HBO is defending its series on the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers amid a storm of criticism from several former players and others depicted in the show, including a demand for a retraction from Hall of Famer and former Laker general manager Jerry West.
“HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes,” the network said in a statement provided to The Hollywood Reporter. “`Winning Time’ is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”
West’s attorney Skip Miller sent a letter to HBO, Warner Bros., Discovery and executive producer Adam McKay on April 19, demanding a retraction, an apology and unspecified damages for what he called “a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family.”
“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is a 10-part series on the team’s first championship season in the so-called Showtime era, in which the Lakers won five NBA titles led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Both men have criticized the show, with Johnson complaining that producers did not seek out former players for input, and Abdul-Jabbar calling the show boring and deceptive in its portrayals.
But the heaviest criticism has come over the characterization of West, who as played by actor Jason Clarke is depicted as profane, violently short-tempered and constantly on edge.
“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,” Miller’s letter said.
“The Jerry West in `Winning Time’ bears no resemblance to the real man,” the letter continued. “The real Jerry West prided himself on treating people with dignity and respect. `Winning Time’ is a baseless and malicious assault on Jerry West’s character. You reduced the legacy of an 83-year old legend and role model to that of a vulgar and unprofessional bully — the polar opposite of the real man.”
The letter also declares that the series has damaged the “Showtime” legacy of the 1980s Lakers.
“For the players, coaches and the entire Lakers organization this was a magical and amazing time; and they, along with Jerry West, enjoyed it and got along great with one another,” the letter said. “This reality is directly contrary to the portrayals in your show.”
The letter also contains testimonials from former Lakers Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, now president of the Charlotte Hornets, and others who found the characterization of West to be “egregious and cruel,” Miller wrote.
West himself told the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Dwyre this week that he’s taking his legal challenge seriously.
“The series made us all (the Lakers) look like cartoon characters,” he said. “They belittled something good. If I have to, I will take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Episodes of “Winning Time” begin with a disclaimer that reads “This series is a dramatization of certain facts and events. Some of the names have been changed and some of the events and characters have been fictionalized, modified or composited for dramatic purposes.”
The series has been picked up for a second season at HBO.