‘Winning Time’ Fact Check: Kareem vs. Magic, Baby Kobe Bryant and a Career-Ending Accident

It’s finally showtime for Jerry Buss and the Lakers in Episode 5 of the HBO drama

winning time episode 5
Warrick Page/HBO

This article contains spoilers for “Winning Time” Episode 5.

If you’ve been keeping up with HBO’s “Winning Time: Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” you know it’s been a bumpy ride for Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and the Los Angeles Lakers. As the first four episodes have shown, the path to greatness is strewn with roadblocks: shaky financing, rivalries between teammates, the last-minute resignation of the head coach and the murder-driven dropout of his replacement.

In Episode 5, titled “Pieces of a Man,” Buss’ “Showtime” strategy – a revamped Forum, new Laker Girls, and most importantly, Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) – plus Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) fast-break offense are finally put to the test. Their first game against the then-San Diego Clippers shows promise, but things really pick up with their first home game of the 1979-1980 season. Of course, the Lakers’ early victories are not without their fair share of drama, both on and off the courts.

Let’s break down the facts and fiction of “Winning Time” Episode 5.

Was Paula Abdul Really a Laker Girl?

With Opening Day fast approaching, Jerry Buss is starting to lose his cool. Everything needs to be perfect for his grand debut as owner of the Lakers, from the speakers in the Forum bar to the dancers. Dissatisfied with their tame kicklines and ballet routines, he fires one choreographer after another, leaving his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) and Forum general manager Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman) to pick up the pieces. Only one dancer catches his eye: a young woman (Carina Conti) who’s able to improvise some hip-hop moves. Later, Jeanie tracks her down at Van Nuys High School (she lied about her age) and asks her to be the head choreographer of the Laker Girls. Her name? Paula Abdul.

Abdul – who would ascend to pop star fame with hits like “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted” – really did start her career with the Lakers, though not exactly in the way the series portrays. Firstly, the idea for a more dance-oriented team did not originate with Jeanie and Jerry Buss, but the Lakers’ director of promotions, Roy Englebrecht. He rounded up four dancers each from USC and UCLA. The Laker Girls became a massive success (there really was a “code red” walkie talkie command that signaled the start of the show) and auditions were opened up to the public.

That’s where Abdul comes in. In 1980, the 18-year-old former cheerleader beat out 700 other girls to earn a spot on the team during her freshman year at California State University Northridge. Within a year, she became head choreographer of the dance team. Four years later, the Jacksons came to the Forum for a Lakers game and asked Abdul to start choreographing their music videos. That led to jobs choreographing for the likes of Janet Jackson, Duran Duran and ZZ Top. In 1986, she quit the Lakers to pursue her singing career, and the rest is history.

What Went Down Between Magic and Kareem at the first game?

From the beginning of the series, “Winning Time” has positioned Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as polar opposites. The former is a ball of energy, an enthusiastic newcomer eager to befriend his more seasoned teammates and shake things up. The latter is portrayed as largely uninterested in the celebrity aspect of the sport, equally standoffish to the press, the fans and his teammates. Unsurprisingly, this creates friction between the two star athletes.

Tensions escalate at the first game of the 1979-1980 season against the Clippers. After unsuccessful attempts to win Kareem over, Magic confronts him and the two get into a physical fight. At the end of the game, with seconds left on the clock, Kareem scores, bringing the Lakers to a one-point victory. Magic throws his arms around him in celebration; Kareem tells him to get away from him. Later, Kareem reconnects with his faith in a mosque before ironing things out with Johnson. Cut to the Lakers on a winning streak.

According to Jeff Pearlman’s “Showtime,” on which “Winning Time” is based, there’s a lot it gets right. “When Johnson first arrived in Los Angeles, he sought Abdul-Jabbar’s approval,” he writes. “He imagined the two stars in some sort of buddy movie, the aged gunslinger taking the rookie sheriff under his wing… Alas, it was not to be.”

Instead, Abdul-Jabbar “epressed neither like nor dislike toward Johnson. They coexisted, as colleagues coexist.” As players, they meshed beautifully – “and yet, egos are egos,” Pearlman writes. He resented Johnson’s contract, friendship with Buss, and beloved reputation.

Some of the finer points about their relationship at the early stages – particularly at the opening game – seem spot-on. The Lakers really did beat the Clippers 103-102 with eight seconds to go thanks to Kareem. Magic really did give him a giant (unwanted) hug, which announcers picked up on. And afterwards, he did pull Magic aside and say, “Listen, we have eight-one more of these to go. Calm down.”

Was Kobe Bryant at Magic Johnson’s First Game with the Lakers?

In the middle of Magic Johnson’s first game with the Lakers, there’s a not-so-subtle wink to the future, as “Winning Time” is wont to do. Joe “Jellybean” Bryant of the Clippers prepares to block Magic, prompting commentator Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) to congratulate him on the birth of his son Kobe Bean (“I believe it’s Japanese,” he quips). The camera swivels to a crying baby in the crowd, captioned “Put me in coach!”

There’s no record of whether or not future NBA legend Kobe Bryant was at Magic Johnson’s first game. However, he was a year old at the time and it was his father’s first game with the Clippers, so it’s possible. Joe Bryant is likely included in the scene because that game featured one of the more memorable moments of his career: when he dunked on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Throughout his time in the NBA, Joe Bryant played with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Clippers and the Houston Rockets. He played overseas during Kobe’s childhood and eventually went on to coach several different teams.

Did Jack McKinney Actually Get Into a Bike Accident?

Jack McKinney’s story is one of the greater tragedies of the Lakers’ Showtime Era, not least of all because he is credited for helping usher it into existence. In 1979, he was hired to coach the Lakers after Jerry West resigned and Buss’ first choice, Jerry Tarkanian, didn’t work out. He engineered the strategy of “a moving offense, rather than having everyone standing around watching Kareem all the time and putting pressure on him,” as he said at his first press conference. The plan worked, earning the respect of his new team.

Then, on Nov. 8, 1979, he took his son’s bike to play tennis with his assistant coach Paul Westhead. Approaching a stop sign, the gears locked and he flew over the handlebars, landing hard on the concrete. He was in a coma for three days and underwent months of physical and cognitive therapy, Pearlman writes. Ultimately, McKinney had permanent issues with his memory and balance. At the end of the season, he was fired and replaced by interim coach Westhead. Pat Riley would eventually become head coach for much of the Showtime Era.

That’s more or less exactly how the accident plays out in “Winning Time” (save for a fake-out near collision with a car). The episode ends with his brutal accident, setting up next week’s episode for the coaching eras of Westhead (Jason Segel) and possibly Riley (Adrien Brody).

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