‘Winning Time’ Fact Check: Did a Body Really End Up in the Trunk of a Car?

The true story behind the most dramatic event yet to be covered in HBO’s Lakers series

winning time jerry tarkanian
Rory Cochrane as Jerry Tarkanian in "Winning Time" / HBO

This article contains spoilers for “Winning Time” Episode 3.

“Truth is terrific, reality is even better, but believability is best of all.” That’s what the screenwriter and author William Goldman once said when describing why it’s sometimes necessary to downplay the details of a true story. Paradoxically, the truth might be too incredible to seem true. 

That’s why the wildest anecdote yet to be showcased in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” – the murder of Vic Weiss – is likely to raise some questions.

As writer and executive producer Max Borenstein told TheWrap, “Our rule going in was, for the things that are going to make the audience’s jaws drop and think, ‘Wait, this couldn’t possibly have happened’ – those things had to be true one hundred percent and we followed that rule in the case of Vic Weiss.”

“Because you can’t go that far outside of reality and still be believable if you’re just taking creative license and just making things up,” added writer and executive producer Rodney Barnes.

So, what happened to Vic Weiss?

Episode 3, “The Best Is Yet To Come,” follows Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ (John C. Reilly) search for a new head coach after Jerry West (Jason Clarke) abruptly quits weeks before training begins. For his replacement, Buss has his heart set on another Jerry: Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane). 

Tarkanian is content with his current job as the head coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. However, his business manager and lifelong friend Vic Weiss (Danny Burstein) wants him to lead the Lakers. At their meeting with Buss, Weiss negotiates a much higher salary, new cars and other perks for Tarkanian. Just when it seems like they’ve reached an agreement, Tarkanian and Weiss spot a table of tough looking guys staring them down and they hightail it out of there. As Buss’ business associate explains afterward, the men are mobsters. 

Moments later, Weiss’ body turns up in the trunk of a car parked across from the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Los Angeles, badly beaten, with Buss’ business card plastered onto his cheek.

What happens in Vegas…

This isn’t far off from what actually happened. In “Showtime,” the book on which the series is based, Jeff Pearlman writes that a Sheraton parking lot attendant found the maroon and white Rolls-Royce on June 17, 1979. It’s true that the meeting with Buss is the last place Weiss was seen alive.

“A mere three days earlier, on the evening of June 14, Weiss had seemed to be the happiest man on the planet,” Pearlman writes in “Showtime.” “A fifty-one-year-old sports promoter who served as Jerry Tarkanian’s representative, he had bounded out the front entrance of the Beverly-Comstock Hotel, euphoric in the knowledge that his client was about to be named the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Those were the words Cooke and Buss had just used during their meeting – ’We’re excited to have Jerry as the new coach of the Lakers.’”

According to Pearlman and the Los Angeles Times’ descriptions, Weiss’ body was in much worse shape than he appears to be onscreen – minus one Jerry Buss business card. His skin was “decomposed beyond recognition,” his head disfigured by two bullet holes.

What “Winning Time” alludes to, but doesn’t expound for dramatic purposes, is that Weiss was in serious debt with some dangerous people. 

In Pearlman’s words, “Many of those who knew Weiss acknowledged a slipperiness to the man. Weiss’s business holdings were hardly of the up-and-up genre.” The man claimed to own three luxury car dealerships, carried a wad of cash at all times (he had $38,000 on him at the meeting with Buss and Tarkanian) and wore flashy jewelry. As detectives later learned, “the ultimate showman had little to show.”

Not only did Weiss not own his house or car, he also had accrued $60,000-plus in gambling debts. At the time of his death, he was traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to “deliver bundles of laundered cash,” from which he was known to skim money. “He had been warned repeatedly to stop, and, police suspected, was killed when he didn’t,” writes Pearlman.

In a Los Angeles Times article published ten years later, Michael Connelly writes that the murder “remains unsolved and one of the San Fernando Valley’s most puzzling mysteries.” The LAPD’s investigation pulled detectives into a tangled web of mobsters and informants. Three of the men who they investigated also turned up dead. The saga of Vic Weiss’ murder is juicy enough to merit a series of its own.

Did Jerry Tarkanian end up coaching the Lakers?

Understandably, Weiss’ murder left Tarkanian extremely shaken. Plus, the coach was embroiled in a fight with the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations, and, as Pearlman writes, “had no interest in leaving a position he cherished.”

Buss told him to take all the time he needed, and though Tarkanian eventually turned him down, there were reportedly no hard feelings between the two.

An interesting tweak “Winning Time” made to the true story is Jack Kent Cooke’s place in it. In the show, the outgoing Lakers owner (played by Michael O’Keefe) never reappears after the first episode, when Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) signs with the team. Jerry West quits after Magic is already in the picture, turning up the pressure on Buss to find a new coach before the season begins. 

In real life, the transition in ownership and recruitment of Johnson took place at the same time. Johnson was drafted on June 25, 1979, about a week after Weiss was found dead, smack dab in the middle of the hunt for a new head coach. Two years earlier, Cooke had actually offered Tarkanian the job, but the $700,000 salary wasn’t enough to entice him to move. He was present at the meeting with Tarkanian, Buss and Weiss, making him one of the last people who saw Weiss alive.

With Tarkanian out of the running, West’s preferred replacement (at least in the show) – Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) – ends up getting the job. However, his time with the Lakers ends in tragedy as well. That’s likely to be covered in next week’s episode of “Winning Time.”

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” streams exclusively on HBO Max.