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Winning Time: HBO’s Non-Doc Finds Early Critics

Sports fans are always looking for new opportunities to engage with their favorite team, sport, or player. Usually, sports pastimes are focused on the latest breaking news and updates from leagues like the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

Some fans enjoy following their favorite experts and broadcasters, who provide the latest analysis on games. Others might prefer to apply free bets to select a dark horse champion or simply back their team to the end of the season.

Regardless of how technical fans like to get when it comes to following their favorite sport, there’s one treasured form of sports culture: big-screen adaptations. These run the gambit, from investigative documentaries like 2017’s Icarus from Netflix to comedy-drama projects like 2008’s Leatherheads from Universal.

One special caveat that sports flicks tend to get right is a ‘true story’ crossover. The film’s narrative is based on true events, then dramatized for audiences to get a stronger feel for tension and triumph. To name a few, there’s 1993’s Rudy, 2011’s Moneyball, and 2014’s Foxcatcher. 

The bigger the stakes and the more unique the battle, the better a story adapts for on-screen storytelling. Recently, HBO released a similar blend of reality and drama in their series, Winning Time, which covers one of the NBA Los Angeles Lakers’ most prestigious dynasties.

Unfortunately for HBO, their 2022 project has hit bumpy roads. While critics are enjoying the dramatized series, the athletes portrayed in the TV show have spoken out—and they’re not happy with how real-life events are being handled by writers.

A Sports Comedy-Drama Series

As one of the most prestigious, flashy, and successful teams in the NBA, the LA Lakers see their fair share of coverage in the media. The team has had championship-winning squads that took home multiple national titles in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2000s. Basketball legends have littered their rosters, from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James. 

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty covers the start of the Lakers’ modern domination of the league. The series is based on the successful book from Jeff Pearlman titled Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.

Though the book was a smash hit for basketball fans and, in particular, Lakers’ diehards, the show has hit early challenges. Winning Time takes a drama-comedy angle on the dynasty that includes the most pivotal seasons of NBA legends like Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who are portrayed by Quincy Isaiah, Adrien Brody, and Solomon Hughes, respectively.

The series takes a look at the players and staff who took the team to multiple Finals series in the 1980s, which resulted in championship wins in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. At its most basic, the series has a (literal) winning formula—and it’s already been renewed for a second season.

 So why are audiences and the players portrayed backing off the series only shortly after its release?

A ‘Reminder to Audiences’

HBO released the first episode of Winning Time on March 6, 2022. The season will conclude in early May as weekly episodes are released. As mentioned above, HBO has already renewed the series… but its main focuses from The Showtime Era of the Lakers aren’t pleased.

Shortly after the series debuted, both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar released criticisms related to the show’s inaccuracy. As a comedy-drama, the show doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. However, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t feel the show is just off-center; he said it’s also ‘deliberately dishonest’ and ‘dull’.

Johnson wasn’t far behind with his opinions. He told Variety that the project is controversial to him because neither he nor Abdul-Jabbar was consulted when it came to scriptwriting. This relates to the original work, too, from Jeff Pearlman. The author of the book that the script is based on also didn’t interview either star—though he claims to have been ignored by both during the writing process.

But it’s not only the stars that are angry with how they’re being portrayed. Jerry West, head coach of the Lakers during the Showtime Era, has also stepped forward with criticisms. West even got his attorney involved, demanding that HBO retract its ‘false and defamatory portrayal’ of the coach.

An Ensemble Cast & Unhappy Stars

In response to the passionate criticisms leveled by the real people portrayed in the series, HBO released a statement to remind audiences that the series is ‘not a documentary’. The studio went on to clarify the story is ‘fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes’ and that they stand behind the show, its creators, and its cast. 

The controversial reception of the series might shock many sports fans. As mentioned above, a comedy-drama or similar take on true sports stories are one of the most popular pop culture portrayals. They tend to do well with both critics, fans, and athletes.

 So, what makes this project so different than a story like 2003’s Radio or 2009’s The Blind Side? According to those who actually lived through the Showtime Era, the show takes an overwhelming soap opera angle, adding flourishes in order to spice up the show—even if they’re not based on reality. 

For example, head coach West is portrayed with an over-the-top temper—literally throwing trophies through windows in the series. They turned the man into a damaging caricature, which doesn’t take into consideration West’s long-time (and now well-known) struggles with wellbeing. Abdul-Jabbar described it in a blog post as, ‘exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character’. 

This seems to be the line drawn in the sand when it comes to dramatizations of true events. While they’re entitled to take things in a new direction, such as the unique mockumentary format of 2017’s I, Tonya to tell a true story, the underlying characterizations should stick to reality and, most importantly, be treated with care.

HBO has creative license to hash out a well-known story in a new light, but how that story is handled should be with respect to the actual story. In other words, the Showtime Era Lakers were flash and drama… but the attempts at comedy leave the show hollow and, in the end, don’t produce many laughs.

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