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Bob Ryan

HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ is reprehensible, especially in its portrayal of Jerry West

HBO's “Winning Time” purports to tell the story of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers and claims to be based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Showtime.”Tommaso Boddi/Getty

I could go with an “R” word: ridiculous, reckless, or reprehensible. Yeah, reprehensible, that’s a good one.

Or perhaps I could go with a “D” word: disgusting, disgraceful, or defamatory. Yeah, defamatory. It surely is that when it comes to Jerry West.

I’m talking about the HBO production “Winning Time,” which purports to tell the story of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers and which claims to be based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Showtime.”

After watching Episode 1, I had three thoughts. 1. Everyone had been reduced to a human cartoon; 2. What did West ever do to executive producer Adam McKay to warrant being portrayed as a monstrous, crazed joke of a general manager?; 3. Were I West, I would have three words for McKay, those being, “Meet my lawyer,” which, in fact, West has done.


Episode 1 is ludicrous. Trust me, it never gets any better.

The central figure in “Winning Time” is Dr. Jerry Buss, who purchased the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 and presided over the franchise until his death in 2013. The real Jerry Buss was flamboyant, for sure, and it would be accurate to label him as hedonistic. He lived life to the fullest and he loved to date women half his age because, well, he could. But the Jerry Buss that McKay and his writers present to us is a laughable buffoon who cannot be taken seriously. He is a goofball, and it is impossible to see him as someone who could have accumulated the money necessary to purchase a fruit cart, let alone a professional sports franchise. I must say that John C. Reilly is clearly enjoying himself. It’s not every day he gets to portray a cartoon figure.

And then there’s West, who is presented as an alcoholic, rageaholic, sexaholic, and just about every kind of bizarre “holic” you can name. He is shown acting out with frightening temper tantrums, including one in which he is seen tossing a trophy through a window. Please. There is no way such a deranged individual could be hired to supervise anyone, or anything.


It is no secret that West has a dark side. The title of his autobiography is “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” Woody Allen told us long ago that his original title for “Annie Hall” was going to be “Anhedonia,” which is defined as “an inability to experience pleasure from activities found enjoyable.” That would have been an appropriate title for a Jerry West autobiography.

But that’s a long way from the disturbed person McKay makes West out to be. “It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression,” maintains Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “They turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.”

Paul Westhead should be siccing his attorney on McKay, as well.

Hall of Famer Jerry West has reason to be upset about his portrayal in HBO's "Winning Time."Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

Westhead was the assistant coach who took over as head coach after Jack McKinney’s horrifying bicycle accident in the fall of 1979. Westhead was a studious man who just happened to be a legitimate Shakespearian scholar, in addition to being a good basketball coach. If you believe what you see in “Winning Time,” he was a completely overwhelmed, timid, whimpering mess, a guy in over his head. In reality, he wound up guiding the team to the 1979-80 championship. Here from Pearlman’s book is Abdul-Jabbar on the subject: “I think he has done a great job, considering the way this was dropped on him.”


McKay and Co. do not claim that “Winning Time” is a documentary. No, it is a “dramatization,” and as such they are entitled to mess with some chronologies, invent some things, and, shall we say, alter other things to suit their dramatic purposes. It’s not really important that they have the 1979-80 Lakers go from training camp to Opening Night without an exhibition game, or they create news conferences that never happened.

However, do they have a right to invent a scene where Pat Riley (played by Adrien Brody looking like a 1965 Sonny Bono) physically attacks a fully clothed Westhead, shoving him into a shower and then turning on the water? Far worse is an outrageous scene in which a Boston Garden usher hands Buss a box sent by Red Auerbach that contains a tomato. “What’s this?” he asks. “A vegetable, just like your coach,” replies the usher, alluding to the hospitalized McKinney. I’d wager that were he alive Red would likewise be telling McKay to meet his lawyer.

Colleague Dan Shaughnessy was actually asked if he’d like to portray that usher. Of course, he declined.

Here’s a question: What were they thinking?

Every such drama needs a villain, and, of course, the easy choice is All Things Boston. We are, as you might suspect, a thousand percent racist to the core, each and every last one of us. Larry Bird is an ignorant big mouth who is introduced to the audience spitting the juice from his chaw into a beer can. Of course.


Are there any positives? Well, the great Tracy Letts plays McKinney. Say no more. Sally Field plays Buss’s mother, and it was nice to see her again. And Solomon Hughes must be commended for pretty much capturing the blend of intellect and aloofness that was, and is, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If Quincy Isaiah had toned it down a bit he might have been more believable as Magic Johnson.

In the end, however, they are all engulfed in a farcical production that, because of what it does to the reputation of Jerry West, is not exactly harmless. There is no remote excuse to do what Adam McKay has done to Jerry West.

The 1980s Lakers are a good story. They deserve better.

Do you want the real story? Forget McKay’s nonsense. Read Pearlman’s book.

Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.