There are some rivalries so ingrained in sports history that their names roll off the tongue: Borg-McEnroe, Federer-Nadal, Sharapova-S. Williams, Ali vs. Frazier. When it comes to the NBA, no pair tops Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), the rookies of their respective teams in the 1979-1980 season. (For those interested, the documentary “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” also streams on HBO.)
Up until Episode 7: “Invisible Man,” Bird’s presence in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” has been limited to a couple seconds at a time. As 1979 draws to a close, it’s time for Johnson and Bird to pick up what they started at March’s NCAA championship game, where the former’s team Michigan State famously defeated the latter’s team, Indiana State.
However, the rivalry goes beyond these two individuals. From Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and Celtics general manager Red Auerbach’s (Michael Chiklis’) contentious first meeting, their teams have been gearing up for an epic showdown all season long.
Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t be worse for the Lakers. As seen at the end of Episode 5, coach Jack McKinney suffers a near-fatal bike accident in November, forcing his frazzled assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) to step up.
Did Westhead pull it together in time for the Lakers’ last games of the year? Let’s get into it.
Were the Lakers on a losing streak once Paul Westhead took over?
Episode 7 opens midway through a disastrous Lakers vs. Pacers game in late November. Westhead is taking heat from all sides – from power forward Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris), who he refuses to play, to the fans, including an irate Jack Nicholson (Max E. Williams).
A meeting between Buss and the other executives confirms that Westhead is in over his head. McKinney convinces Buss to give Westhead until their game against Boston to improve, but the looming deadline does little to turn things around. In fact, what follows is a losing streak that peaks with an embarrassing loss to the Detroit Pistons (the “worst team” in the NBA) just before Christmas. When they’re not coming up short on the court, the team is questioning Westhead’s tactics, or, in Haywood’s case, disrespecting him to the press.
This is quite a stretch of the truth. From a broad overview, the Lakers lost roughly one-third of their pre-Westhead games that season, just as they did in his first month or so as coach. The Lakers beat the Pistons 138-122 at their Dec. 14 match-up. They beat the Indiana Pacers in that first game shown in the episode by an even wider margin of 127-104.
What’s more, Jeff Pearlman writes in “Showtime” that the Lakers’ ascent was more or less undeterred by McKinney’s accident. The fast-break offense style he engineered led to mounting wins and “rave reviews,” making the Lakers “an official marquee franchise.”
While McKinney’s condition made headlines at first, his name faded in the excitement of the Lakers’ victory march. “The team won five of its first six under Westhead, and all anyone wanted to talk about was Magic,” Pearlman writes. After Westhead was officially named coach for the rest of the season, he “handled things beautifully. He maintained a steady rotation, communicated openly with players, repeatedly credited McKinney and insisted the job was his to hold, not keep.”
Yet the issues with Westhead depicted in “Winning Time” were not pulled out of thin air. There was real tension between him and Haywood; the player’s drug addiction eventually led to Westhead suspending him at the end of the season. He wasn’t the only one: Magic Johnson was among those who openly detested Westhead. However, these problems arose in the following seasons, not in the period when he first took over. At the end of the day, it was his coaching tactics, not his incompetence, which led to his eventual fallout with the Lakers.
How did Pat Riley become assistant coach?
At the top of “Winning Time,” Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) is a washed-up former Lakers player who spends his retirement reminiscing about his NBA glory days. He finds his way back to the team as a broadcaster with Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) at the beginning of the 1979 season. When Westhead becomes interim coach, he begs Riley to hang up the headphones and become his assistant. Riley accepts on the condition that he will keep his new job when McKinney returns. A few games in, he realizes that Westhead hadn’t been honest with him when he accidentally answers a phone call from Elgin Baylor (Orlando Jones), the NBA Hall of Famer who is in consideration to replace McKinney.
In reality, Riley served three seasons as a commentator, starting in 1977. It’s true that Westhead chose him to be his assistant, but there’s no evidence that he deceived him into accepting the job with the promise of future employment. And while Buss had been pushing for Elgin Baylor, Pearlman writes that Chick Hearn actually “offered his blessing” to Riley. (In “Winning Time,” he tells him he’s making a huge mistake.)
Was the score of the Lakers-Celtics game really that close?
For the last six episodes, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have been slowly circling each other. The show accurately reflects just how different these two star players were: Pearlman describes Bird as “a quiet forward” who “rarely smiled,” “had zero charisma” and “could not have cared less about the spotlight.” Johnson was known for his huge personality and love of the limelight.
In Episode 7, Magic and Bird participate in a press conference before their big face-off at Boston Garden. Bird shrugs off Magic’s warm greeting by spitting into his can of beer and saying “Let’s get this over with.” Later, he tells Magic he is going to destroy him, without a shred of humor. This scene is reminiscent of their real-life interaction before playing at the 1979 NCAA championship game. “In the lead-up to the game, Johnson warmly approached Bird, but his greeting was rebuffed. Bird didn’t come all the way to Utah to make friends. He was here to win,” writes Pearlman.
And yet the game depicted in Episode 7 wasn’t their first time playing each other in the NBA. In late December, the Lakers beat the Celtics 123-105 at a home game. Magic scored 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. A few weeks later, they held onto victory by a razor-thin margin of 100-98 (it’s 99-98 in the show, because, well, drama.)
In the end, the Jan. 13 game wasn’t really about Bird vs. Johnson after all. Defensive player Michael Cooper stole the show by blocking Bird’s shots in the third period, allowing the Lakers to rebound. “Winning Time” also presents Cooper (Delante Desouza) as the hero, by having him score in the last second of the game. In actuality, Norm Nixon scored the final shot on a free throw.
One amusing detail that made it into the episode were the lengths Red Auerbach (and Boston as a whole) would go to in order to make the Lakers feel unwelcome. The general manager “took sadistic pleasure” in making Boston Garden “a hell trap for visiting teams,” from its rusty taps to poorly ventilated quarters. According to Pearlman, he instructed people to call the players’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t sleep well before games. Riley wouldn’t even let the players drink the water they gave them. And when they flew in for games, Celtics fans would mob the airport and taunt them with threats and trash talk. There isn’t hard evidence that Red Auerbach ever gifted Buss a rotten onion (“It’s a vegetable, like your coach”) but it doesn’t sound out of the realm of possibility.
“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” airs Sunday nights on HBO and streams exclusively on HBO Max.