Despite reviews ranging from mixed to terrible, HBO’s drama, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, has been a ratings winner for the network and is already renewed for Season 2. However, some of the series’ biggest critics are former Lakers.
In a Substack post on Tuesday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes the show to task for “crude stick-figure” characters, but makes it very clear that he doesn’t have a problem with his portrayal by Solomon Hughes, writing, “There’s very little that anyone can say about me—whether it’s true or false—that will affect my life.”
What the five-time champion does take issue with are the one-note, boring characters. In a series featuring some of the most well-known, outrageous personalities in sports, director/executive producer Adam McKay fails to deliver an interesting cast.
“The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension.”
Well, damn. As usual, Kareem isn’t wrong.
Winning Time has Magic as a womanizing idiot who happens to be good at basketball, Jerry Buss is an over-the-top salesman at all times and Kareem is a serious activist who never smiles. Another annoying element that doesn’t add anything to the proceedings is the constant fourth wall breaks. This is one of McKay’s signatures, but it serves no purpose here—as Abdul-Jabbar made sure to point out.
“He uses the technique of breaking the fourth wall in order to have the characters directly address the audience,” the Hall of Famer writes. “The only reason to do this is to get humor or give insight, as it does in his The Big Short and other films such as Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Deadpool, and the TV show Fleabag. But in Winning Time, it’s neither funny nor insightful, mostly just giving us information.”
In a project full of mischaracterizations and historical inaccuracies, the most egregious comes in the portrayal of Lakers legend Jerry West. Kareem is particularly insulted at how Winning Time uses West’s mental health issues, something he’s been very public about, as throwaway jokes.
“Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at,” he writes. “He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”
In fact, West is so upset about his portrayal that he’s demanding an apology and retraction from McKay, HBO and its parent company Warner Bros.-Discovery. According to ESPN, a letter sent by West’s lawyers says “Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic.”
“Jerry West was an integral part of the Lakers and NBA’s success. It is a travesty that HBO has knowingly demeaned him for shock value and the pursuit of ratings,” Skip Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess LLP law firm in Los Angeles and attorney for West, said in the letter. “As an act of common decency, HBO and the producers owe Jerry a public apology and at the very least should retract their baseless and defamatory portrayal of him.”
HBO has clearly taken a lot of liberties with Winning Time, but when dramatic license hurts the real people you’re portraying, you need to take some responsibility for getting the important things wrong.