeles sports, one of the most revered personalities in the history of the NBA, a gentleman icon who does not deserve fictionalized reproach or ridicule.

He is both a community cornerstone and touchstone whose portrayal in this series begs the question: What if someone produced a fictional drama mocking Sandy Koufax, ridiculing John Wooden or spinning outlandishly negative yarns about Vin Scully? How well would that be received? How quietly would that be stomached?


West, who is still active as a Clippers’ consultant, has been deeply hurt by the portrayal. He said as much earlier this week in a letter from his attorneys to HBO, Warner Bros., Discovery and McKay demanding a retraction and apology.

“You have perpetrated an egregious wrong on a good and decent man and have harmed him in the process,” read the letter penned by Skip Miller of Miller Barondess.

Miller wrote that the series, “falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic. The Jerry West in ‘Winning Time’ bears no resemblance to the real man. The real Jerry West prided himself on treating people with dignity and respect. ‘Winning Time’ is a baseless and malicious assault on Jerry West’s character. You reduced the legacy of an 83-year-old legend and role model to that of a vulgar and unprofessional bully — the polar opposite of the real man.”

Three men hold a press conference before a yellow background
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clarke as Jerry West in “Winning Time.”
(Warrick Page / HBO)

The letter contained numerous testimonials from various West colleagues, from Michael Cooper to Mitch Kupchak. Among the most compelling was a testament pulled from a column written by Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote this week, “Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”

In addition, longtime Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti walked away from an acting role in the series because of the way it portrayed his former boss.


It’s interesting to note that most of these former Lakers personalities probably wanted to demand their own apology and retraction for the fictionalized way they were portrayed, but they instead threw their collective support behind West.

That is what he means to the organization. That is what he means to the city. That is where the series really blew it.

While both HBO and Pearlman politely declined comment, another Showtime author chimed in his disapproval.

Steve Springer, who with Scott Ostler penned the 1986 tome, “Winnin’ Times: The Magical Journey of the Los Angeles Lakers,” said West’s portrayal was, “stupid and dumb.”

Springer, who covered the Showtime era for The Times and the Orange County Register, said some of West’s scenes were so fantastical as to be jokes.

In the grand scheme of the Lakers’ offseason, letting go of the coach was the easy part.

April 18, 2022

“That is such nonsense, I wouldn’t recognize this guy, this guy is a cartoon,” Springer said. “He wasn’t this monster … that wasn’t Jerry.”


Springer, who has written five books on the Lakers, has been hearing from many former Lakers employees who are upset with the entire series. But nobody has engendered the anger as much as fictionalized West.

“I understand dramatic license, but this is way over the top,” Springer said. “It makes him look like a clown, like he’s the hulk, he morphs into this monster.”

The series has garnered enough audience acclaim this spring that it has already been renewed for a second season.

Here’s hoping the Jerry West depiction gets canceled.