In the first scene of the first TV show he’d ever booked, Solomon Hughes had to curse out a child. His Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is first introduced while filming the basketball icon’s famous cameo in Airplane!—a faithful reenactment right down to the young visitor to the cockpit who refuses to believe that the 7-foot-2 copilot is not the future Hall of Fame center.
But the series punches up the moment even further. After filming, the child actor approaches Abdul-Jabbar and asks for a photo. He takes a beat, looks down, and delivers another punch line: “Fuck off, kid.””
The moment, which appears midway through the pilot of the HBO sports saga, is as harsh as it is funny. But it’s an honest look at someone who found the endless obligations of fame to be, well, beneath him. “You’re talking about a 7-foot-2 human who is probably the most recognizable person on the planet, and literally every time they step outside of their home, there’s this ocean of want that just comes down on them,” says Hughes, who’s 6-foot-10. “Watching sports giants, their physicality, their talent on the court can blind you to the fact that they are full humans who had lived a whole entire day before you interacted with it.”
Winning Time, an adaptation of Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, is clear-eyed about that fact. A mix of unique personalities made the ’80s Lakers as interesting off the court as they were on it—the series never lets the audience forget that. The first season does feature some actual basketball, but it’s at its most memorable when Hughes is portraying Kareem as a complex intellectual; when Jason Clarke is bringing out Jerry West’s profane surliness; when Quincy Isaiah is embodying the undeniable charm and star power of Earvin “Magic” Johnson; and when John C. Reilly is breezily scheming his way to glory as libidinous Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
Set against the backdrop of Hollywood excess, Winning Time is an in-depth look at the people who turned a franchise into the NBA’s crown jewel—and in the process helped the league become a cultural force. “If it was just a show about basketball and the kind of Wikipedia version of this story, I personally wouldn’t be very interested in it,” showrunner Max Borenstein says. “For me, what’s interesting is how it can be a lens onto this transformative moment in American culture.”
“I mean, look at it,” Buss says early in the first episode. “It’s like great sex. It’s always moving, it’s rhythmic, it’s up close and personal, there’s no pads or helmets for protection. It’s just you and these guys out there trying to get the ball into the hoop. It’s a beautiful thing.”
He’s talking about basketball, but he could be describing the show he’s in. After all, he does deliver that speech from a Playboy Mansion bed, next to a naked woman.
To avoid making the Wikipedia version of a show about the Lakers dynasty, the producers of Winning Time decided to focus on its beginnings. But that solution didn’t present itself until the pandemic halted production in March 2020. “It gave us a year in which to really dig deeper, to rethink how we were approaching it, to slow the role,” says Borenstein, who is also the series’s cocreator. “And rather than playing it as something that was gonna finish a whole decade in two seasons, we realized: No, this is a continuing saga. This is every bit as rich, material-wise, as the books from Game of Thrones. It’s world-building in the same way. And we thought we could tell a real American epic.”
To do so, Borenstein, fellow cocreator Jim Hecht, and executive producers Adam McKay and Rodney Barnes dedicated the first 10 episodes to the events leading up to and during the 1979–80 season, the year Buss bought the team and the Lakers drafted Johnson. Having 10 hours to cover a relatively short time frame allowed them to go deeper than box scores and highlight reels. “The stuff that the actual people cover in their memoirs,” Borenstein says. “Their relationships, their psyche—it’s the stuff that doesn’t make it into the Wikipedia page. It’s seen with Magic and his dad talking about his fears about going from college to the pros. That’s the kind of thing you don’t have time for if you do the miniseries treatment.”
The show is a soap opera that uses the rise of the Lakers and the NBA in the ’80s as a way to examine the culture wars of the same era. It’s a tale of race, celebrity, sex, and misogyny that sets up the Lakers’ rivalry with White America’s Boston Celtics, explores Abdul-Jabbar’s and Johnson’s relationship with fame (and each other), depicts the team’s star and owner’s promiscuity, and emphasizes the duality of Buss—who had the contradictory habits of objectifying and empowering women.
Telling such a sprawling story isn’t easy, but it helped having a dream team of actors to fill the show’s high-profile roles. Among others, there’s Sally Field (Jerry Buss’s mother, Jessie), Adrien Brody (Pat Riley), Jason Segel (Paul Westhead), Gaby Hoffmann (Claire Rothman), Tracy Letts (Jack McKinney), and Michael Chiklis (Red Auerbach). And when Michael Shannon dropped out, Reilly got the part of Buss over his friend and former costar Will Ferrell.
If there’s anyone versatile enough to capture Buss’s gregarious swagger, sense of humor, and competitive nature, it’s Reilly, whose character breaks the fourth wall so much that he becomes the show’s de facto narrator. Borenstein, who worked with Reilly on Kong: Skull Island, calls him “truly one of the great improvisers of all time.”
Take, for example, the soliloquy Buss delivers early in the pilot. “That scene in bed with the girl in the very beginning is 100 percent as scripted,” Borenstein says. “The moment that he gets up and starts brushing his chest hair, that’s scripted. But when he looks at the mirror and goes, ‘Dynamite!’ that’s not scripted. It’s John.”
But Winning Time wouldn’t work without the contributions of two rookies, Isaiah and Hughes.
“The thing that is unique about Magic is not only his playing ability,” Borenstein says. “He has to have that magical charisma that defines Magic Johnson off the floor. The guy has movie-star magnetism, and most movie stars don’t have that. It was immediately apparent we didn’t know anyone on the current lists of working actors that could play him. ... And then with Kareem, it was an even more difficult challenge because you can’t fake being 7 feet tall, right?”
