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Winning Time: How close was Jerry Tarkanian to signing with the Lakers?

Episode three of “Winning Time” included Jerry Buss’ very real pursuit of UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian as the next Lakers head coach, and led to raised eyebrows with its portrayal of Chick Hearn.

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University of Nevada Las Vegas vs University of Utah Set Number: X29626 TK1 R3 F10

Each week, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points by using the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

A good amount of debate surrounding the “Winning Time” has been about where the truth stops and where the dramatization begins (aka literally the point of these articles). But, improbably, an episode that includes an actual murder has, so far, been perhaps the most accurate of the show to date.

The main storyline of episode three of “Winning Time” is new Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ pursuit of a new head coach, a search that quickly zooms in on UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian. In another example of Buss’ innovative eye, he sought out Tarkanian a decade before he won a national title with the Runnin’ Rebels, though he was hardly a no-name coach.

Tarkanian had led Long Beach State to four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and back-to-back Elite Eights in the early ‘70s before leaving for Las Vegas. A Final Four run in 1977 in just his fourth year as coach helped forever tie him to a city that had already fallen in love with him.

As it played out in the show Buss met with a hesitant Tarkanian and laid it all on the table to bring the towel-biting head coach back to Southern California. In reality, Buss was joined by Jack Kent Cooke, who was still in the picture, but many of the details of that meeting from Pearlman’s book carried over into the show.

“I loved Las Vegas, my family loved Las Vegas,” Tarkanian said. “When the Lakers reached out, I immediately said to my wife, ‘I can’t take the job, right? I just can’t.’” Still, to be polite, Tarkanian returned Cooke’s call, explaining that, even if he were interested in moving to California, it’d have to be for, ohhhhh . . . a helluva lot more than the $70,000 offered last time. “Like what?” Cooke said. “Well,” said Tarkanian. “It’d have to be double the $350,000 I make right now.” “That’s fine,” Cooke said. “What?” said Tarkanian. “That’s fine,” Cooke repeated. “We can do that.” So here was Vic Weiss, moments after concluding with Cooke and Buss, briefcase in hand, approaching the valet parking station at the Comstock, happy as could be. Not only were the Lakers willing to make Tarkanian the NBA’s all-time highest-paid coach, they also ceded to his demands: a pair of season tickets for every home game, three luxury automobiles—one for Jerry, one for his wife, Lois, one for Pamela, their oldest daughter.

“Everything was set,” Tarkanian said. “I was the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.” Around the same time Weiss was wrapping things up, Jerry and Lois drove north from San Diego, where they had been vacationing, to the Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach. In the coming days, Tarkanian presumed he would sit down with Cooke and Buss, sign the five-year contract and be introduced to the Los Angeles media as the Lakers’ tenth head coach. “I’ll meet you and Lois tomorrow morning at the resort,” Weiss told Tarkanian. “This is a really exciting time for you.”

As it plays out next in the show, Tarkanian and his wife are set to drive to a location to meet Dr. Buss and Jeanie to sign the deal. But on the way, his agent Vic Weiss is found dead in the back of a car, presumably because of ties to the mafia which are alluded to during the dinner scene with Buss, Tarkanian and Weiss.

And while the timeline wasn’t exactly the same as portrayed in the show, the murder did indeed happen, and organized crime was presumed to be responsible for it (emphasis mine).

Many of those who knew Weiss acknowledged a slipperiness to the man. Weiss’s business holdings were hardly of the up-and-up genre. He apparently owned three car dealerships (Rolls-Royce, Ford and Fiat) and managed a handful of so-so boxers. Weiss always carried around a thick wad of cash (he had $38,000 in his pocket for the meeting with Buss and Cooke), and rarely left home minus his ostentatious solid gold wristwatch and matching diamond ring (purchased from Anthony Starr, a Canadian jewel thief who routinely sold Weiss hot goods).

It was far from unusual to see Weiss standing ringside, talking shop with known mobsters. What detectives later learned was that Weiss, the ultimate showman, had little to show. Though he told people he possessed the three car dealerships, he actually was merely a paid consultant. His Encino home was owned by an associate, and his car—the maroon-and-white Rolls-Royce—was leased. Weiss had run up more than $60,000 in gambling debts and—at the time of his death—was flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to deliver bundles of laundered cash. According to one of his colleagues, Weiss skimmed money off the top of the transactions. He had been warned repeatedly to stop and, police suspected, was killed when he didn’t.

The episode ends with the discovery of Weiss’ body but — another real-life spoiler alert, if that’s a thing — Tarkanian did not become the head coach of the Lakers. He would instead remain at UNLV through the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s before allegations of paying players, again alluded to in the show, catch up to him and the program.

Ultimately, Weiss’ death had an impact on that real-life choice, as did an outpouring of support and pleas to stay from the community that followed news of Tarkanian’s deal with the Lakers leaking out to the press:

Despite it all—the murder and the suspicions and the lingering questions—Jerry Tarkanian was still the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He would be designing plays for Kareem down low, would be figuring out how to blend the talents of Norm Nixon, the incumbent All-Star point guard, with Johnson, the rookie point guard. He would have to incorporate Jamaal Wilkes, the smooth small forward, into the offensive mix, and find an answer to the long-standing void at power forward.

