As “Winning Time” has continued to grow in popularity, the silence from so many directly involved has been noteworthy. Considering the reaction of so many indirectly around the Showtime Lakers and the figures involved, it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the first to extensively break his silence on Tuesday, it was to completely lambast the series.
In his latest Substack piece, Kareem gave his critiques and criticisms of the show, and did not hold back at all. He opens by saying he did not originally intend on watching the series but did so after seeing some of the backlash to it.
He first takes aim at executive producer Adam McKay — someone he admits he was a long-time fan of previously — saying that “Winning Time” suffers “from some of the same shallowness and lazy writing” that he says McKay’s recent movie “Don’t Look Up” was also undermined by.
In that same vein, one of his first critiques of the show itself centered on the depth, or lack thereof, of the main characters.
The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford. Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous Prick. They are caricatures, not characters. Amusement park portraits that emphasize one physical feature to amplify your appearance—but never touching the essence.
It’s hard not to argue that the characters have been closer to caricature than anything else, but it’s also pretty clearly by design. This isn’t a series that was going to lean on historical depictions to create a series that would draw an audience in. That isn’t to say more nuanced, well-thought-out characters wouldn’t interest people, but given the cast and Adam McKay’s previous work, this series was long expected to trend in the direction it’s ultimately taken.
That was certainly not the only complaint that Kareem had about the show, as he also spoke about it being a piece low on humor to justify the level of cartoonishness of its portrayals of real, still-living people:
How was the plot constructed? If you gathered the biggest gossip-mongers from the Real Housewives franchise and they collected all the rumors they heard about each other from Twitter and then played Telephone with each other you’d have the stitched together Frankenstein’s monster that is this show. I was shocked that for all the talent and budget, the result was so lacking in substance and humor.
Humor is one of Adam McKay’s specialties, but he can’t seem to find any in this show. There are attempts, but they often fall flat because they are so obvious and predictable. Those bro-dude attempts are as cringy as a bad SNL skit.
Now this? This is easy to argue. There are many things the show has gotten wrong, but humor hasn’t really been one of them. Perhaps it’s a matter of being too close to the trees to see the forest for Kareem, but the most recent episode alone had plenty of hilarious moments about the team’s trip to Boston and Jerry West’s... disdain for the city.
Kareem also addressed his portrayal, specifically. His first appearance comes on the set of Airplane! in which he tells the young child in the iconic scene with him to “F--- off” as he walks off set.
I’ve battled leukemia, heart surgery, cancer, fire, and racism—a negative portrayal of me on a TV show has no effect on me personally. But it does affect others. For example, I never said “F—k off” to the child actor (Ross Harris) in Airplane!, nor have I ever said that to any child. I realize this was a shorthand way of showing my perceived aloofness during that time, even though I have often spoken about my intense, almost debilitating shyness. Sometimes the attention in public became so overwhelming I shut down to protect my sanity. The filmmakers had access to that information, but truth and insight were not on their agenda. Shocking moments were.
This is very much fair and an open and candid look at Kareem. His “perceived aloofness” being tied to his anxiety is an honest self-assessment. It’s hard to argue against that, but it’s also fair to note that there are stories about Kareem ignoring children in the past, the latest of those told by longtime NBA reporter Jackie McMullan in her “Icons Club” podcast with The Ringer.
“A young boy and his father approached Kareem after practice and asked if he would pose with them for a photo. He walked past without so much of an acknowledgment. Magic, embarrassed by Kareem’s action, offered to take a picture with the kid. Years later, when Magic was trying to line up investors for one of his new business ventures, he had a meeting with a young, deep-pocketed CEO. It was the boy, all grown up, from two decades earlier. He told Magic he kept the framed photo of the two of them on the wall of his office. And then he signed on to invest in Magic’s business.”
It is also worth noting that the line Kareem takes issue with in the first episode is directly taken from an anecdote in Jeff Pearlman’s book that the series is based on, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” as memorably retold by Lakers director of special projects Linda Rambis:
“Some little kid would ask for an autograph and he’d say, ‘Go fuck yourself,’” said Linda Rambis, who worked as the vice president and general manager of Forum tennis during the early 1980s. “But Kareem was, otherwise, an incredible professional.”
So did Kareem tell the specific child actor in “Airplane!” to “F--- off?” Probably not. Was the scene based in reality? At least a bit, yes. And “based in reality” is probably the best way to describe the series overall. It’s never claimed to be anything but a dramatization. It’s not a docu-series. It didn’t set out to tell the story that was. It set out to tell a story based loosely around what was.
And that seems to be the point so many people get hung up on, Kareem included. If a true-to-life piece is what Kareem and others wanted, then Magic Johnson’s recent documentary would be more up their alley. He even recommends it at the end of his post.
For those of you who are interested in exploring what really happened, I suggest you watch the excellent documentary They Call Me Magic on Apple TV+. Also, the Lakers have produced a 10-part docuseries, with the cooperation of all the players involved, which will be released later this summer on Hulu directed by Antoine Fuqua.
But “Winning Time” has never claimed to be anything other than a dramatization, and constantly expecting it to be an exact documentary is an unfair criticism, no matter who it comes from.