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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Opinion | The Jerry West of HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ wasn’t real - The Washington Post

Opinion My charmed, tormented life with Jerry West

A video tribute to Jerry West plays before Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 12 in Dallas. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

"Jeff Pearlman is the author of “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, which was adapted into the HBO series “Winning Time.”

As I’ve aged and matured and gained traction in life, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization that — for good and for bad (but mostly for bad) — we all find ways to justify our actions.

We ran that red light, but … we really needed to pick up Amelia from dance class.

We had too much to drink, but … Uncle Joey only turns 37 once.

We watch as the characters in our nonfiction books become exaggerated in the name of entertainment, but …

That last one. It’s me. Sorta me, at least. A decade ago, I wrote “Showtime,” a book that chronicled the highs and lows of the 1980s Lakers. My work wound up being optioned by HBO, and the network ran two seasons of the resulting program, “Winning Time.” And, to be 100 percent clear, I loved almost everything about “Winning Time.” I loved Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Sean Patrick Small as Larry Bird. I loved Adrien Brody as Pat Riley and Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Winning Time” brought my favorite era of professional basketball back to life and introduced generations of young viewers to those who walked the earth before LeBron James and Luka Doncic. From beginning to end, I was dazzled by the writing and attention to detail. Early on, I received a call from a producer, asking whether I knew what material was used for the 1979 National Basketball Association Summer League uniforms.

“Because,” he said, “we want to recreate them.”

Through the nonstop highs, however, the one thing that left me semi-conflicted was the depiction of Jerry West, the legendary Lakers guard and general manager who died this week at 86. As detailed in his autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” he was a man who suffered bouts of depression, anxiety, self-loathing and mood swings. In my decades covering sports, I’ve known of two people who struggled to watch their own teams play — one was Billy Beane, the longtime general manager of the Oakland Athletics. The other was West.

Often, when the Lakers were on the court, West could be found in the bowels of the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., pacing, stretching, biting his nails and tapping his toes. Or he might be sitting inside his Buick in an otherwise empty parking lot, listening to the game on the radio and pounding his fists into the steering wheel with each botched layup.

He had served as the team’s head coach for three seasons in the late 1970s, and while the 145-101 record suggests success, he could not handle the gig’s anxieties. How could Jerry West — one of the greatest talents of all time — muster the patience to teach journeymen such as Earl Tatum and Dave Robisch the proper technique to shoot a jumper? Answer: He couldn’t. It nearly drove him to madness.

In “Winning Time,” actor Jason Clarke was brilliant as West. Hell, beyond brilliant. He nailed his slight West Virginia twang, his cocksure strut, his at-all-costs love for the Lakers. There’s a scene in the pilot in which West explains to team executives that it would be a mistake to select Michigan State’s Johnson with the first pick in the 1979 draft; a safer bet would be Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas.

When Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly) asks why, West — with all the earnestness one can muster — says, “He’s too tall.”

Buss scoffs at the suggestion, as do those standing nearby — and West loses it. He storms off, snaps his golf club in half and, while stomping away, growls, “I f---ing busted my shaft, Pedro!”

It’s awesome stuff, and I still laugh whenever the scene crosses my screen. But it’s also (ahem) not real. The moment never happened. There was no Pedro, and while West was (in a rare bout of personnel misjudgment) truly opposed to selecting Johnson, he certainly didn’t break it down to Buss on a golf course. In that same episode, West is shown launching the 1969 Finals MVP award through his office window (didn’t happen) and has Buss advise him to switch to an alcohol that doesn’t cause his breath to reek (definitely didn’t happen).

Throughout the series, West is often cursing, snarling, snapping, biting. It’s tremendous television. For my money, Clarke carried the show. But, in the real world, West wasn’t a cursing, snarling, snapping, biting guy. He was a burdened, haunted, troubled man who — while certainly capable of a good outburst — primarily internalized his demons. He also was a beloved basketball lifer who embraced the diversity of the sport he cherished.

As creator of the source material, but also as someone involved with the show, I often found myself publicly backing Clarke’s version of West by offering up explanations like “It’s paying homage” and “This is how the medium works.” But, sitting here today in the aftermath of West’s passing, I am forced to ask myself whether that was me being true to myself or just being a guy with the golden ticket of an HBO show justifying an experience that I simultaneously loved and profited from.

The answer: I honestly don’t know."

Opinion | The Jerry West of HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ wasn’t real - The Washington Post

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