Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14.
HBO’s sports drama Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty follows the Los Angeles Lakers in the ‘80s as the team heads into its famed Showtime era. Season 2 picks up as the team deals with personality clashes after winning the championship in 1980. Though the show focuses more on the locker room dynamics than the on-court action, it’s still vital that viewers understand just how thrilling it was to watch the Showtime Lakers play. Director/Executive Producer Salli Richardson-Whitfield had the difficult task of duplicating that unique energy and she spoke with The Root about bringing her basketball knowledge to the project while balancing real life with TV storytelling.
The veteran director, who’s also worked on Queen Sugar, The Gilded Age and See, is a true basketball lover, so recreating the game wasn’t a big ask. The hard part was making games from the ‘80s feel fresh and unpredictable.
“I study that old footage because you want to get that part of it right. Because people want to see that. How do I show you something that you know exactly what happened and still make it exciting for you? Still have you sitting at the edge of your seat? ‘I know they win, but maybe I don’t really know what’s happening,’” Richardson-Whitfield told The Root. “That was my challenge. Getting in there and telling the narrative inside of that huddle. Besides the hoopla of the basketball, that is what makes our basketball exciting. You get the heart of the game too.”
Though Season 2 centers the story from 1980 to 1984, there are definitely hints and Easter eggs that tease events the audience knows are coming later in the decade. The series still leans into its sensationalized tone, but these moments keep it grounded in reality.
“Our writers did a fantastic job, not just giving you the history and fact checking, but putting those little seeds for later that hopefully will pay off in another season,” she said.
One of the series’ most unique elements is its fourth wall breaks, which often provide an instant insight into a character’s emotions. They range from heartbreaking, to comical, to completely absurd. The drama has figured out how to use them perfectly and Richardson-Whitfield credits the writers, actors and editors for that.
“There’s a lot that are written and there’s a lot that don’t make it into the final cut. You kind of see what works and what doesn’t. What I’ve loved is that a lot of the actors this season would find those moments and add them in themselves because it just felt right,” Richardson-Whitfield said. “They started to feel it and some of those made it in because it was so natural and it just felt right in the moment. Kudos to our editors who find when it works and when it doesn’t, because they really are the special sauce that makes this show work.”
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and is also available to stream on Max.