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Is “Winning Time” a True Story? Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Weigh In

Is "Winning Time" a True Story? Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Weigh In

Before the LA Lakers had Kobe and Shaq, they had Magic and Kareem. Though the team, in many ways, is remembered and admired by younger generations for the early 2000s era that saw them win three consecutive NBA Championships, the Lakers are equally as known for the Showtime era of the 1970s and 1980s that turned the once struggling franchise into the dynasty it is today. The highs and lows of the Lakers during this time period, particularly from 1980 to 1984, are being explored in the second season of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which premiered Aug. 6.

Like many other shows that are based on factual events, “Winning Time” has garnered its fair share of pushback from those at the center of the story, namely Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and former Lakers coach and GM Jerry West. Despite receiving acclaim from critics and audiences for its stellar cast, flashy yet gritty storyline, and production design, the series has also drawn criticism from the real-life counterparts of its subject matter for its many historical inaccuracies and dramatic liberties.

Johnson criticized HBO for not involving any former Lakers in the series, while Abdul-Jabbar expressed disappointment in the characterization of figures like himself, writing in a blog post, “Each character is reduced to a single bold trait, as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension.” West went as far as calling the show “cruel” and “deliberately false” and demanded HBO retract the series shortly after its season one premiere in 2022 (via The LA Times).

Regardless of how it has been perceived, “Winning Time” examines the rise of one of the greatest basketball teams in history. Here’s the true story behind the series.

Who Is Jerry Buss?

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The NBA today is nowhere near where the league was in the 1970s. In contrast to today’s NBA that is speckled with glitzy entertainment, high-profile players, and multi-million dollar sponsorships, the league of the ’70s was on the decline, filled with racial tension and rampant drug use (the Associated Press estimated in 1980 that up to 75% of players used cocaine and one in 10 smoked, or freebased, the drug). Around the same time, the LA Lakers struggled to make it to the NBA finals, and the organization fell behind rivals like the Boston Celtics.

By 1979, however, a businessman and real estate investor named Jerry Buss purchased the Lakers in a multi-package deal that included the LA Kings of the NHL for $67.5 million, as reported by Bleacher Report. Buss’s vision was to completely transform the Lakers, and the NBA as a whole, by bringing entertainment onto the court. He famously established the Laker girls, a cheerleading dance squad that now includes the likes of Paula Abdul amung its alums, and made court-side seating a luxury that is now associated with A-list celebrities. The vision, which would later be known as Showtime, transformed the Lakers and turned them into the legendary team they are known as today. Buss oversaw decades of success from the Lakers and maintained ownership of the team until his death in 2013. His daughter, Jeanie Buss, took over after he died, per CBS News.

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Relationship

Basketball: Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) and Magic Johnson (32) on sideline during game vs San Antonio Spurs. Los Angeles, CA 11/20/1981 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X26282 )Basketball: Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) and Magic Johnson (32) on sideline during game vs San Antonio Spurs. Los Angeles, CA 11/20/1981 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X26282 )
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Image Source: Getty / Manny Millan

With Buss taking on the new ownership of the Lakers, the team was already looking up compared to the previous few years. But the draft of one star player, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, would change the organization for years to come. Johnson was drafted onto the Lakers in June 1979, and joined forces with an already strong roster that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 7’2″ center and one of the leading scorers in the NBA at the time. On the court, the pair were magical together, but after games, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar had their fair share of conflict. For one, their age difference impacted their relationship, as Johnson was a bright-eyed 19-year-old fresh out of Michigan State and Abdul-Jabbar was a hardened, 30-something veteran player.

One year into his career with the Lakers, Johnson helped lead the team to the 1980 NBA Finals, the team’s first in eight years. The following year, Adbul-Jabbar suffered a foot injury and missed some of the 1981-1982 season, which in some ways, was beneficial to the fast-paced Lakers team. Speculation quickly spread that Adbul-Jabbar was going to be traded, and unfortunately the already tense relationship with Johnson came to a boiling point when Johnson famously told reporters of his absence, “When he leaves, you’ll be able to see the real Magic show” (via Time). This competitive feud only lasted the first few years of Johnson being with the Lakers, and he and Abdul-Jabbar went on to win NBA Championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

Are Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Friends in 2023?

Today, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar have a strong friendship that has only gotten better over the years. In a joint-interview with The LA Times in 1987, Johnson recalled details of their relationship early on, telling the publication, “Everybody could see that we wasn’t favorite pals or buddies the first three or four years. I think I wanted him to know I wasn’t trying to get into his territory; he was the man. But things came so fast for me that maybe he thought I was intruding. I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar explained, “I held back because he had to make the adjustments coming into the league and dealin’ with all of this. I guess he held back because of my stature in the game, the whole aura around me. There was never any conflict or anything like that. It just took a while before we got to know each other.”

The eccentric genius of Jerry Buss and the electric dynamic of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are just some of the focal points in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” Watch the series on HBO and Max now, and watch the second season trailer below!

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