Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (Series Finale), Episode 7: When the author of the book Showtime, from which Winning Time is being adapted, tweets days after the first episode streams that they need eyeballs on the show because the viewing numbers aren’t looking good, the writing had been on the wall. And Variety reports hours before the final episode streams that Winning Time has been cancelled.
Thus, Season 2 becomes the final season of this dramatization of the rise of the LA Lakers. But as you witness the final scene of this episode and learn that this scene hadn’t been available to the screeners being given to the critics months ago, you realize that the writing had been on the wall for a while now. And it is bittersweet, not because of how it ends, but where the show chooses to end on, and knowing how much more interesting of eras the show would have explored – especially with the Celtics and Lakers rivalry just heating up in the final episode.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (Series Finale), Episode 7 Recap:
Episode 7 – What Is and What Should Never Be
As far as period recreation goes, while I have maintained that I am not exactly a fan of the history compression that this show really loves to do, albeit with unique visual and editing choices, the pre-credit sequence is genuinely fantastic. Completely hearkening back to an actual 80s advertisement for the 1984 Lakers-Celtics game and letting the performers fill out the roles of these actual players and evoking a vintage feel is practically impressive. Part of the reason why Winning Time worked visually as a whole is its singular obsession to cut back between different styles of filmmaking and visual aesthetics.
At times, it gave off the impression of watching a cinema-verite documentary; at others, it was anxiety-prone ADHD filmmaking with compression of history reminding viewers of a Wikipedia article. The Game One victory in Boston and the egging of the Lakers Bus had been the framing devices that kicked off the second season, and it is here that the show returns to finally, and again like the entirety of Season 2, the growth of Adrien Brody’s character throughout the season from Pat Riley, a nice coach, to “The Pat Riley” had been nothing short of monumental, and Brody had been in terrific form throughout a very flawed season.
But again, the fallacy of adapting mostly true stories is that history and reality can work antithetically to a show’s narrative. After all the pitfalls the show had to face throughout the second season, it perhaps made sense that the final confrontation would be a brutal one, stretched out over seven games. But how can you play Laker Ball when the opposing team is winning to play dirty to even the scores out? Because if the rules of basketball are not stringent enough, the physicality and fouls of that era meant a clothesline by Kevin McHale on Kurt Rambis in Game 4. But that could also be a result of a number of domino effects. As Riley warns Magic in the first few moments of the episode, the biggest mistake Magic could make is to play into his own hype and lose his game.
Game 2 should have been the cincher, but again, when your mental pressure is based on history and legacy and screaming fans, Riley’s speech to effectively “remember your history but also wipe the slate clean” doesn’t entirely work. As a result, Magic Johnson gets nervous, Jabbar has to remind him to breathe, James Worthy does an inexplicable cross-court pass that is stolen by the Celtics, and Johnson in the final stretch tries to be the hero of the game and doesn’t count on the clock running out, failing to make a shot.
It leads to another moment for Jerry West, as GM of the Lakers, to have one of those “come to Jesus” moments, where he essentially reveals his weakness and why, during his tenure with the Lakers, the Boston Celtics won every match. Because Johnson is making the same mistake he made and believing in the hype of the match between the central players as advertised, not a battle between teams. This essentially resets Johnson, leading to Game 3, where the Celtics are essentially pulverised.
What I love are the little moments of the Bird Trash Talk and the little segments where the show allows us moments into Bird’s psyche. If Red Auerbach is supposed to be Palpatine, Bird is his Vader (a very simplistic comparison, yes), but Bird is a very interesting character, essentially in the conversation between him and his mother in the locker room, where his mother points out the key distinction between Bird and Magic is how Magic shows his enjoyment for the game, while Bird treats it as a war zone. But with Game 3 being pulverised, Bird almost commands his team to treat this as war, telling the reporters that they had been playing like sissies and needed to do better.
And Game 4 is where the tables turn. Due to dirty play, a free throw miss by Magic Johnson, the clothesline by Kevin McHale, which leads to Bird uttering the famous line to McHale, “Apologise and I will break your neck”, and of course a foul leading to an ejection of Kareem from the game with 16 seconds left, it was already stacked, and as the show shows, guilty trash with the liberalisation of history or not, there is enough evidence to support the theory that Game 4 had been rigged. With the series tied, the game now moves to the Celtics’ home court, and the sheer heat plays to their advantage.
