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.
After almost half a season of shows building up to the moment, the fifth episode of “Winning Time” finally sees actual NBA games taking place for the Lakers. But while the gameplay looked terrific, the ending of the show is what likely left viewers a bit stunned this week, as the episode ends with head coach Jack McKinney lying unconscious on the pavement, bloodied from a wreck that saw him flip over the handlebars of his bike and slide across the asphalt after his brakes malfunctioned.
It isn’t the most startling ending to an episode — there was a literal murder two weeks ago — but it is effectively true to form with what happened in real life, wildly enough. Obviously, spoiler warning for possible future events depicted in the show.
It was a day off on Nov. 8, 1979, when McKinney — whose Lakers were off to a hot start at 9-4 — took the free time as an opportunity to play tennis with assistant coach Paul Westhead, all as accurately portrayed in the show. And his wife was using the car for a human and personal relationships class with Cassie Westhead, wife of assistant coach Paul, so Jack and Paul himself opted to play tennis together.
Because of an accident in Portland prior to him moving to LA to coach the Lakers, the McKinneys only had one car so Jack took his son’s bike to travel through his Palos Verdes neighborhood. At an intersection at the bottom of a hill at the corner of Whitney Collins Drive and Stonecrest Road, McKinney applied the brakes, but they locked up. It is still unknown if this was due to a brake failure itself as portrayed in the show, but the end result was the same: McKinney flew over the handlebars and face-first into the pavement.
Here is what we do know for sure, from the police report of a single witness, as covered in Pearlman’s book:
I drew up to the stop sign on the corner. A man came down the hill [toward the intersection] on his bicycle. He was not speeding, as I remember. He seemed to be going at a moderate speed, then he slowed down even more and looked at the corner.
My impression was that he put his brakes on and something happened then . . . his bicycle went out from under him, and all of a sudden he fell forward . . . and slid on his belly for about 15 to 18 feet. [McKinney] was practically unconscious—he could move but he seemed to be out. He had a loud, raucous breathing, like when someone’s snoring. Then blood started coming out of his mouth slowly.
The injuries were so severe that when the ambulance and attendants arrived to the scene, “This guy’s not going to make it” was one of the phrases uttered after seeing McKinney. He would be transported to the hospital where he would bounce in and out of a coma before being diagnosed as suffering severe head injuries, a facial fracture and a fractured elbow.
He does not remember the incident, nor much of the ensuing weeks. The situation was dire enough that only close family was allowed to see him in the hospital, with even Dr. Jerry Buss and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being turned away. Westhead was only allowed to see him because McKinney’s wife lied and said the two were brothers, an indicator of just how close the two families were.
Ultimately, McKinney would never return to the sideline for the Lakers, a conflict that will certainly play out through the rest of the season of “Winning Time.”
The Forum Club Experience
Before any of the actual gameplay even starts, we have more off-court content to open the episode, as Dr. Buss is attempting to perfect everything away from the court that would make The Forum the attraction it would become, most notably in The Forum Club. And for all the loud criticisms of some of the show’s inaccuracies, its portrayal of the iconic venue is pretty much lifted directly from Pearlman’s pages.
(Claire) Rothman began by special-ordering an enormous red canopy that announced THE FORUM CLUB in large letters. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, Rothman had visited a shopping mall where the concrete floor was treated with an acidic glaze that brought out a rainbow hue. “So we did that outside the Forum Club, too,” she said. “We put down new carpet, made a finish out of walnut shells . . . just spared few expenses to make it amazing.”
Before long, the Forum Club wasn’t merely a bar inside an arena. It was one of the hottest spots in Los Angeles. In the hours leading up to almost every game, as 250 or so people ate fancy sit-down meals, Buss hosted a dinner for friends and celebrities at his personal table. Employees anxiously wondered who would show up on any given night—Rob Lowe? Charlie Sheen? Tony Danza? John Candy? Dyan Cannon? Jack Nicholson? Ali McGraw? Luther Vandross? John Travolta? With a cigarette perpetually stashed between his fingers and a Playmate of the Year candidate by his side, Buss reveled in the beauty of his success. This was his room inside his building, and everyone was there to watch his team. When the game began, Buss sat far off the court, in a section near the top of the building. He didn’t need to be near the players to feel the action. He had the Forum Club. “Dad was so happy,” said Jeanie Buss. “He knew how fortunate he was.”
What wasn’t shown in the episode is how much of a destination the Forum Club became AFTER games, let alone before them. And it was hardly just spectators excited to hit up the Forum Club, as Pearlman’s book described how players — both the Lakers and their opponents — practically raced up to the exclusive venue after games.
