winning time debuted in early March with a disclaimer that splashed across the screen: the HBO series is “a dramatization of certain facts and events.” It had to provide a bit of coverage.
Seven weeks later, former Los Angeles Lakers coach and general manager Jerry West, portrayed in the series by actor Jason Clarke, sent a legal letter to Warner Bros. Discovery, HBO and series producer Adam McKay in which he is demanding withdrawal, apology and unspecified damages for the “false and defamatory portrayal.” West argued through his attorney that those who are portraying his portrayal in… winning time, which was adapted from a bestselling book by Jeff Pearlman describing the rise of the Lakers in the 1980s, are now believed to be an “out of control, intoxicated anger-aholic.”
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HBO has remained a mother until now. In a statement provided solely to: The Hollywood ReporterThe network had this to say: “HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from factual facts and events that have been partially fictionalized for dramatic purposes. winning time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and graphics are based on extensive factual research and trusted sources, and HBO stands firmly behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”
Created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, the series has been embroiled in off-screen drama for years, dating back to the reshuffle of then-owner Jerry Buss and the subsequent demise of one of Hollywood’s most fruitful friendships. And long before West’s attorney sent in his laundry list of complaints, Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), the two Showtime-era players of winning time‘s center, were busy with the show. Abdul-Jabbar even devoted an entire blog post to the topic recently. The Lakers and the league are also said to hate the series’ existence, with NBA attorneys reaching out to HBO about its use of trademarks and logos well before the show’s premiere.
Yet it is West’s image that seems to be the most controversial in the past two months winning time debuted. West’s own letter joins a collection of opinion pieces, published in THR among others, that are critical of his portrayal. Among them: “HBOs winning time gets some things about the Showtime era right – but not Jerry West,” a long time ago Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke. Like others, Plaschke disagreed with a few memorable scenes, including one from the show’s pilot where West screams profanity and breaks a golf club over his knee during a round of golf with Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly) and others. . The problem with it, Plaschke argued, “He would never break clubs in a golf course tantrum — in public he was always, well, Mr. Clutch.”
With his Substack, Abdul-Jabbar also came in defense of West. “It’s a shame how they are treating Jerry West, who has spoken openly about his struggles with mental health, especially depression,” he wrote. “Instead of examining his issues with compassion to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to laugh at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make for dramatic moments, but they stink of easy man exploitation rather than character exploration.”
To be sure, this isn’t exactly new territory for HBO or McKay. In an interview for THR‘s winning time cover story earlier this year, Casey Bloys, chairman of HBO programming, noted how much experience his team had with projects based on real-world people and events. Game Change, Recount, Chernobyl and paterno† And McKay, who is also no stranger to navigating controversial terrain, has created projects such as vice and Question: In the storm (also at HBO), was similarly stunned: “We know the drill right now,” he said at the time. “You get the fact-checkers, you check with the lawyers, and there are very clear parameters: you are never going to create character defining moments; it will always remain within the realm of the true story.’
In recent months, McKay and the authors have taken advantage of their many opportunities with the press to discuss their extensive research process, regularly referencing Pearlman’s book, along with the many biographies and autobiographies available to them. Among them was certainly West’s, titled West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, in which he describes his upbringing and his long struggle with depression. Clarke has said that he underlined parts of the book. And on page 68, for example, West writes, “I’ve broken many clubs in my life. On purpose. There was a place not far from Bel-Air Country Club where they were being repaired, and I would often put a broken club (or two) on their doorstep early in the morning, well before they opened, with no note. There was no need for a note, because they knew the clubs were mine. I even threw some over the Bel-Air fence. If you don’t believe me, ask Pat Riley. He witnessed it.”
Now, whether or not West will be successful if he chooses to sue for defamation is a much-discussed topic that has already spawned several thoughts; meanwhile, the show’s audience continues to grow. In reality, winning time viewership is up 45 percent from its March 6 premiere; and that first episode, featuring the infamous western scene on the golf course, now has 7.2 million viewers. With two episodes left in season one, the writing staff is hard at work on season two.
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