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Winning Time Series 2 Episode 1: 10 Questions

With the launch of pseudo historical biopic Winning Time season 2 which is loosely based around the facts of the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty in the 1980’s, we know those watching will have some questions about what is real and what is “dramatic license”. We’ve gone through the first episode to try and give you the basic facts of the matter. Fair warning, spoilers abound as we discuss real world events past what was depicted in the show, however, whether that will be the story the show tells or not is a question in itself.

A brief overview of the plot threads from the opening episode; Opening after the Lakers win Game 1 of the 1984 NBA Finals in Boston, head coach Pat Riley gives an emotional speech about taking the Celtics Hearts. Following this we jump back to 1980 where the show left off in season 1 where the Lakers and Rookie Magic Johnson had just won the NBA title.

We learn that the two lead players, Magic and Kareem are dealing with realizations about fatherhood. Kareem’s son Amir is born and Magic’s first son Andre is born.

Celtics GM Red Auerbach and Lakers owner Jerry Buss clashed at the 1980 NBA draft, where the Celtics have just done some excellent business in the trade market.

Magic at the “Game 6” Lakers are buzzing and talking about Kareem needing to come off the bench, especially as he is still recovering from his ankle injury that kept him out of the closing game of the 1980 NBA Finals.

Dr Buss is working business angles, looking to increase players pay to get ahead of the coming forced rises in player wages. He sees a future where TV Broadcast contracts generate a lot more money and paying his players more now can guarantee loyalty, success and a better future. He is handed a document with the early ESPN logo on it. Buss is keen to rope all 3 of his children into “the family business” and buys up multiple sports franchises to both placate them and generate more revenue streams for his Lakers plans.

A Lakers practice gets out of hand when Kareem switches to the B-team to teach Magic and the Lakers starters that he still “has it”. Kareem ends up hurting his eye and missing game time. Later referred to by an in-game commentator as a scratched cornea.

The Lakers excel without him, on his return Magic blows out his knee. The Lakers fall apart, eventually head coach Paul Westhead and Pat Riley implement “The System” and get the Lakers back to winning ways.

After Magic’s parents get involved with a legal contract and the birth of Magic’s son Andre, his agent Dr Thomas Day is fired.

The episode ends with Magic’s street clothes arrival at a Lakers game disrupting the flow of the team and the specter of Larry Bird appearing for the first time in the series.

The above summary is what happened in the episode. Below we dig into the real life events and try to put some contextual facts over what really happened.

Did the Lakers really win Game 1 of the 1984 NBA Finals in Boston?

Yes, the LA Lakers really did win game 1 of the 1984 NBA Finals in Boston. As depicted in winning time series 2 the 115-109 win sparked aggression from the Celtics fans and the Lakers retreated to their team bus. Between 1980 and 1984 the rivalry between the two sides had escalated. One of the two franchises had appeared in each of the 3 finals between 1980 and 1984, but they had never met. In 1981 the Celtics defeated the Rockets, 1982 the Lakers defeated the 76ers and in 1983 the 76ers had returned the favor defeating the Lakers. The 1984 Finals were the first time the Lakers and Celtics had faced off in the postseason since 1969. This is what Pat Riley was referring to when he said “they have won their titles and we have won ours”. Who won the 1984 Finals? There’s no need for us to spoil that one for you just yet.

When did ESPN start broadcasting the NBA?

In episode 1 of Winning Time season 2 Jerry Buss is handed a document with an early ESPN logo on it. The conversation between the NBA executives at the table play down the idea that there will ever be much money in broadcasting NBA games. At the time, even FInals games were often shown on tape delay after the live action had taken place.

ESPN first broadcast the NBA in 1982, when they took on a contract to broadcast 40 live regular season games and 10 live playoff games for both the 1982-83 and 1983-84 season. After these two years ESPN wouldn’t show live NBA again until 2002 with CBS and TBS networks taking over from the 1984-85 season onwards.

Regardless of who broadcast the games, the impact of television broadcast money on the NBA since 1980 cannot be overstated. With a huge new deal due in the next few years and contracted future salaries for NBA players starting to creep past $70 million. The show indicates that Buss bet big on this fact. The Showtime Lakers themselves along with the emergence of Michael Jordan are two of the biggest on-court factors for success in the real world.

What trades did the Celtics make at the 1980 NBA Draft?