If the Forum Club seemed lively before games, it was wild and exotic and enrapturing afterward. Being a Laker in the 1980s came with multiple perks—none greater than regular access to a world thought to be written about only in Penthouse essays. As soon as the fourth quarter wrapped up and the average fans headed toward the parking lot, the Forum Club exploded into bright color and neon light. “We’d rush to the locker room, change and rush into the Forum Club,” said Clay Johnson, a backup guard. “We reserves had to get up there before Magic and Norm arrived. Because once they were there, we had no chance. We wanted first dibs on the women.” Select high-end season ticket holders could purchase Forum Club passes for the relatively inexpensive price of three hundred dollars. Once inside, they mingled with athletes, actors, dancers and singers.
“In a way, visiting teams probably enjoyed the Forum Club more than our guys did,” said Linda Rambis. “It was an escape for them. A vacation from Milwaukee or Detroit or wherever they played. It’d be, ‘OK, you kicked our asses—now where’s the Forum Club?’”
“The Forum Club? Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable,” said Wes Matthews, who visited as a journeyman guard, then joined the Lakers in the late 1980s. “Magic had his own section in the back where he had twenty-five to thirty women waiting for him. Why wouldn’t you go there? It was the pickup spot. You go in there, you’re gonna come up, as they say in the hood. You’re coming up with something. A lot of the players will tell you they couldn’t even concentrate, they wanted the game to end ASAP so they could go upstairs. Everyone and their mama was trying to get in, trying to get with the Laker Girls. They could have opened that place alone, just as a club.”
“If you couldn’t get laid at the Forum Club,” said Jeanie Buss, “you couldn’t get laid.”
The famous Laker girls
Another storyline across the season is the Laker Girls, and the search to find the perfect talent for the atmosphere The Forum would eventually become.
In the show, it’s Jeanie Buss that heads up the search, but in reality, the team’s director of promotions Roy Englebrecht was the person responsible, as he would pair up four UCLA and four USC dancers to form the inaugural Laker girls.
No one knew about the Lakers girls until they debuted at the game, and, yes, the phrase “Code Red” uttered by Jeanie in the episode was the actual signal to send them out.
“They spent about a month putting together a number,” he said. “I went to a sporting goods store and bought eight pairs of matching sneakers, and I told everyone to keep it top secret.
“One night we decided, finally, they were ready. We all had walkie-talkies at the Forum, and when I yelled ‘Code red!’ the girls came out. The music starts, the announcer yells, ‘The Laker Girls!’ We had no idea how it would be received. Well, people went crazy, and an idea was born. We were no longer a basketball game. We were a show.”
Another true aspect of the show is that Paula Abdul was, in fact, a former Laker Girl and was the original choreographer.
Kareem vs. Magic, and Cap’s locker room presence
As the Lakers headed towards their opening games, the disconnect between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as well as the rest of the Lakers was another one of the show's major plot lines.
But while it was true that the book portrayed how Cap could be — and maybe often was — a bit of a loner in real life, he was far from as comically isolated and distant from the rest of the locker room as the show portrays in an attempt at emphasizing those tendencies to convey them to the audience.
In real life, Kareem was a bit more approachable (to his teammates, at least) and was even known to play a prank or two on them when they tried to have fun at his expense.
Another time, Michael Cooper offered Johnson one hundred dollars to sneak up in the locker room and swat the Los Angeles Times sports section out of Abdul-Jabbar’s hand. He did so, and the center guaranteed revenge. “I’m gonna get you, Coop,” he said. “I’m gonna get you.” A few weeks later, while Cooper was sleeping on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit, Abdul-Jabbar tiptoed up to his seat and placed a dollop of Nair atop his miniature Afro. “All of a sudden Coop wakes up, screaming from the burn,” said Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ trainer. “His head is burning, and he has a nickel-size hole in his hair, where he was bald. Kareem just sat there, chuckling. ‘Heh, heh, heh.’”
What was also exaggerated was just how deep the rift was between Kareem and Magic Johnson. Notably, while Magic did confront Kareem early on in the season, there is no record of an actual fight between the two as depicted in the show.
During the early days of training camp, Johnson had expressed concern over ordering Abdul-Jabbar around on the court. He was, after all, a mere twenty-year-old rookie. “I can’t tell Kareem what to do,” he said to McKinney. “Why would he listen to me?”
“Well,” McKinney replied, “one of us has to do it. If you’re not up for leading this team, I’ll just have to. . . .”
“No, no, no,” Johnson replied. “I’ll do it.”
“And he did,” said Michael Cooper. “It was the way Magic gained respect right off the bat. He was unafraid of confronting the big man.”
Joe and Kobe Bryant Easter eggs
In the opening game of the season against the Clippers, Chick Hearn notes Joe “Jellybean” Bryant on the opposing side while mentioning his son, which Lakers fans may be a bit more familiar with, in Kobe.
Joe did actually appear in Magic’s debut game, playing 32 minutes off the bench and scoring 10 points. And Kobe could have been in attendance, as he would have been just over a year old at the time, which appears to be roughly the age of the child in the show.
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.