It was only a matter of time. NBA and Lakers legends, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West are not happy with director Adam McKay’s HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” Abdul-Jabbar referred to the series as “Frankenstein’s monster,” and West is demanding a retraction and apology for “a baseless and malicious” assault on his character.
The series is based off of Jeff Pearlman’s critically acclaimed book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.”
As with any television or movie project adapted from a book there will always be liberties taken in the visual medium. “Winning Time” is also a dramatic series that leans towards dramedy. There are comedic elements and events that are embellished to provide greater dramatic effect.
In these types of series the main characters are often shown as caricatures of the actual people they are based on. A caricature is an imitation of a person where specific characteristics are exaggerated for effect.
This is at the heart of Abdul-Jabbar’s and West’s issue.
“I’ll start with the bland characterization. The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his Substack newsletter. “Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous Prick. They are caricatures, not characters. Amusement park portraits that emphasize one physical feature to amplify your appearance—but never touching the essence.”
It’s easy to understand Kareem’s point. But for these protagonists, these traits are what the audience likely finds interesting. What was behind Magic Johnson’s voracious sexual appetite? We know the ultimate price he paid for it. What was behind Jerry West’s need to win? Why was Kareem, seemingly aloof?
To be fair to Kareem and West, the series doesn’t seem particularly interested in deeper character exploration.
Like the portrayal of the late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss by actor John C. Reilly, “sex sells.” Titillating and exciting the senses is what this show has done, and done well so far through season one.
Kareem came to the defense of West, specifically saying:
“It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression. Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”
West’s legal team sent a letter to McKay and HBO demanding the retraction and apology citing the great distress to West and his family as a result of the series. His lawyers allege that McKay and the series creators acted with “legal malice” because many scenes in the series showing West’s supposed rage did not appear in Pearlman’s book and did not happen.
Neither HBO or McKay have responded as of Wednesday. It’s unlikely anything more will come of this. “Winning Time” is a work of dramatic art, and as such there is room for creative license. Abdul-Jabbar and West can object to their characterizations and portrayal, but at the end of the day it’s a TV show. There’s nothing they can do.