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'Winning Time' examines the rise of the Lakers dynasty


The year is 1979, and the Los Angeles Lakers are about to start building a dynasty.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) With the first pick of the 1979 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What should the fans expect? Can this team make a title run?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Do you love California?

QUINCY ISAIAH: (As Magic Johnson) You tell them if they like basketball, come on out. The Lakers are already a great team. With me, it's going to be exciting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Earvin...

MARTÍNEZ: That's a scene from HBO's new drama "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty." See; back then, just before Magic joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the faces of the franchise, the Lakers needed some excitement.

MAX BORENSTEIN: They were one of the great basketball teams in the NBA, but the NBA itself was a third- or fourth- or maybe fifth-tier league behind baseball, football, even in the ratings on TV far behind golf.

MARTÍNEZ: Max Borenstein is the showrunner behind "Winning Time." His show is all about the players and the insane business model that ignited the Lakers' Showtime era, which helped revive the NBA. And it all begins with a freewheeling, eccentric playboy named Dr. Jerry Buss, played by John C. Reilly.


JOHN C REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) I'm about to buy a team.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Oh, hey, Dr. Buss. No breakfast this morning?

REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) No, not today. I'm going to buy the Lakers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Ah, no kidding. Tell them to win the championship one of these days.

REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) I'll do what I can, Fred (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You got it, brother.

REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) Welcome to sunny Los Angeles.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Buss dreamt up, then built up the Lakers dynasty. He's the guy who brought Magic Johnson to LA and shook up the sports world by doing things such as ditching traditional cheerleaders and replacing them with a dance group - the Laker Girls. I asked Max Borenstein about the man who nearly went bankrupt trying to achieve this dream.

BORENSTEIN: Jerry Buss is a doctor 'cause he had a doctorate in chemistry. He grew up extremely poor in Kemmerer, Wyo. His mother remarried a plumber who was abusive and difficult and used to send Buss out in the freezing cold to dig ditches, largely just to sort of punish him because he was the kid who had aspirations. He was really brilliant at math. He worked a number of jobs, odd jobs, laying rail ties. He's a real kind of American dream character who wound up turning down a scholarship to Harvard because he fell in love with a brief trip his mother and him had taken to LA. He just loved the sunshine and the warmth and the aspirational quality. So he came out to LA, and he spent his 30s in aerospace and, on the weekends, started moonlighting and started investing in real estate, which was brilliant, it turned out. And he had this dream that began there of owning sports franchises, and he had his eye on owning a basketball team. And we all know how that turned out.

MARTÍNEZ: He - you know, he was a bit of a gambler, right? Because he had money, but he didn't have the kind of money to really just go out and buy an NBA team.

BORENSTEIN: Exactly. You know, he was always constantly leveraging himself into a bigger and greater dream. He had this vision for what a sports franchise could be, which extended beyond sweaty guys in a gym filled in those days with cigar smoke and gamblers. He was a gambler, but he was a kind - he was a gambler who loved showmanship. That's the thing he adored about LA. And so much of what he sold was the idea that you were there at the party.

MARTÍNEZ: And he needed just the right guy to make what he had in his head happen on the floor. And that guy was Magic Johnson. So can you tell us about the relationship that Dr. Buss had with Magic Johnson, the partnership?

BORENSTEIN: Well, that's really this incredible alchemy. Buss, I think, just loved him and loved hanging out with him. And I think Magic felt the same. And I think both loved the access because Magic was a guy from a small town in Michigan coming to LA. Suddenly, he's being introduced into the world of business and this kind of power world that we obviously know Magic Johnson has now become very much a part of. And Buss, I think, it gave - it opened doors for him into, you know, reliving his own youth, which he had spent in poverty.

MARTÍNEZ: Finding the right Magic Johnson, I can imagine, Max, had to be a monumental task. I mean, you got to find the right guy. You've got to stick the landing on that one. So you went with a newcomer named Quincy Isaiah. How did you find Quincy?

BORENSTEIN: Magic, honestly.


BORENSTEIN: It was the casting gods. We had an incredible casting director, Francine Maisler, and they staged a global, really, but a nationwide search, certainly, really looking at hundreds of people. And, you know, it was very quickly clear that no one we knew or had heard of was quite right. And then this tape came in from Quincy Isaiah, who had just moved to town. He had recently graduated from Kalamazoo College, where he was the center but not in basketball, in football...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

BORENSTEIN: ...And was interested in pursuing a career in acting but had never had a paying gig. And we saw his self-tape, and we thought, wait a minute - he was the guy. And that was it.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, we should note that the NBA was not involved in producing this show. In fact, Magic told TMZ that he doesn't plan on watching your show. I don't believe it. I think he probably is going to - I think he is.

BORENSTEIN: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: I think he wants to see. But he has his own Lakers series coming out, he says. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says, quote, "the story is best told by those who actually lived through it." Max, why not try to get buy-in from the people who are portrayed? Or how much do you really need it in this case?

BORENSTEIN: You know, because all of these people spent so much of their lives in the public eye, many of them have written their stories in their own words, in books and memoirs. And it was our goal not to tell any single perspective on the era. We were trying to tell the story of its impact on the city, on the fans, on the NBA. And I can only imagine how odd it must be to have a portion of their life turned into a television series. I don't know how I would feel. I assume it would be extremely awkward and strange. That being said, I can only say for the people behind the camera, for those of us writing the scripts and for the cast, this was a love letter to these people who accomplished so much and who we admire. And I hope that if Magic, Kareem and any of the other people portrayed in the show choose to watch, that they would feel that love.

MARTÍNEZ: Max Borenstein is the showrunner behind HBO's new series "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty." Max, thanks a lot.

BORENSTEIN: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDRIS MUHAMMAD SONG, "TASTY CAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.