You couple that with Auerbach rigging the locker room bathroom to emit only hot water, and the Lakers are completely hobbled. Kareem had to reach for oxygen in that heat, and due to them not being able to adapt to that heat, it was almost impossible for them to play anything close to Laker Ball—the Lakers team was almost playing like they were moving in molasses. You couple that with Bird playing almost flawlessly, and the Lakers were almost wiped out in Game 5. Kareem is hit with cascading migraines, which are only relatively improved by Magic managing to put the lights out of the locker room, and then Kareem states that when he is in a mood like this, he usually takes it out on Patsy White Boys. That cuts to a decisive win for the Lakers in Game 6, due to Kareem aggressively leading from the front. Most importantly, the series is tied, and the Lakers would have to face the Celtics on their home turf for a decisive Game 7.
But as Auerbach reiterates to Buss at the end of Game 5, the reason why the Celtics are impossible to beat is because they have a unique culture of their own. And Buss, to build his own dynasty, would have to create his own culture. History states that he was well on the way to building that dynasty, but at that current moment, he was involved in a lawsuit to the tune of 100 million dollars, which would almost bankrupt the Lakers and put everyone out of a job. The ironic situation is because of how Buss came to acquire the Lakers in the first place and the fact that he would have to build a dynasty by literally laying down cultural bricks and throwing the old shackles down, especially since the lawsuit concerns an old divorce, which he never filed because it was a “business arrangement”, This season was proverbially the reset Buss would have needed along with the Lakers to change his ownership style. After all, Jeannie, in a moment of portending (or unsubtle writing, you choose), asks whether the NBA would ever appoint a woman president of a team, considering she does become the president of the Lakers. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Showtime book and Winning Time became so entertaining is simply because of how Buss had his own distinctive impulsive decision-making style, which led him to hire Paul Westhead, sure, but stability in the locker room during those early years seemed to be a distant memory.
Stability is, however, the norm in the case of Cookie and Magic, where, while both of them are hesitating about how to navigate an inevitable marriage, their relationship at least seems defined and definite. A far cry from Buss’s own marriage to Honey, this is arguably the weakest subplot of this season’s storyline, but it also somehow reframes the Celtics vs. Lakers as a dick-measuring contest between two ageing owners of basketball teams. And really, who wants to see that, however truthful it ultimately boils down to being?
In that regard, the way the show ultimately ends is satisfying as a seasonal arc because history isn’t always kind to storytelling or narrative arcs. Game 7 isn’t the decisive moment for the Lakers to snatch victory from the Birds. They ultimately fizzle out, and by the end, with so many free throws awarded to the Celtics, the seven-point lead is nigh insurmountable. In the hands of a show that would know when to slow or when to speed up, this could have been The Empire Strikes Back, with the Emperor and Vader winning and the Rebel Alliance regrouping because the Lakers finally snatched the victory from the Celtics in the following year. Alas, Winning Time won’t have the opportunity to dramatise that season.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (Series Finale), Episode 7 Ending Explained:
Seven Days Later is the coda that had been added on, and from the structure of the scene, how Dr. Buss is talking to Jeannie and almost consoling her that it would be alright because “they own this”, and “one day she will too”, is television’s way of constructing a flimsy ending when a show gets an unceremonious end. It screams “We are getting cancelled”, and after this scene, the consequent montage of images with text highlighting what would happen in the future and perhaps what would have been covered in the upcoming seasons is eye-opening and yet bittersweet.
Because, like the game that had been shown this season, the first half of Season 2 at least had a clear arc for the fall of the Lakers, Westhead’s conflicting style, and the problems with management—coach empowerment vs. player empowerment. These last two episodes narratively fizzled out in a manner that was almost egregious. It’s a shame because the show’s teased potential at what could have been covered—a detailed dive into the Bird and Johnson rivalry—would have worked wonders. But that again factors into a show whose inherent style of hyper-stylized filmmaking plays against the depth that perhaps this show and the true events warrant at times. So while it is always sad to see shows get cancelled before their due date, it would be wrong to say the show was cancelled at its peak. Season 2 was weaker than its first season, with a lot of characters getting sidelined or pushed into unnecessary subplots. Thus, Winning Time ends with a whimper for the Lakers, but I would be hard-pressed to deny that it wasn’t an entertaining watch because it was. The acting had been stellar throughout, so these portrayals will be sorely missed.