‘Winning Time’ backlash hits fever pitch as Jerry West demands retraction, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighs in

We figured it was only a matter of time before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in. Not the only is the Hall of Fame NBA legend one of many Los Angeles Laker greats portrayed in HBO’s frenetically entertaining and generally well received (assuming you’re not an ex-Laker) series winning timebut he’s also become a revered author, cultural critic and contributing editor to The Hollywood Reporters.

winning time Isn’t Just Deliberately Dishonest, It’s Drearily Dull,” Abdul-Jabbar’s editorial was headlined in a blog post on Substack Tuesday. Abdul-Jabbar’s piece, which took aim at the Adam McKay-produced series’ “crude stick-figure representations” and controversial portrayal of Jerry West, came months after Lakers teammate Magic Johnson told TMZ he had no plans to watch it. (Johnson has stuck to that promise, but still called the series inaccurate while promoting his new documentary They Call Me Magic this week.)

But the most forceful blowback to winning time, which follows the “Showtime” era Lakers en route to multiple titles after the team is bought by Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) in 1979, came Tuesday night when West demanded a retraction from HBO/Warner Bros. and McKay for the show’s depiction of the Lakers star-turned-coach as played by Australian actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Mudbound).

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah and Jason Clarke in winning time. (Photo: HBO)

“The portrayal of NBA icon and LA Lakers legend Jerry West in winning time is fiction pretending to be fact — a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family. Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history,” Skip Miller, West’s attorney, said in a statement released to the media.

“Jerry West was an integral part of the Lakers and NBA’s success. It is a travesty that HBO has knowingly demeaned him for shock value and the pursuit of ratings. As an act of common decency, HBO and the producers owe Jerry a public apology and at the very least should retract their baseless and defamatory portrayal of him.”

while winning time is a clearly a dramatization of actual events, the series’ portrayal of West — the Lakers star nicknamed “the logo” (its his actual silhouette in the NBA logo) who went to the finals nine times but only won one title before becoming head coach in 1976 — in particular has indeed been raising plenty of eyebrows since the show premiered on March 6 (the series has already been renewed for a second season). West is introduced as an alcoholic, hot-headed, loose-wired firebrand prone to screaming his face off and throwing or smashing whatever lies in his way — though later episodes paint him in a more sympathetic light as the mental toll coaching has taken on him is explored as he quits his post, much to the chagrin of Buss.

“West has been turned into buffoonish cartoon character,” opines USAToday‘s Jeff Zillgitt, who writes that “the entire state of West Virginia” — West’s home state — is upset with the series.

Jason Clarke in 'Winning Time'  (HBO)

Jason Clarke in winning time. (Photo: HBO)

In Miller’s demand for an apology, the attorney lists several other former Lakers and organization members who stand by West, including players Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Mitch Kupchak and Buss associates Frank Mariani, Claire L. Rothman and Bob Steiner. Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), Wilkes (Jimel Atkins), Mariani (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) all have notable roles in the series.

“Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous Prick. They are caricatures, not characters,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote before digging deeper into West’s depiction.

“It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression. Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of easy exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”

Clarke talked about his intense portrayal of West in a late-February interview with Yahoo Entertainment (watch video above).

“People expect Jerry to come in there and, who knows what the f*** Jerry is going to do today?” Clarke said. “And he was kind of like that with people in life as well. He was sensitive, and he cared so much. And he expressed it in ways which weren’t cohesive with other people feeling that level of care. They saw different things.”

It’s clear that West, however, doesn’t like what he sees in winning time.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty airs Sundays at 9 pm on HBO.

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