‘Winning Time’ Executive Producer Rodney Barnes on Crafting That Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Episode

“Anything that felt like we were taking too much dramatic license or it could be deemed disparaging in any way, we left on the cutting room floor,” the producer told TheWrap.

Solomon Burke as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in "Winning Time" (HBO)
Solomon Burke as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in "Winning Time" (HBO)

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” got one step closer to the “showtime” era of the Los Angeles basketball team as the characters of Magic (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem (Solomon Hughes) found some common ground on the court, taking the team to a flashy and fun win in Sunday night’s episode.

The moment of on-court camaraderie happened after the show dove into the backstory of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, including the athlete’s conversion to Islam in his early 20s and the backlash he faced from basketball fans, as well as his early activism over issues of racial injustice.

Executive Producer Rodney Barnes wrote the episode, and he told TheWrap about the deep research dive that went into crafting it.

TheWrap: Can you tell me a little bit about working on Kareem’s backstory, and approaching that episode, just because you’re bringing in a lot of current topics into that episode, and also, you’re trying to respect a man who is still alive, a man who is deeply religious. I think that would put a little more weight on people to write that episode.

Rodney Barnes: It certainly did. We did a lot of research about Islam; We did a lot of research about Kareem and that moment in time where he was at his most political, I guess you can say for lack of a better word, his conversion and when he changed his name and how that affected his family. All of that stuff we did a deep dive of. Research into books, articles, anything that we could find to put that together. And then there was this other intangible [part of] appreciation and respect that we infused in there as well. Anything that felt like we were taking too much dramatic license or it could be deemed disparaging in any way, we left on the cutting room floor and really honed it down to what we felt shined a light on him that I think he deserves as a hero and an icon, and someone that I really, really respect. But I’m honored to have written that episode along with Max [Borenstein] and I’m proud of it.

Can you talk a little bit about your conversations with Solomon, who plays Kareem, and his performance in that episode and getting the tone right, because, you know, here’s a man who is basically having to weigh his deep concern for racial equality, for dealing with injustices in the world with the fact that he’s a pop icon in a way?

That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked about Solomon, because Solomon is a very thoughtful guy. We had a lot of conversations and a lot of dinners and just how to go about doing this. Like it’s not just going in and acting a scene. Solomon’s a thoughtful guy, and he really went into and did a lot of soul-searching, and as a huge fan of Kareem, did a lot of research on his own. I think he met every scene with a degree of reverence. … He listened to jazz, the same jazz that Kareem said in his book that he loved. He did everything he could possibly do to just capture the spirit of Kareem during that period of time. I don’t think in all of my years of watching an actor act that I’ve seen one that committed to doing the right thing, by the person –  the subject – who [they’re] telling the story of.

Around that time, we’re starting to see the bond develop between Magic and Kareem. Can you talk about the arc of that? … We’re in a period where they’re not [yet] friends and they’re sort of figuring each other out. And you know, Episode 5 is, I think, where they do kind of cross a bridge.

A meeting of minds. I think if you look at it from a generational place, Kareem being from a different day and time when men, certainly Black men, had a certain standard for how they behaved and what they looked at as very clear lines of what was right and what was wrong and how you’re supposed to present yourself to the public. And you’ve got this guy coming in that certainly is more – doing things in his own way for a new day. I think first, you’re getting that clash between those two, and then their style of play.

I grew up in a time when fundamentals were how you played the game. It was a slower type of chess match. And if you’d look at Kareem [at] UCLA and Power Memorial, he probably was more steeped in the fundamentals of the game, more so than this flashy kid who’s coming in with behind the back passes and all types of flash and dash, which speaks not only to how he expresses himself on the court but also going back to that thing of how he expresses himself as a man. And until they started to come together, and they figured out a way to be teammates and brothers, you’re still operating from that place of ‘my way is right. No, my way is right.’ And ego. And to be a great athlete or to be great at anything, I think ego plays a role. But then, when you’re teammates, you sort of have to put your ego to the side for the greater good and to be able to play the game at a high level and win. And I think that’s what both of those guys did and I think over time developed a deep sense of respect and love for one another — but it wasn’t on day one. It came as they were moving along.

One of the things I think is so surprising as I watched the episodes so far is there were a lot of moments that really did happen, for example, the body in the car outside the Universal Sheraton, Jack McKinney being a regular old pedal bicycle crash.

Really happened.

Did you know about these things? 

Some of them we learned along the way. I remember as a kid hearing about the Jack McKinney thing. But one of the rules that we had was anything that sounds like no way that could have happened, it really happened … because you can’t go that far out of reality and still be believable if you’re just taking creative license and just making things up. So the fact that that happened with a lot of those folks was amazing to us as writers in being able to put them in a narrative. It’s like you have to create a certain setting in order for you to understand coach McKinney, and then for that to happen, it’s jarring. You don’t see it coming, certainly, and that’s for a lot of the characters across the board.

“Winning Time” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.