The list of people to take issue with their portrayal in “Winning Time” — the HBO series on the Showtime Lakers — is long.
Magic Johnson called it inaccurate, despite simultaneously saying he hasn’t watched the show. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said the show was shallow and filled with “lazy writing.” Jerry West has gone so far as to demand an apology and retraction from HBO, and is threatening to take his grievances with the series all the way to the Supreme Court.
But it’s not just the people who are caricatured who are unhappy with the show. Longtime Lakers journalist Steve Springer told Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times that former team employees have been letting him know how much they don’t like “Winning Time,” too (emphasis mine):
Springer, who has written five books on the Lakers, has been hearing from many former Lakers employees who are upset with the entire series. But nobody has engendered the anger as much as fictionalized West.
“I understand dramatic license, but this is way over the top,” Springer said. “It makes him look like a clown, like he’s the hulk, he morphs into this monster.”
HBO has responded to critiques from West and others, saying in a statement on Tuesday that “the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing” and that the network “stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”
Now, it’s worth noting that no television drama or movie based on factual events is ever going to be an exact recreation of the events themselves. This is not a new phenomenon in sports movies or shows, and expecting a series produced by Adam McKay for HBO to not take dramatic licenses with cutting dialogue, copious lampooning and salacious drama was always going to be a mistake.
But it is interesting that it’s not just those who are being parodied who are taking issue with the show, even if it’s not completely surprising. Very few people enjoy being tweaked or mocked, or being the butt of a joke, or seeing their friends and former colleagues serve as such. Especially not on a nationally televised show. And even for those who are not depicted, of course those who were there have a different view of how things were than a fictionalized drama designed to loosely follow events from nearly 40 years ago was ever realistically going to provide.
So, on a human level, it’s easy to understand why people who were involved are annoyed by this show. But they’re not the target audience for it, and it’s honestly a little insulting to our collective intelligence that they clearly seem to think we’re going to treat this as a documentary. Do they think we’re stupid? That we watch “Saturday Night Live” and think every portrayal there is accurate, too? These tales that are “based on a true story” are always, at best, true-ish, which the showrunners would surely admit freely.
For those who want a deeper, more nuanced, lengthier (and honestly better and more entertaining) portrayal of those “Showtime” teams, I’d recommend the Jeff Pearlman book of the same name, which the series is based on. But that type of story was never going to be fully told in “Winning Time,” a TV show trying to tell an entertaining story about an entire year to a general audience in less than 10 hours on a prestige cable network. I’m not sure why apparently everyone from that era apparently expected it to be.