“He was so excited to coach Magic,” Lois said. “He had all these ideas about how to use him.” A week after Weiss was murdered, Jerry and Lois flew to Las Vegas, where they dined with Buss. “I know this whole tragedy has been very hard on you,” Buss said. “Take as much time as you need. The offer is on the table, and it’s not going anywhere. You’re our coach.”

Vic Weiss’s murder, though, had changed things. With the death came the news (hidden until this point) of the coaching transaction. The people of Las Vegas reached out. Please don’t leave. We need you. You need us. You are Las Vegas. The Tarkanians had four children, none of whom wanted to depart. Maybe, just maybe, money wasn’t everything. Maybe $700,000 wasn’t worth giving up the job he loved most. “I don’t think Jerry ever got past Vic’s death,” said Lois. “He just didn’t get past it.” When Tarkanian called Buss to tell him he had decided to remain in Las Vegas, the new Lakers owner held no grudge. “I understand,” he said. “Some things just aren’t meant to be.”

The Lakers would soon find their man for the near future, and already had the guy who would be in charge of Showtime waiting in the unsuspecting wings. But we will write more about Pat Riley and his debut and characterization by Adrien Brody soon, because before that, we have to talk about a different Lakers broadcaster.

Did Chick Hearn talk like that?

It’d be impossible to look back on this episode and not discuss the meeting in Chick Hearn’s office between he and Riley. The focal point has less to do with the truthfulness of the exchange happening, but more the words that were said during it.

As Riley enters Hearn’s office, the latter apologizes for a previous scene in which Riley was stopped outside the arena by a Black security guard and not let in. Hearn refers to the security guard as “some new gorilla.”

While there is no reference in the book to such an exchange or any other public evidence of Hearn using that exact language, the longtime Lakers play-by-play announcer did have a bit of a checkered past with some remarks he made. He took flack in 1997 when, after a dunk by Bo Outlaw during a Lakers-Clippers game in which Outlaw hung on the rim, Hearn made the comment that he was “up there so long he could have eaten a banana.”

Hearn apologized on the radio the next morning and insisted he would have made the comment if a white player had been hanging up there, too. In the linked LA Times piece on the matter, both Stu Lantz and Byron Scott offered strong support for Hearn’s character as well.

Similarly, a Sports Illustrated profile by Bruce Newman of Hearn revealed some more questionable language used to contestants of different races on a 1970s show titled “Bowling for Dollars.”

If the contestant was white. Chick would ask him where he worked; if he was black, Hearn would invariably say, “So, do you have a job?” He also had a habit of asking Oriental contestants how to tell the difference between Chinese people and Japanese people. Was Hearn being racist? His friends say insensitive yes, bigoted no.

So, while Hearn has the defense of many, it certainly doesn’t seem like it would be entirely out of character for him to use the phrasing he did in the show.

The other eyebrow-raising comment came when Riley brought up the topic of being a color commentator for Hearn’s radio broadcasts. The show’s version of Hearn chooses some very particular — and very homophobic — words to express his resistance:

“The problem is your voice...It’s, it’s f-ggy. I’m not saying you are one. You’re a man’s man, God knows. But if you close your eyes and open up your ears, you sound like a fruit.”

The way people talked and thought and handled everything surrounding homosexuality in 1980 is drastically, drastically different than in 2022, even if it still hasn’t come far enough.

As best as we can tell through research online, there is no public record of this conversation happening. And when retelling the story of how he came to work with Hearn to legendary NBA journalist Jack McCallum, Riley said it was actually Hearn who approached him to get into the announcing booth after a preseason game, so the exchange pictured on the show may have been a total dramatization:

Riley was about to get axed from the Portland Trail Blazers after a preseason game against the Lakers when he heard Hearn’s voice. “Don’t worry, kid,” Hearn told him. “In a couple days you’ll get a call.” And he did. Such was the power of Chick Hearn.

And Riley had been nothing but incredibly supportive of Hearn before his passing. He acknowledged that Hearn bringing in Riley after his playing days changed his life for the better and also credited Hearn for giving him the urge to leave the radio booth and move to the sidelines as an assistant coach. While pain is the emotion expressed by Riley during the scene, in real life, Riley has been nothing but appreciative of Hearn’s impact on his life and career.

There isn’t much online to indicate Hearn may have been homophobic aside from one moment. In the wake of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV, the rumors of his own sexuality swirled. Hearn, on camera, said of Johnson, “Don’t think he got it the wrong way.”

Is that still offensive? Absolutely. But it’s also how homosexuality was often discussed in those less tolerant times. This is not a defense of Hearn’s choice of words, just an acknowledgment of a very different time and reality.

We reached out to HBO last week to ask if the scene featuring Hearn was based on any background research from the writers and production team, or if it was solely dramatized. As of publishing time, we never received a response.

Because Hearn passed away in 2002, he can’t defend himself. And the harsh but true fact is that the dead — and their family members — can’t sue for libel. That allows media to be looser with how they portray characters that have passed without having to worry about libel accusations, and it’s something that has to be taken into account with any dead character, even if acknowledging that doesn’t make any of the things Hearn actually did say back then any more acceptable today.

All stories from this article via “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” by Jeff Pearlman, which is a must-read for fans of “Winning Time,” and Lakers fans in general, and served as the source material for the show. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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