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Winning Time: Did Jerry West really not want the Lakers to draft Magic Johnson?

Some of the best scenes on the premiere episode of “Winning Time” on HBO included Jerry West’s character being livid at the idea of drafting Magic Johnson. How realistic was that, though? And was it actually Jerry Buss who saved the meeting with Magic?

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Magic Johnson named Los Angeles Lakers head coach Press Conference Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

With lots of excitement and expectations for the series, the premiere of “Winning Time” on HBO certainly lived up to the billing. Albeit through just one episode, the series laid the groundwork for what could be a really fun and exciting ride in its premiere.

The stars of the show (so far) are John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, and Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson. But perhaps one of the funnier, and certainly more dramatized, characters was Jerry West, played by Jason Clarke. As is often the case in Hollywood, West’s personality was dialed up and enhanced to nearly cartoonish levels. Despite being a stubborn individual, he was not quite as angry all the time as the show portrays.

However, the source of much of his anger in the first episode is his insistence that Magic Johnson REALLY should not have been the team’s No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. His anger boiled over in one of the final scenes when he chucks his Finals MVP trophy through the window of his office when the team settles on drafting Johnson with the No. 1 pick.

But, if his overall personality was dramatized, how true is the notion he REALLY didn’t want Johnson to be the No. 1 pick?

Well, using the source material of the show in the book “Showtime” by Jeff Pearlman, it’s reported that West did indeed prefer Sidney Moncrief over Johnson, though maybe not quite as strongly as the show portrays (emphasis mine).

The one thing Johnson didn’t know at the time (and wouldn’t know until more than two decades later) was that, in Cooke’s mind, he was merely another good college player in an ocean of good college players. Why, immediately after the draft, Cooke told those within his small circle of confidants that the team could have gone with Sidney Moncrief, the high-scoring guard from the University of Arkansas. That was the advice presented to him by Jerry West, the outgoing coach, who wasn’t fully convinced a 6-foot-9 point guard would function in the fast-paced NBA. Of all the ex-basketball players working for the Lakers, West was the one Cooke trusted most. “West wanted Moncrief, and he made it very clear to Jack Kent Cooke,” said Rich Levin, who covered the team for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. “There was a strong belief, for a brief time at least, that Moncrief, not Magic, would wind up a Laker.”

Fortunately, there were no hard feelings between the two over that preference, or at least not lasting ones, as just this year, Johnson presented West with a “Legend of the Year” award. During the presentation, Johnson referred to West as “my friend” and was generally very complimentary of The Logo.

If there were any hard feelings, they have long, long since passed, and so while West did — at least at one point — prefer Moncrief to Magic, the decision to draft the latter probably didn’t lead to West chucking his trophy through a window. Especially not after they won five championships together.

It was actually Chick Hearn, not Jerry Buss, who saved the Lakers’ Magic meeting

One of the other memorable scenes from the premier as well was Magic turning down sand dabs for hamburgers at a pre-draft meeting and, in the process, insulting then-Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. Only Buss stepping in and mending fences saved the situation and helped stop Magic from returning to school instead of signing with the Lakers.

While the meal did happen, and Magic did turn down some sand dabs, it was a different Lakers legend that saved the day — and the Lakers — with his mediation in Chick Hearn, at least according to Pearlman’s book (emphasis mine).

Johnson stabbed the listless sand dab with his fork. Nudged it around a bit. Pushed it left. Pushed it right. “I can’t eat this,” he said. Cooke, a man who knew a high-quality sand dab when he saw it, was outraged. “What are you talking about?” he said. “Do you know how much that fish costs?” “If it’s OK with you, Mr. Cooke, I think I’d rather have a hamburger and some French fries,” Johnson said softly. “Would that be OK?” This was not the way to make a good impression. Cooke was a formal man with formal tastes. If he wanted sand dabs, dammit, everyone was eating sand dabs. In this particular particular case, however, Hearn—one of the few men who had the owner’s ear—intervened. “The guy’s only nineteen,” he said. “The only thing he knows is hamburger and pizza.” A resigned Cooke sighed, then yelled toward the kitchen, “Can we have a hamburger?” Nothing. “A hamburger!” he screamed. “Get the man one!” Within minutes, Earvin Johnson was gripping a burger. The accompanying smile was that of an eight-year-old securing a Happy Meal. “You know,” Jerry West later said to Johnson, “nobody has ever done what you just did to Jack Kent Cooke.”

Much of what happened in the show in regards to Magic joining the Lakers did happen in real life, but did not really include Buss. But the ensuing scenes with Earvin Johnson Sr. criticizing his son for asking for such an exorbitant amount of money did happen before Johnson agreed to a deal for $500,000 after negotiating with Cooke.

In effect, Buss was thrown into the whole situation when it doesn’t seem like he was necessarily present for much of it and definitely had a much, much smaller role in all of it than the show portrays. The show chose to paint Cooke as the villain and Buss as the savior — which isn’t entirely untrue, at least not for anyone who has read Pearlman’s book, but does stretch the truth a tad for dramatic effect.

Kent Cooke did build a championship team in 1972 and pulled off the fleece of a trade to get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But every good story needs a villain and with this one focusing on the Showtime era, Kent Cooke served as a convenient one.

Overall, though, the show has been rather truthful in its portrayal of the Lakers, and with the Showtime era a captivating one on and off the court, it probably won’t be hard to stay that way for the remainder of the series.

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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