‘Winning Time’ Boss on ‘Lakers Dynasty’ Series: ‘This Is the Moment Where Sports Became Entertainment’

Plus, the actors playing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talk taking on the legends

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah in "Winning Time" (HBO)
John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah in "Winning Time" (HBO)

The story of the “Showtime” Lakers is coming to HBO in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” this March, documenting a period for the team that helped set the tone for how sports and athletes are viewed today.

“We were trying to have fun above all, but it’s a show about showmanship,” co-creator, executive producer and showrunner Max Borenstein said on Tuesday during a virtual Television Critics Association Winter Tour panel for his upcoming HBO show. “This is the moment where sports became entertainment.”

To bring “the audience into that journey,” as Borenstein said, the show finds the actors — like John C. Reilly, who plays Jerry Buss — talking to camera. And it incorporates some retro production features built in.

Premiering March 6 on HBO (it will also be available to stream on HBO Max), the series, also from executive producer Adam McKay, follows the professional and personal lives of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, “a team that defined an era, both on and off the court,” per HBO’s logline. It’s based on Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.”

Actor Quincy Isaiah is the one stepping into Magic Johnson-sized shoes on the show, and during the panel, he explained what it meant to him to play the icon.

“My first love was basketball. That’s what I wanted to be, so for me to portray one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game, it’s incredible,” he said.

And the actor promises that his basketball playing in the show — modeled after Magic — “is on point.”

“That’s something that I can lean back on and be like, I did a solid in that way. If nothing else, I looked like him on the court,” he said.

This “Showtime” era of the Lakers had a lot to do with Magic, and what he brought to the NBA with his personality and incredible skills on the court helps give the story life, McKay said.

“With Magic, what was so amazing about him was that he was this blend of joy and skill and winning that, up until that point, you had the Red Auerbach era of the NBA in the ’60s and there was this idea that Bobby Knight, sort of three passes before you shoot was the answer. And what’s so amazing about Magic, we know the smile, we know the incredible creativity, but he was a winner,” McKay said. “And I think that’s what’s so exciting about this story is you saw this style that previously people would have rolled their eyes at becoming the dominant style of the NBA.”

Dr. Solomon Hughes plays the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Winning Time” and to help with his performance — at least on the court — he turned to old videos.

“I think the advantage I felt we had in this age of information is [on] YouTube there’s lots of game footage etc. So just watching just how they move on the on the court was helpful,” Hughes said.

But, he also kept in mind he was playing an original.

“There was also like the freedom of knowing no one can shoot this guy, like Kareem, so I’m going to give it my best shot and just leave it there,” he laughed.

“Winning Time” stars Reilly, Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffman, Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, Julianne Nicholson, Hadley Robinson, Dr. Hughes, Tamera Tomakili, Brett Cullen, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Joey Brooks, Sarah Ramos, Spencer Garrett, Molly Gordon, DeVaughn Nixon, Delante Desouza, Jimel Atkins, Austin Aaron, Jon Young, Rob Morgan and Sally Field. 

McKay directed the pilot and is an EP alongside Borenstein and Kevin Messick. Jim Hecht co-created the show, is the story co-writer and an executive producer. Jason Shuman, Scott Stephens and Rodney Barnes are also EPs. Barnes is also a writer on the series.