Throughout his professional career as an NBA player, coach and executive, Jerry West has gone head-to-head against opponents like the Celtics, Knicks and Sixers. Now, he’s going against HBO.
Last week, ESPN reported that Jerry West’s legal team had sent a letter to HBO, demanding an apology and retraction over HBO’s portrayal of West in its new show, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” When asked for comment on the letter by Fox News Digital, HBO responded by emphasizing that the show is “not a documentary and has not been presented as such.” Jerry West himself doubled down on Monday via comments made to The Los Angeles Times, threatening to “take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Some may call this public feud an overreaction. However, Jerry West has a point about HBO’s overdramatized account of the Lakers in the 1980s. Many of the show’s plot points are either partly or completely fabricated for the sake of drama to the detriment of the show’s real-life subjects.
HBO’s defense in this feud has been short and simple, “Winning Time’’ is a drama, not a documentary. After all, a disclaimer flashes the screen before every episode, making it clear to the audience that what they are about to see is a “dramatization of certain facts and events.” However, while HBO may believe this one-second frame relieves them of any claim of defamation, it goes against everything else HBO has advertised about the show. After all, the title of the show itself claims this depiction of the events is, “The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” This direct reference to the real-life Lakers dynasty implies that this is the story of how the dynasty came to be, not a fictionalization of that story.
It goes beyond just subtitles, though. The main complaint coming from Jerry West and others is the show’s portrayal of real-life people. The vast majority of characters in the show are based off of actual people, but many have expressed disappointment in how they’re portrayed, including Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and the aforementioned West. Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Jerry West is a perfect example. The man that former Lakers employee Mitch Kupchak described in West’s letter as “even-keeled and soft-spoken,” is portrayed in “Winning Time” as a bitter, temperamental jerk, prone to lashing out and always lamenting over his inability to beat the Boston Celtics as a player. This characterization is at best an overdramatization and at worst a complete fabrication — and West isn’t the only one upset.
NBA legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is also caught in the crossfires of “Winning Time.” The show portrays him as cold and even cruel toward many of his teammates. Abdul-Jabaar himself actually reviewed “Winning Time” in his personal newsletter, criticizing the show:
“Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous Prick.” [sic]
Then there’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The show’s portrayal of Johnson is arguably more positive than most. He’s portrayed as a naive 22-year-old, always smiling but confused as to who he wants to be. His character is definitely deeper than most in the show, but there’s a chance some of the character’s actions may rub his real-life counterpart the wrong way.
For example, in Episode 8 of “Winning Time,” titled “California Dreaming,” it’s revealed that Johnson had cheated on his girlfriend, Cookie, with one of her friends, Rhonda, who got pregnant. Upon further research however, it becomes apparent that this whole plotline is fabricated. It’s never been confirmed that Johnson cheated on his future wife, yet alone with a mutual friend, and the character of Rhonda seems to be loosely based on Melissa Mitchell, a woman Johnson dated for a brief period from 1980-81 and who’s the mother of his first child. However, claiming that Johnson, a real-life public figure, had an affair and child with another woman while dating his future wife is misleading and could hurt Johnson’s image.
Speaking to Variety, Johnson said he hasn’t watched the show himself, but he criticized HBO for not consulting the real-life subjects of their new show, saying, “You can’t do a story about the Lakers without the Lakers.”
That’s ultimately the biggest problem with “Winning Time” — it’s not really about the Lakers Dynasty. The true story of the “Showtime” Lakers of the ’80s is the story of how two electric stars and their eccentric owner managed to propel basketball into the mainstream and dominated the NBA for over a decade. Ultimately, due to a desire from HBO to fictionalize history at the expense of those involved, “Winning Time” is not that story, and HBO should stop pretending like it is.