Ahead of the 1980 NBA draft the Boston Celtics traded the draft rights to the first overall pick and the 13th pick with the Golden State Warriors for the 3rd pick and center Robert Parish. The Golden State Warriors would select Joe Barry Carroll with the first pick and Rickey Brown with the 13th pick. If you have never heard of either of them, that is fine. The Celtics selected Robert Mchale with the 3rd pick. If you haven’t heard of Parish and Mchale, keep watching Winning Time, because you are about to, turns out they were both pretty good.

In the show Celtics GM Red Aurbach can be heard boasting about the trade to Buss who waits for him to leave before asking the Lakers execs at the table “did he just eat our lunch again?”. This begs the question: what business did the Lakers do at the 1980 draft?  The Lakers used the 31st and 37th picks to acquire Wayne Robinson and Butch Carter. Coming off a championship season the Lakers didn’t have a lot of assets to deal with, nor did they feel the need to bolster the squad. The Celtics 1980’s business would prove to set them up very well for the decade.

Why did Jerry Buss think it was good business to pay his players more money?

In WInning Time Dr Buss is shown to be taking steps to increase his players salary in what he claims is a good business decision that will ensure the Lakers key players remain loyal to the franchise. On camera he states “new free agent rules kick in, the days of paying chump change are over”. His theory is that by paying his players more than market value now and signing them to longer contracts, he can negate the risk of losing them, or paying them even more, when the rules kick in. What rules is he specifically talking about? This extract from a 1979 Washington Post article sums up the coming changes Buss is talking about perfectly:

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“If a player plays out his option and becomes a free agent, he can sign with any team in the league. The team losing the player then receives compensation from the player’s new team. That compensation can be in the form of players, money or draft choices, or any combination of the three.

The two teams try to work out the compensation on their own, in effect working out a trade for the free agent.

If no agreement can be reached, the commissioner then decides compensation.

Under terms of the agreement between the NBA and the players association, the compensation rule is in effect for two more seasons. Beginning with the conclusion of the 1980-81 season, a free agent’s old team gets a chance to match any offer from any other team, but if it doesn’t and then loses the player, it gets no compensation.”

In reality the Lakers, led by Buss did a great job of signing their key players to long term contracts and creating a stable and dynamic team that would go on to win 4 more titles before the decade was out.

Was Kareem Abdul Jabaar really washed in 1980-81?

Kareem is shown as nearly washed through discussions between Magic and the rest of the Lakers starting unit. He was 32 going into the 1980-81 season and as we saw in season 1, he was just coming back from an injury that had ruled him out of game 6 of the Finals. This is all factually accurate, he was struggling and the Lakers up tempo style of play based around Magic’s dynamic ball movement was a step change for the 7 foot center. But also in reality, Kareem is one of the greatest basketball players of all time, not least because of his longevity. Matched only by Lebron and Karl Malone, he wouldn’t retire until 1989, playing 9 more seasons and guiding the Lakers to 4 more titles. So no. Kareem wasn’t washed in 1980.

Did Kareem really hurt his eye in training ahead of the 1980-81 Lakers season?

In the first episode of Winning Time season 2, the story line is set up of Magic and Kareem butting heads over who’s Lakers team it is and how they should run the offense. The episode shows a spicy training sequence in which Kareem switches and plays for the “B-team” against the “starters” from the Finals Game 6 victory. Both Kareem and Magic excel with the physicality getting more and more out of control before Kareem gets sent to the floor clutching his eye. The show then depicts the Lakers starting the season hot, without the injured Kareem in the side.

Did any of this actually happen?

Kareem did miss 2 games near the start of the 1980-81 season with an eye injury. However he did not receive it in training, nor was it the opening games of the season. Kareem played 42 minutes in the season opener against the Supersonics, where the Lakers won 99-98 on the road. It was in the home opener against the Houston Rockets 3 days later where Kareem hurt his eye. Playing just 22 mins in the victory, he would then miss the next 2 games, both Lakers wins, before returning for the 5th game of the season with 29 points on 12-15 field goal attempts in another Lakers win. The Lakers won their first 5 games of the 1980-81 season, with and without Kareem, before finally losing on the road to Portland in the 6th game. These were the only 2 games Kareem missed that season, playing 80 of 82 games. Eye injuries were a common issue for Kareem during his playing days. Prompting him to adopt the iconic goggles look. We wrote in depth about this here.

Did magic blow his knee in Kareem’s 1980 comeback game?

This is not accurate. In the show Kareem’s return is shown to coincide with Magic blowing his knee out and then the Lakers hitting a down patch of form as they struggled to replace Magic’s up tempo transition offense.

