Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty creator Max Borenstein compared his basketball drama to The Crown in 2021, a year before the first season broadcast. This was an eerily accurate description of the series, which opens with Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) buying the Los Angeles Lakers and signing Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) in his rookie season.
The first season was ambitious and even a little controversial, boasting a star-studded cast including Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Jason Segel as Paul Westhead, and Sally Field as Jessie Buss, and employing a vintage aesthetic that at times makes the series look like it was ripped straight from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Several real-life personalities portrayed in the show, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, stated that the series was dishonest and exaggerated. Nonetheless, Winning Time Season 1 was endlessly amusing, overflowing with executive producer Adam McKay’s unique flair and humor.
Season 2 begins directly after the events of Season 1, with the Los Angeles Lakers defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. Magic is dealing with his celebrity and isn’t thrilled that his image is being utilized to promote the squad. His relationship with his longtime girlfriend Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) appears to be irreparably damaged, particularly with the birth of his illegitimate son.
As the Lakers begin the 1981 season, tensions between coaches Paul Westhead and Pat Riley have begun to rise, and the team’s point guard Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) is on the verge of being traded. Jerry Buss’ home life has also grown tumultuous after his mother Jessie’s death, and he’s at odds with his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson).
The new season also looks at the Lakers’ rivalry with the Boston Celtics, with one episode focusing on Larry Bird’s (Sean Patrick Small) personal life and his strained relationship with his father, as well as how he first meets Celtics coach Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis).
As previously said, the cast of Winning Time is nearly ridiculous, combining up-and-coming actors like Isaiah and Robinson with industry veterans like Reilly and Brody. Winning Time is the type of program where it’s challenging to pick an MVP because practically every celebrity gets an opportunity to shine. Brody’s Pat Riley is still a huge highlight, as he brilliantly bounces off Segel’s Paul Westhead.
Both Segel and Brody, as well as Clarke as Jerry West, understand how to blend the show’s more severe and melodramatic parts with a unique sense of humor. While the real-life West thinks Clarke’s portrayal of him is inaccurate, it doesn’t mean Clarke isn’t excellent in this part. Clarke is the only actor on the program that can naturally spit profanities.
While Reilly’s Jerry Buss was prominent in the first season, he doesn’t have the same impact this time. Reilly remains a natural match for the role, bringing his own brand of on-screen enthusiasm to the role. Still, his tale, which focuses on the fictional character Honey (Ari Graynor), doesn’t fascinating until near the end of the season.
If one had to argue who was the true star of the show, it would most likely be Isaiah as Magic Johnson. He has a natural charm that he brings to the screen in every scene he appears in. Johnson is shown in the series as a very flawed guy, particularly in his treatment of Cookie, but it is Isaiah’s portrayal that makes the viewer care for him as much as we do, even at his lowest moments. Small as Bird is another highlight this season. He might have easily come off as a caricature, but owing to the journey he’s been given this season, he demonstrates that he’s more than simply a parody of such a well-known character.
While Season 1 of Winning Time took place mainly in 1979 and 1980, Season 2 began in 1980 and concludes in 1984. While the first season of the show included 10 episodes, this latest iteration only has seven. As a result, several of the tales feel hurried and, as a result, are not as gratifying or filled out as they might and should have been.
While the previous season could have gone off and had a tiny plotline about how Paula Abdul became a Lakers cheerleader, that type of uniqueness is missing this season. That sometimes works in the show’s favor; the tempo is significantly faster this time, and it never loses its entertainment appeal. Some of this is due to the show’s continued use of its nostalgic visual and editing style, which ensures that the show may be enjoyed by those who aren’t even fans of the NBA.
Conversely, the series tries to cover so much material so quickly that some of the narrative threads go forgotten. Solomon Hughes still gets some screen time as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but not nearly as much as he used to. While the new season covers significant periods in Lakers history, such as Johnson clashing with Westhead, everything feels too surface-level and hurried.
With HBO axing series left and right, it would be a helluva pity if this was the final season of Winning Time since the ending discreetly suggests that the creative team still has a lot remaining to explore in future seasons. Yes, this series seems like a dream come true for NBA fans, but it’s also accessible to non-fans. Winning Time, as Borenstein has stated, is The Crown for basketball, and who doesn’t enjoy a little melodrama with their sports?