‘Winning Time’ Fact Check: Was Jerry West Against Drafting Magic Johnson?

Johnson’s acquisition by the Lakers is a major source of friction in the HBO drama series

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Warrick Page/HBO

This article contains spoilers for Episode 1 and Episode 2 of “Winning Time.”

HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” chronicles the Lakers’ glorious and glitzy “Showtime” era, beginning in 1979 when Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) bought the Lakers and added Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) to the roster. Based on the book “Showtime” by Jeff Pearlman, the series wavers between fact and fiction, but usually succeeds at capturing the essence of the people it portrays.

Buss’ mission to start winning NBA championships and burnish the team’s celebrity image meant shaking things up, inevitably ruffling some feathers.

One of the main sources of conflict in the first two episodes is the Lakers’ drafting of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Signing him is non-negotiable for Buss, as Johnson perfectly aligns with his “billboard” vision for the team. That doesn’t sit well with head coach and former Lakers player Jerry West (Jason Clarke).

In fact, we’re first introduced to him at a golf course, ranting and swearing about why drafting Johnson is a terrible idea. “You really wanna know what’s wrong with Johnson? … One thing: he’s too tall,” he shouts, adding that “He smiles too much.”

At the top of the second episode, he expresses his frustrations about not having a “solid four” to lead the team. Spencer Haywood is his first choice, but he’s too expensive. After Buss gives West “carte blanche” to build out the rest of the roster his own way, West tells star players Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) that he plans to keep Johnson out of the spotlight.

So, was Jerry West really against Magic Johnson joining the Lakers?

According to “Showtime,” West just “wasn’t fully convinced” that a 6-foot-9 player could thrive as a point guard. His preferred pick was Sidney Moncrief, who ended up being drafted fifth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. West went as far as try convincing Jack Kent Cooke, the outgoing owner of the Lakers, not to draft Johnson. For some time, there was “a strong belief” that Moncrief would become the next Laker.

In “Winning Time,” West’s crusade is likely used to illustrate his lifelong battle with depression, mood swings, and perfectionism, which are documented in “Showtime” and in West’s autobiography, “My Charmed, Tormented Life.”

Johnson and West (as general manager) went on to win five NBA championships together. In 2022, Johnson gave an effusive speech honoring him with the NBA’s Legend of the Year Award. In other words, it’s safe to assume that their relationship improved despite West’s initial misgivings.

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