Each week of season two, 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 with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.
After an extended break, “Winning Time” returned on Sunday with the premiere episode of the second season, which picks up right where we left off at the end of season one. After Magic Johnson’s incredible performance in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, we rejoin the Lakers — after a brief glimpse at what’s to come in 1984 — in the summer following their title.
And while the episode covers only the first half of the 1980-81 season, a LOT transpires. As we did last season, let’s fact-check the notable things in this episode.
Magic Johnson’s son
Taking center stage for much of this episode is Magic, both on and off the court. We’ll start with the latter first, as Magic’s choice about his son plays out throughout the episode. We don’t know the degree to which the details leading up to the birth are accurate, nor do we know if the discussions about whether Magic would be in the child’s life were real.
But the important parts are true, as Magic did have a son with Melissa Mitchell named Andre in 1981, all of whom are accurately named in the episode. The two maintained a relationship throughout his childhood and into his adult life, and are still close to this day.
In his autobiography, Magic discussed the birth of Andre:
During a time when Cookie and I were broken up, I had gotten together with Melissa Mitchell, a friend from high school. In the summer of 1980, Melissa called me from Lansing to say she was pregnant. This was not good news. I was twenty-one years old, and I wasn’t ready to be a father... It was an awkward scene at the hospital, because here was this beautiful little boy who was my son— except that we didn’t really belong to the same family. At the time, Melissa and her people saw me as a villain, and there was bad blood in the air... I was very young, and I didn’t know how to be the father I wanted to be.
It is worth clarifying that last season, there was a woman by the name of Rhonda Mitchell that said she was pregnant. She was not real and was played by a different actress. This woman, Melissa, is real and the mother of Andre.
Malik Beasley connection
In this episode, he plays Mr. Mitchell, father of Melissa, and the one who calls out Magic at the meeting between the two families when discussing a potential financial settlement. It’s him calling out Magic that leads to the latter eventually opting out of a settlement and being involved in the child’s life.
On the court, it wasn’t the best time for Magic. The qualms with the offensive style were real — though we’ll certainly dive into that in a later episode — but they were reservations that would be tabled when Magic was sidelined with an injury.
Twenty games into the season, Magic suffered an injury to his knee that sidelined him from mid-November until the end of February. It would be the only long-term injury of his playing career, but it was one that changed plans quickly for the Lakers.
Initially, he wasn’t expected to miss much time. In reality, he missed a ton. From Pearlman’s book, “Showtime”:
Johnson assumed the Houston defeat was his team’s bottoming out. He was wrong. Six days later, in the second quarter of a game against the visiting Kings, Johnson made a cut against Kansas City’s Hawkeye Whitney, heard a loud pop and crumpled. As soon as he reached the court, Kerlan, the team doctor, knew this was bad. Johnson suffered a cartilage tear in his left knee.
Prognosis: Out for at least three weeks.
Reality: He would miss 101 days.
“I don’t think you can understand how bad that was,” said Butch Carter, a rookie guard. “Magic wasn’t just a great player who did everything on the court. He was our glue...”
With Magic, the team was 15-5 before his injury. In his absence, they dropped five of their next eight games to fall to 18-10. There was a three-game losing streak to close that span that led to Chick Hearn’s comment about it being the first three-game losing streak at home in five years. That part very well could be true, but there’s no easy way of looking that up and it’d be a really odd thing to just randomly lie about, though they did tend to play fast and loose with the actual games and schedule last season.
But the Lakers would find their form and, by the time Magic returned, they would sit at 43-22, going 28-17 without him and 25-12 in their final 37 games.
The game against Boston shown in the final scene? There’s a good chance Magic showed up to that game, as it happened about 2.5 weeks before his return. It’s also likely that Larry Bird — who has been perfectly portrayed by Sean Patrick Small so far — shot a 3-pointer and taunted Magic with the shot still in mid-air because it’s Larry Bird, one of the most notorious trash talkers in NBA history, and the Lakers got beaten by double digits in that game.
But whether he talked or not, Bird did put on a show for Magic, dropping 36 points, 21 rebounds, six assists, five steals and three blocks. It was the only game in his career where he had 30-20-5-5.
We’ll just say we share Magic’s feelings in the final words of this episode.
As they did last season, the show tends to pit Magic against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and dramatize that a bit. In this episode, they have a showdown in training camp, Magic’s team vs. Kareem’s. There is no mention of that in Jeff Pearlman’s book, and it isn’t how Kareem got injured.
He did suffer an eye injury, but it wasn’t in training camp. Instead, it was in the second game of the season, when Rudy Tomjanovich scratched his eye, an injury that led to Abdul-Jabbar wearing goggles once again after ditching them for a number of years. In the episode, he can be seen wearing goggles after the injury, though not in every shot, which appears to have been a small continuity error.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.