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Final buzzer sounded on ‘Winning Time’ way too soon

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson (left) was one of the many joys of the HBO series "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty."Warrick Page/HBO

Considering that consecutive episodes of the HBO series “Winning Time” ended with the exclamation, “[Expletive] Boston!,’’ Celtics fans can be excused for chuckling at the timing of the show’s abrupt ending.

The series, based — with much creative license — on author Jeff Pearlman’s insightful and meticulous book “Showtime” about the Magic Johnson-era Los Angeles Lakers was canceled by the network, a victim of myriad circumstances: the ongoing writers’ strike, so-so viewership numbers, executive impatience, and a large, star-studded cast that must have swelled the budget beyond belief.

Its Season 2 finale last Sunday instead became the series finale, the show surviving 17 total episodes.


And so “Winning Time,” which began with the 1979-80 season and appeared to have broad designs of lasting at least until Johnson’s announcement Nov. 7, 1991, that he had tested positive for the HIV virus, instead ended with those dastardly Celtics winning the 1983-84 NBA championship, with a disjointed “Here’s what happens to these zany Laker folks” epilogue tacked on.

Celtics play-by-play voice Sean Grande, as he has been known to do, put it best.

“As much as I loved the show and am truly disappointed in the decision,’’ he wrote on Twitter/X, “ ‘Winning Time’ mysteriously ending with the Celtics winning the ‘84 NBA Title is as on brand as there is for Red [Auerbach] reaching out from beyond.’’

I wholeheartedly second all of Grande’s sentiments — particularly about loving the show and being disappointed that it is done. “Winning Time,’’ for whatever flaws it had — and an unnecessary diversion from or exaggeration of the truth was a significant one — was outstanding entertainment.

I genuinely looked forward to a new episode dropping every Sunday night, even knowing that there was a decent chance that it would end with this fine city being cussed out by a group of pretend Lakers. Now I guess I’ll just watch Season 2 of “The Bear” another dozen times, chef.


I should note, before I return to Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert’s corner and get a little more into the appeal and frustration of “Winning Time,’’ that the show had an original, appealing adjacent media angle.

HBO's "Winning Time" came to an abrupt end.Warrick Page/HBO

Through Pearlman’s journalism-focused Substack (“Jeff Pearlman’s Journalism Yang Yang”) and podcast (“Two Writers Slinging Yang”) as well as with short videos posted on social media, he took viewers behind the purple-and-gold rope, passing along insight on the actors and behind-the-scenes talent, the compelling minutiae of making a television program, and shared details on the long process of how a book is adapted for television.

His most satisfying stories involved personal anecdotes — his and his wife and children’s experience appearing on camera in small parts, or the joy of taking his kids to the premiere.

When, over the last several months, Pearlman began pleading on social media for people to watch the show because it was in danger of getting canceled, it was easy to sympathize with him when it actually happened, even if it wasn’t a total surprise.

Anyway, I wanted to write about “Winning Time” for a while and figured I’d have more time. So allow me to at least acknowledge some pluses and minuses of the show. Here are three of each, though there were many more of the former than latter overall.

Pluses — If Adrien Brody’s portrayal of Pat Riley wasn’t the best performance, it’s only because Quincy Isaiah was a blessing from the casting gods as Magic . . . Sean Patrick Small, the actor who portrayed Larry Bird, mastered the mechanics of Bird’s shot. I can’t recall seeing a sports show or movie where an actor actually got the athletic aspect right for a legendary figure . . . Former Lakers guard Norm Nixon was played by his son, DeVaughn. It’s a role he unknowingly was preparing for his whole life, I suppose, but he was excellent, maybe the best actor among those portraying players.


Minuses — It’s been said elsewhere that Jason Clarke’s version of Jerry West made the Lakers icon seem like Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam was more subtle . . . It must have been a challenge to find people to play lean and ridiculously tall NBA players, but way too many of the actors looked like they’d been called up from an over-35 men’s basketball league and dressed up as Celtics and Lakers. James Lesure, the actor who played Julius “Dr. J” Erving, turned 53 on Thursday . . . Fine, I’ll say it. John C. Reilly peaked as Chest Rockwell.

Anyway, I’ll miss all of it. Yeah, it’s a riot that the Celtics are champions at the end of a show about the Lakers, but the full story of the teams’ rivalry — particularly the bond Magic and Larry developed over the years — would have been entertaining to watch play out in this strange television world of fictionalizing a familiar story.


This is a tough loss. The final buzzer sounded on “Winning Time” way too soon.

Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.