Winning Time Episode 5 Fact Check: Kareem vs. Magic


This article contains spoilers for episode 5 of “Winning Time”.

If you’ve followed HBO’s “Winning Time: Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” you know it’s been a bumpy ride for Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and the Los Angeles Lakers. As the first four episodes have shown, the path to greatness is strewn with pitfalls: precarious funding, rivalries between teammates, the last-minute resignation of the head coach and the murderous abandonment of his replacement.

In episode 5, titled “Pieces of a Man”, Buss’ “Showtime” strategy – a revamped forum, new Laker Girls and, most importantly, Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) – as well as the fast attack of Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) are finally put to the test. Their first game against the then-San Diego Clippers was promising, but things really picked up speed with their first home game of the 1979-80 season. Of course, the Lakers’ early victories weren’t without their fair share of drama, both on and off the courts.

Let’s break down the facts and fiction of “Winning Time” Episode 5.

Was Paula Abdul really a Laker Girl?

As opening day approaches, Jerry Buss begins to lose his temper. Everything has to be perfect for his big debut as Lakers owner, from the Forum bar speakers to the dancers. Dissatisfied with their tame kicklines and ballet routines, he fires one choreographer after another, leaving his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) and Forum general manager Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman) to pick up the pieces. Only one dancer catches his eye: a young woman (Carina Conti) capable of improvising a few hip-hop steps. Later, Jeanie finds her at Van Nuys High School (she lied about her age) and asks her to be the Laker Girls’ head choreographer. Her name? Paula Abdul.

Abdul — who would go on to become a pop star with hits like “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted” — really got his career started with the Lakers, but not exactly in the way the show portrays him. First, the idea for a more dance-oriented team came not from Jeanie and Jerry Buss, but from Lakers director of promotions Roy Englebrecht. It brought together four dancers from USC and UCLA. The Laker Girls became a huge hit (there was actually a “code red” walkie-talkie command that signaled the start of the show) and auditions were opened to the public.

This is where Abdul enters. In 1980, the 18-year-old former cheerleader beat 700 other girls to earn a spot on the team in her freshman year at California State University Northridge. In less than a year, she became the head choreographer of the dance team. Four years later, the Jacksons came to the Forum for a Lakers game and asked Abdul to start choreographing their music videos. This led to choreography jobs for Janet Jackson, Duran Duran and ZZ Top. In 1986, she left the Lakers to pursue her singing career, and the rest is history.

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What happened between Magic and Kareem in the first game?

From the start of the series, “Winning Time” has positioned Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as polar opposites. The first is a ball of energy, an enthusiastic newcomer eager to befriend his more experienced teammates and shake things up. The latter is portrayed as largely indifferent to the celebrity aspect of the sport, equally distant towards the press, fans and his teammates. Unsurprisingly, this creates friction between the two star athletes.

The tension mounts during the first game of the 1979-1980 season against the Clippers. After failed attempts to win Kareem over, Magic confronts him and the two physically fight. Late in the game, with seconds remaining on the clock, Kareem scores, taking the Lakers to a one-point victory. Magic throws her arms around him in celebration; Kareem tells her to get away from him. Later, Kareem reconnects with his faith at a mosque before working things out with Johnson. Cut to the Lakers on a winning streak.

According to Jeff Pearlman’s “Showtime,” which “Winning Time” is based on, there’s a lot going right. “When Johnson first arrived in Los Angeles, he sought Abdul-Jabbar’s approval,” he wrote. “He imagined the two stars in some sort of buddy movie, with the old gunslinger taking the rookie sheriff under his wing… Alas, that wasn’t the case.”

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Instead, Abdul-Jabbar “expressed neither love nor dislike for Johnson. They coexisted, as colleagues coexist. As players, they fit in beautifully — “and yet, egos are egos,” Pearlman writes. He resented Johnson’s contract, his friendship with Buss and his beloved reputation.

Some of the finer points of their relationship in the early stages – especially in the opening game – seem perfect. The Lakers really beat the Clippers 103-102 with eight seconds left thanks to Kareem. Magic really gave him a giant (unwanted) hug, which the announcers picked up. And then he put Magic aside and said, “Look, we have eight more to go. Calm.”

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Was Kobe Bryant in Magic Johnson’s first game with the Lakers?

Midway through Magic Johnson’s first game with the Lakers, there’s a not-so-subtle nod to the future, as ‘Winning Time’ is wont to do. Clippers’ Joe “Jellybean” Bryant prepares to block Magic, prompting commentator Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) to congratulate him on the birth of his son Kobe Bean (“I think that’s Japanese,” he quips) . The camera pans to a crying baby in the crowd, captioned “Put me in the coach!”

There is no record of whether or not future NBA legend Kobe Bryant was in Magic Johnson’s first game. However, he was a year old at the time and it was his dad’s first game with the Clippers, so it’s possible. Joe Bryant is probably included in the scene because this game featured one of the most memorable moments of his career: when he dunked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Throughout his NBA stint, Joe Bryant played with the Philadelphia 76ers, Clippers, and Houston Rockets. He played overseas during Kobe’s childhood and eventually coached several different teams.

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Did Jack McKinney really have a bicycle accident?

The story of Jack McKinney is one of the biggest tragedies of the Showtime era of the Lakers, not least because he is credited with helping to create it. In 1979, he was hired to coach the Lakers after Jerry West resigned and Buss’ first pick, Jerry Tarkanian, did not work out. He devised the strategy of “a soulful attack, rather than having everyone standing there watching Kareem all the time and pressuring him”, as he said in his first press conference. The plan worked, earning the respect of his new team.

Then, on November 8, 1979, he rode his son’s bike to play tennis with his assistant coach Paul Westhead. Approaching a stop sign, the gears locked up and he flew over the handlebars, landing hard on the concrete. He was in a coma for three days and underwent months of physical and cognitive therapy, Pearlman writes. Ultimately, McKinney had permanent memory and balance problems. At the end of the season, he was dismissed and replaced by interim manager Westhead. Pat Riley would eventually become head coach for much of the Showtime era.

This is more or less exactly how the accident plays out in “Winning Time” (except for a false collision with a car). The episode ends with his brutal crash, setting up next week’s episode for the coaching eras of Westhead (Jason Segel) and possibly Riley (Adrien Brody).

“Buying Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” streams exclusively on HBO Max.

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