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Alexander: HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ is, well, unbelievable

In watching HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty.” I’m thinking the creators should have just made the series totally fictional. Make up a team and a league and a roster full of personalities, and portray them as outrageously as you want. Nobody gets hurt, nobody gets sued, and believability isn’t an issue.

We are inching toward the end of the series’ initial 10-episode season, with episode No. 8 scheduled to debut Sunday night, and it has been picked up for a second season. But at the outset, the problem in punching up a story that is not only real but so familiar to so many people was quickly apparent.

In adapting Jeff Pearlman’s 2013 book about the ’80’s Lakers, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty” – which is, incidentally, a hell of a good read and hardly an adulatory look at that historic era of Lakers basketball – executive producer Adam McKay and creators Jim Hecht and Max Borenstein made one critical mistake that threatened the credibility of the whole production.

The depiction of Jerry West as a drunken, foul-mouthed, rage-filled caricature was an unsubtle and unnecessary takedown of the most important individual in the first four decades of the franchise’s existence in L.A.

West, who is now a consultant with the Clippers and still one of the most beloved figures in this region’s sports history as both athlete and executive, fired back this past week through his lawyers, demanding an apology and a retraction in a letter to the network and McKay. 

I wrote a few weeks ago that the depiction of West was borderline defamatory. I was too conservative in my description.

He was shown snapping a golf club over his knee, and screaming profanities towards bosses Jerry Buss and Bill Sharman.

He was depicted throwing his 1969 NBA Finals MVP trophy through the window of his office in the Forum in a fit of rage, after learning the Lakers would use the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft on Magic Johnson over Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief. That was wrong on at least three counts. First, he didn’t have a window in his Forum office. Second, as he told former Press-Telegram columnist Doug Krikorian recently, it was “an absolute lie” that he reacted that way, adding he would never have picked Moncrief ahead of Magic.

And third, he didn’t have any trophies in his office – and certainly would never have displayed that one, a reminder of maybe his most agonizing Finals loss to the Boston Celtics. I can attest to it, having interviewed him in that office in the mid-1990s, when he was the Lakers’ general manager.

I noted in the subsequent story that he did have a framed jersey and some other plaques and photos on the walls, but he explained it this way: “When someone walks into your office, they expect you to have some basketball memorabilia up. If you went into my house, you’d never know I’d ever played basketball.”

And, he added: “I try never to live in the past. I live in today. I’m so simple-minded, when it comes to me, that . . . well, doing this interview, my hands are wet. I’m nervous. Not nervous because I’m talking to you, but nervous because we’re talking about me.

“I don’t feel comfortable talking about my past. It’s just an idiosyncrasy that I have. I’m probably pretty normal, pretty average. I’d like for people, particularly people that I work with, to feel very much that this is somebody they can come in and kid and have fun with, and not be threatened by.”

Does this sound like someone who would fly into an explosive public rage, be it in the office or on the golf course or anywhere else?

West certainly is complicated, having dealt throughout his life with all kinds of psychological baggage – after all, his 2011 autobiography was subtitled “My Charmed, Tormented Life” – but when those who have known him have overwhelmingly defended him against this portrayal, that should be a clue. It’s telling that not only have the players depicted and the current Laker organization disavowed the series, but former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti was on set for two days to consult and play a bit part but left in disgust.

West’s portrayal was the most egregious, but the early episodes were generally so over-the-top to be frenetic, almost a desperate try for attention. As the series has progressed the storyline has become a little calmer – or maybe it’s just Jason Clarke’s portrayal of West that was calmer – though the dramatic license has continued.

Along the way, those of us with a grasp of Lakers’ history have found plenty to pick at.

For instance, then-GM Sharman didn’t have a raspy voice by the ’80s, as was portrayed. He had none at all, his vocal cords having been sacrificed in the Lakers’ 1972 run to L.A.’s first NBA championship. Outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke was the one who decided the Lakers would draft Johnson in ’79, not incoming owner Buss.

And Jeanie Buss was portrayed as a college girl working in the Lakers’ front office (and coming up with the concept for the Laker Girls), but (a) she was just 17 when her dad bought the team, and (b) she joined her dad’s organization two years later to run the Strings of TeamTennis and the Blades of Roller Hockey International. It was 1995 before she assumed an executive role as the Lakers’ alternate governor (and president of the Forum).

There’s more. Maybe that’s just nit-picking among those of us familiar with the story, but it’s also the risk you run when dealing with real-life events, regardless of any disclaimer about “dramatization.” The more timelines you change, or the more facts you ignore in the service of drama, the more your credibility suffers among those who know better.

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