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.
While largely well-received, a good chunk of the negative reaction to the first episode of “Winning Time” was centered around the depiction of Jerry West as an anger-filled, constantly-raging figure, capped off by him chucking his Finals MVP trophy through his office window. The portrayal was the source of articles and tweets from multiple media platforms and was a topic in Anthony Irwin and Harrison Faigen’s interview with Jeff Pearlman on last week’s “Lakers Lounge.”
It was certainly a dramatization of West, and perhaps a slightly unfair one, but the second episode of “Winning Time” takes a much more serious tone — both at the start of the hour, and throughout — with West taking center stage. Opening with a flashback to his childhood that featured his parents arguing in one room with the casket of his brother in another, viewers get a very real look at some of the real-life struggles West went through as a child.
West revealed his struggles in his own autobiography — titled “My Charmed, Tormented Life” — in 2011, with the book offering a look at the inner demons he fought with, and author Jeff Pearlman shared some of the details from it (and his own reporting in “Showtime,” the basis for the show):
He was raised in Chelyan, West Virginia, by an abusive father, Howard West, who caused him to feel tormented. His older brother, David, was killed in the Korean War when Jerry was twelve, compounding his depression. As a young teen, he slept with a shotgun under his bed and was always prepared to use it on his dad in anticipation of another beating. “I would go to sleep feeling like I didn’t even want to live,” West said. “I’ve been so low sometimes and when everyone else would be so high because I didn’t like myself.” It was a love for basketball that helped him rise above and, eventually, run the Lakers.
West’s battles for happiness were also portrayed in him finally winning an NBA title and still feeling unfulfilled. In the episode, West is seen drinking in a bar hours after his Finals victory, and while it’s unknown if that exact scene happened, it is documented that West clearly didn’t find much joy in that success.
In an effort to hide—if not heal—a lifetime of scars, West threw himself into the job. Losses destroyed him. Wins also destroyed him—a sloppy moment, a poor coaching decision, a bad pass. When the team sealed the championship against Boston, West smiled for approximately 4.1 seconds. Then he thought about all the things that went wrong.
So if last week served to portray West in a very dramatized manner, this week’s episode took a far more real and heavy approach to better reflect the source material. It’s almost like we can’t fully judge a show until it is over.
Fast-forwarding to the end of the episode and West, in perhaps a moment of self-realization of what is hurting him or not helping him find joy, hands in a letter of resignation to Dr. Jerry Buss before the screen goes black.
That did, in fact, happen with West coaching the team from 1977 until 1979.
Over the previous three years, the man working the sidelines for the Lakers had been Jerry West, a Hall of Fame guard so revered that the NBA’s logo, designed in 1968, was his silhouette. West was, by all accounts, one of the smartest men to ever step on the court. He was perceptive, instinctive and forward thinking. He also loathed coaching.
“Oh, it was awful,” said West. “Coaching wasn’t something I was really capable of doing. As a coach I was a screamer and a yeller, which I hated. When Jerry Buss came in, I knew it was my time to stop coaching once and for all. It would have been unfair to myself to keep doing a job I hated, and it would have been unfair for Jerry to have a coach who wasn’t that good at his job.”
Two years earlier, Cooke had offered Jerry Tarkanian, the coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the chance to take over for West. At the time, Tarkanian had just led the Runnin’ Rebels to the Final Four, and was one of the nation’s hottest basketball names. After strong consideration, Tarkanian rejected Cooke’s overtures. The salary ($70,000 per year, with a $2,500 raise every year) barely exceeded what he had made in Nevada. “It wasn’t worth it,” Tarkanian says. “Not for me or my family.” By 1979, the timing had changed.
West would eventually — can you do a spoiler alert for real life? — take a role in the front office, something that will almost certainly be shown in later episodes, and stayed there with the Lakers until 2000.
Jerry Buss, the big spender
One of the defining scenes of the episode features Dr. Buss walking into a front office meeting as the team prepares for the offseason. Forced to work within certain constraining budgets under Jack Kent Cooke, Buss tells GM Bill Sharman and West to tell him what the team needs and he will get it for them, and that money is no longer an obstacle.
The host of Lakers banners hanging in the Crypto.com Arena today should serve as evidence enough that Buss was more than willing to spend for the best teams, so while we don’t know if that exact meeting happened, his willingness to spend was something that was apparent very early on in his tenure as owner.
Stirred awake by the loss to Houston, Buss felt a need not merely to spend but to spend lavishly and irrationally. He made efforts to acquire two big-salaried stars (Milwaukee’s Marques Johnson and Denver’s Kiki Vandeweghe) via trades, and though both fell through, the league took notice. The Lakers would do whatever it took. “Is Westhead a real genius?” Buss asked a reporter. “We’ll find out. He asked me to get the talent. He wanted it this way. Now we’ll find out what he can do.”
Unfortunately, the present-day Lakers no longer seem to live by this principle of spending whatever it takes to win titles.
The balloons in the 1969 NBA Finals
Celtics owner Red Auerbach was introduced as the lead villain of the show — a fitting role for any Celtic — in the second episode as he and Dr. Buss have a pair of showdowns.
The second of those — neither of which were ever actually publicly reported as having happened — features Auerbach walking into the Forum and remarking about the last time he was there was when the Celtics won the ‘69 Finals.
The story told of Auerbach is that of celebratory balloons hanging in the rafters before Game 7 that Boston used as motivation to go on and narrowly win. And yes, those balloons were very real, and very much never came down in celebration.
In 1969, the last time the teams clashed for the crown, Jack Kent Cooke was so certain of a Lakers’ Game 7 victory that he had balloons hanging from the Forum rafters, waiting to drop. He hired the USC marching band to play “Happy Days Are Here Again” during the inevitable post-game celebration. “I suppose you’re going to ask me about those damn balloons,” Cooke said years later. “I sent them all to a children’s hospital where the kids had a great time with them. Certainly a better time than I did.”
The Lakers would eventually get their revenge on the Celtics a number of times in the 1980s, but there almost certainly weren’t balloons hanging in the rafters before any of those tense Finals games.
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.