‘Winning Time’ Episode 10 Fact Check: Did Magic Really Steal the NBA Finals MVP From Kareem?

The season finale of the HBO series covers the Lakers’ climactic victory at the 1980 NBA championships

winning time
Warrick Page/HBO

This article contains spoilers for “Winning Time” Episodes 9 and 10.

After nine episodes of ups and downs, the season finale of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” finally showed us what the title is all about. The show began with the Lakers drafting Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) before the start of the 1979 season, so it’s only natural that it ends with the 1980 NBA championships.

With the coaching drama between Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) resolved at last (for now – “Winning Time” has already been renewed for a second season), the focus of the final episode rests on the Lakers’ last two games against the Philadelphia 76ers.

While “Winning Time” has been always been liberal with dramatic license, the season finale reflects just how theatrical Games 5 and 6 actually were. Like Magic said after winning the championship, “It’s unbelievable” – at least it would be, if it weren’t true.

Did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finish Game 5 on an injured ankle?

Episode 10 opens on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s showstopping performance in Game 5 of the NBA finals. Four and a half minutes before the end of the third quarter, with the score tied at 65 points, Kareem lands hard on the side of his left ankle, just as it happened in real life. The team physician decided that the injury was “severe” and gave him two options: go to the hospital right away or watch the last few minutes from the bench. Instead, he taped up his foot and played the rest of the game. “Although he couldn’t jump off his left foot,” wrote “Showtime” author Jeff Pearlman, he was part of a “key three-point play” that took place when there were 33 seconds left on the clock and ended up breaking the 103-103 tie.

As depicted in the show, his sprained ankle prevented him from playing Game 6; unable to walk, he watched the game from home.

Did McKinney give Westhead the idea to play Magic center for Game 6?

One of the more fact-bending storylines this season was the battle for the head coaching spot after Jack McKinney’s severe biking accident. In reality, McKinney spent months in intense physical and cognitive therapy and was unceremoniously fired midway through the 1980 NBA finals; in “Winning Time,” he jostles for control with his former assistant coach Westhead, along with Westhead’s assistant Riley. After Abdul-Jabbar is injured, McKinney blesses Westhead with a final bit of wisdom: his notes on an ideal starting lineup without Abdul-Jabbar. That plan includes having Johnson, a point guard, play center in his place.

In “Winning Time,” Johnson comes up with the idea and Westhead immediately accepts, later telling Riley that it’s exactly what McKinney would have wanted.

In real life, it was actually Westhead’s “preposterous idea, one the rookie would surely cringe at,” Pearlman writes. To his suprise, Johnson loved it (he’d occasionally played center in high school).

Most of “Winning Time”s version of Game 6 is true – even the pep talk Johnson received with 5 minutes left in the game. That, however, came not from Riley but Westhead, who called the time out rather than Johnson. “This is your opportunity,” he told him. “Your opportunity!” It’s true that Larry Bird beat Johnson 63-3 votes for the Rookie of the Year award, but his coach never used that fact to motivate him to play harder at the end of the game.

Netting 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists, Johnson did overcome his exhaustion to bring the Lakers to victory. Paul Westhead later called his performance in Game 6 “the greatest single-game effort ever.”

Did Magic actually take the NBA Finals MVP title from Kareem?

After the big win, NBA executive David Stern tells Johnson that although Abdul-Jabbar was supposed to be named Sport Magazine’s MVP of the NBA Finals, he should win the trophy because he’s there to accept it.

This is half-true: the last-minute switch did happen, but CBS was also behind it and Johnson was not in charge of the decision. In Abdul-Jabbar’s 1990 autobiography, sports writer Bill Livingston reveals that CBS got voters to change their minds so they wouldn’t be handing the award to someone who wasn’t there. The network and league got their way with a 4-3 vote.

In “Kareem,” Abdul-Jabbar stated that “My not being there in Philadelphia to receive the trophy on camera was a major inconvenience as far as the television people were concerned.” He clarified that his only concern was the Lakers winning the game and he had no hard feelings against Johnson about the situation.

Was Spencer Haywood actually planning to kill the Lakers?

Yes and no. In “Winning Time,” after Haywood’s (Wood Harris) drug issues begin interfering with his playing, the team decides to suspend him, with captain Abdul-Jabbar casting the deciding vote. He spends the finale taking drugs with some friends, vaguely gesturing at a plan to “kill” his teammates.

The real version of events is far more harrowing. In Games 1 and 2, Haywood played a total of five minutes. Then, Westhead and Buss decided to suspend him after he turned up to practice high.

“I left the Forum and drove off in my Rolls thinking only that Westhead must die,” Haywood recalled years later. He rang up a friend “who dabbled in organized crime” and together they formed a plan to “sneak into Westhead’s driveway at night and disable the brakes on his car. The next time the coach tried driving down the long, winding road from his Palos Verdes home,” Pearlman writes, “Haywood and his pals would run his vehicle off a cliff.”

What stopped him? Shortly before the murder was to take place, Haywood’s mother Eunice got the feeling that something was off when they were talking on the phone. She “threatened to contact the police if he acted on any urges,” and the plan was canceled.

Eight years later, when Westhead was coaching at Loyola Marymount, Haywood showed up and asked for his forgiveness. “Spencer, of course I forgive you,” Westhead told him. “Hell, it’s great to see you. Because if it had worked, I wouldn’t be seeing you.”