It wasn’t until 16 games after Kareem returned, with the Lakers record sitting at 14-5, when in the 20th game of the season Magic would blow out his knee. It was the Tuesday 18th November 1980 in a game against the Kansas City Kings when after 14 minutes of game time the second year future hall of famer went down. Magic would be sidelined for 100 days and 45 regular season games before returning to the court. The injury had actually occurred a week earlier when Atlanta’s 7’2″ Centre Tom Burleson fell across the back of Magic’s knee but it wasn’t discovered until a week later, during the game with Kansas City.

This Sports Illustrated article from the time describes his return to action:

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Johnson trotted onto the court at Los Angeles’ sold-out Forum and brought 17,505 Laker fans to their feet. They remained standing and roaring, as it turned out, for 45 seconds, one second for each of the games Johnson had missed since he tore cartilage on the inside of his left knee on Nov. 18.

Johnson waved nervously to the crowd, then broke into that grin—the one that belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records for size and luminescence—and, as the noise grew, he spread his arms, palms up, as if to say, “Why are you people treating me this way? I’m just a basketball player and this is just another game. Against the New Jersey Nets, yet.

The Lakers without Magic would lose 5 of their next 8 games before Head Coach Paul Westhead was able to rally them around his famous system. After their initial slump, the Lakers won five in a row, again lost five of eight, then went 17-7, to end with a 28-17 record for the 45 games they played without Magic.

Who played for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980-81?

An important part of grounding yourself in the TV show Winning Time, series 2, is knowing who was on the Lakers roster for the 1980-81 season:

Jersey No.PlayerPosHeightWeightGames PlayedBirth DateYears in NBACollege
33Kareem Abdul-JabbarC7-22258016/04/194711UCLA
9Jim ChonesPF6-112208230/11/19498Marquette
40Jim BrewerPF6-92107803/12/19517Minnesota
52Jamaal WilkesSF6-61908102/05/19536UCLA
15Eddie JordanPG6-11706029/01/19553Rutgers University
54Mark LandsbergerPF6-82156921/05/19553Minnesota, Arizona State
10Norm NixonPG6-21707911/10/19553Duquesne
21Michael CooperSG6-71708115/04/19562New Mexico
14Brad HollandSG6-31804106/12/19561UCLA
32Magic JohnsonSG6-92153714/08/19591Michigan State
24Butch CarterSF6-51805411/06/1958RookieIndiana
25Alan HardySG6-71952225/05/1957RookieMichigan
34Myles PatrickSF6-8220319/11/1954RookieAuburn
23Tony JacksonPG6-0170217/01/1958RookieFlorida State

We have listed them above with their jersey number, position, height, weight, games played that season, date of birth, years in the league and college attended. This should give some context of who is who on the squad.

The team that started the first game of the 1980-81 season was;

PG – Magic Johnson

SG – Norm Nixon

SF – Jamaal Wilkes

PF – Jim Chones

C – Kareem Adbul-Jabbar

When Kareem was injured Michael Cooper came in for him, as he had in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. When Magic was injured the Lakers moved Norm Nixon back to point guard and deployed Michael Cooper as the shooting guard.

It is these 6 players that form the core playing characters in the show Winning time.

Paul Westhead was the Head Coach, assisted by Pat Riley. Bill Sharman was the Lakers GM, Jerry West who appears frequently in the show, was an advisor until being appointed GM in 19982-83.

Who wrote the poem that Pat Riley read to the Lakers team?

After Magic is injured Paul Westhead, known for his love of literature, gets Pat Riley to read the team a poem. This poem is by William Ernest Henry and is called Invictus. Written in 1875 it climaxes with the passage;

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.”

It is unclear if Pat Riley ever read this poem to the 1980 Lakers. Although Coach Westhead was a known lover of literature and so it is possible that the poem did play a part in his team’s motivation tactics.

Does Kareem Abdul Jabaar really have a son named Amir?

Yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a son in 1980 with Cheryl Pistono, they named him Amir Abdul Jabbar as depicted in the show. He had 3 previous children with Habiba Abdul Jabbar named Habiba, Sultana (both female) and Kareem Jr (male). In 1991 he would later have his 5th and final child, with Julie Olds, naming him Adam.

What was Paul Westheads system called?

In the show, after Magic suffers his long term knee injury, Westhead and Riley introduce “The System” to the team. This is Paul Westheads creation, based a lot on his time with former Lakers head coach Jack Mckinney. Pat Riley makes a comment that “The System” is going to need a better name. Eventually the Lakers up-tempo style of play would become known as “Show-Time” basketball.

In reality Paul Westhead was a brilliant Basketball coach who has had an exemplary career both before and after his time with the Lakers. You can read more about it here.