The 26-year-old Isaiah, a native of Johnson’s home state of Michigan who moved to L.A. after graduating from Kalamazoo College, had gone out for hundreds of roles but never landed a paying gig. Then, in 2019, he got a callback from casting director Francine Maisler. That led to an in-person audition, which went well. “She told me, ‘Keep the phone nearby, keep it quiet for a little bit,’” Isaiah recalls. “Basically, she was like, ‘I think you got it, just chill.’ And for me I’m like, ‘Maybe she’s just being nice. I don’t know.’” But then the show’s producers brought him in for a basketball workout with former Laker Rick Fox, who also happens to be an experienced actor.
“I remember walking in the gym to see him,” says Isaiah, who’s 6-foot-3 and played football in college. “I’m just like, ‘All right, this is cool.’ That all evaporated within like 10 minutes because it was like, ‘Oh, OK. He’s about to work me out.’ … It was a lot of running, ballhandling, a little bit of shooting, [and] passing, which I actually felt the most comfortable with.” But apparently he survived the tryout, because soon after, he says, “they called me and told me I had booked the part.”
Like Isaiah, the 43-year-old Hughes has long had dreams of becoming a professional actor. After graduating from Cal, where he played four years of college ball, he moved back to his native L.A. and met with a talent agent. It didn’t go well. “He was very dismissive but he at the very least got me an audition for an Advil commercial,” Hughes says. “Nothing came of it, and I went back to playing basketball.”
After a short pro career that included a brief stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, Hughes went back to school. In 2013, he earned a PhD in higher education from Georgia. Since then, he’s developed and taught courses on race, equity, and college sports at Stanford and Duke. Three years ago, he heard from a former teammate who’d been contacted by a casting agent about auditioning for a Lakers TV series. The friend wasn’t interested, but Hughes was. “I did the self-tape, sent that in, got invited to come down to L.A. and do an in-person [audition],” he says. “And that was just wild because I was like, ‘I get to meet Adam McKay and Max Borenstein.’”
A week later, Hughes learned he got the part. Almost immediately, he started working on his game. He knew he couldn’t become Kareem, but he set out to at least try to look like him on the floor. Trainer Idan Ravin helped with that. “From day one,” Hughes says, “he was just talking about helping us become silhouettes of these guys.”
In college, Hughes’s go-to move was a jump hook. But it had nothing on Abdul-Jabbar’s signature sky hook. “You go off two feet versus one,” Hughes says. “So it’s nowhere near as graceful or as elegant as the sky hook.” So, he began practicing the move over and over at parks around the Bay Area.
“At the end of the day,” Hughes says, “I was like, ‘If I want to not be laughed off the planet for my depiction of this hook, I really need to get after it.’”
The cast of Winning Time, especially Hughes and Isaiah, didn’t set out to just mimic icons. They wanted to humanize them in a way that went beyond impression. “I’m playing a full character, and I’m not imitating anybody,” Isaiah says. “I’m not playing a shell of a person.”
In addition to training physically for their roles, Hughes and Isaiah inhaled material about Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Isaiah read Johnson’s autobiography, My Life, and Jackie MacMullan’s dual Magic-Bird biography When the Game Was Ours; he also watched and rewatched Ezra Edelman’s documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. But the most helpful study guide was Johnson’s 32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business. “It’s more of a self-help book,” Isaiah says. “But he helps you out through stories that he’s telling. And I think for me being able to listen or to see those stories and kind of fill in the blanks, that really helped me get a fuller picture of who he might have been at 20 in 1979.”
Growing up a Lakers fan, Hughes idolized Abdul-Jabbar. His autobiography, Giant Steps, was one of the first books Hughes ever read. As he got older, he began to appreciate what Kareem stood for even more. “He was a sophomore in college when he participated in the Cleveland summit where Muhammad Ali was protesting the draft,” Hughes says. “These grown men invited this sophomore in college to come along and be a part of that. At the time, it was a globally important dialogue.”
To prepare for the role, Hughes learned as much as he could about Abdul-Jabbar’s off-court passions. “I was interested in the things that he was interested in,” he says. “Obviously, jazz music is very important to him, and I’ve been a lifelong jazz fan. But I really did as deep a dive as I could to immerse myself in the genre, especially trying to understand how it was being experienced at that time.”
Naturally, Hughes sympathized with someone who couldn’t hide from the spotlight even if he tried. “I’m 6-foot-10,” Hughes says. “I get annoyed. Just a general trip to the grocery store when I’m just trying to buy eggs. [People are] just kind of looming. And it’s not the questions, it’s the looks.” But, he adds, “the attention also gives you an opportunity to speak out. And I feel like Kareem has done a fabulous job using that platform to speak out on issues.”
Even if Abdul-Jabbar occasionally blew off young fans, there was far more to him than that. “The series really starts to dig deep and peel back layers of his character and we reveal a very, very nuanced, very complicated, and very emotionally rich human being who’s by no means captured singularly by that moment,” Borenstein says.
Winning Time is often broad and flashy—hey, it’s about the ’80s Lakers!—but those complex portrayals are what make it worth coming back to week after week. Whether it’s Buss and Auerbach feeling each other out in a restaurant booth, West struggling with intense depression, or Magic dealing with the pressures and temptations of being a pro athlete, there’s no shortage of character building. To those working on Winning Time, capturing Showtime’s many personalities has always been more important than re-creating the on-court action.
Isaiah, however, wouldn’t mind showing off more of Magic’s moves. “I could probably do more,” he says. “The one where he starts in front of him and goes around his back and then he comes back to the same hand and goes the opposite way. Eventually, I would love to do that pass.”
There’s always next season.