'Winning Time': It's Good to be the King

A review of this week’s Winning Time, “Memento Mori,” coming up just as soon as I ask not to be buzzard fucked…

Two of the three main stories of “Memento Mori” involve making the best of a bad situation in the moment, while the third seems to involve someone taking advantage of a great situation and instead making the worst possible choice.

The hour is primarily concerned, unsurprisingly, with the aftermath of Jack McKinney’s brutal bicycle accident from the end of “Pieces of a Man.” Though Jack looked near death at the end of that episode, he survives the ordeal, and would live nearly 40 years beyond this. (Jeff Pearlman’s book opens with an interview with McKinney that powerfully recontextualizes the celebrated story of the Showtime Lakers.) But he is in no condition to be coaching an NBA team, and that burden falls upon his longtime protege, Paul Westhead.

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“Memento Mori” is not exactly subtle at establishing the idea of Paul not only being unprepared for the top job, but not wanting it even under better circumstances. The opening scene finds Paul and Pat Riley drinking and watching game film at their office, blissfully unaware of how badly injured their colleague is. The Shakespeare-obsessed Paul talks about the challenge of the student replacing his teacher, comparing it to Hamlet having no interest in inheriting the throne after his father is murdered, and coins his own Bard-like saying, “‘Tis better to be a noble prince than a hapless king.” Is this laying things on a bit thick, especially before Paul even learns that he is about to replace his friend? Yes, but subtlety is not exactly in great supply on Winning Time. And Jason Segel is pretty terrific in his showcase episode. He’s best known for goofy comedy, but he has several nuanced dramatic roles on his resume (The End of the Tour especially, but even going back to Freaks and Geeks), and he neatly embodies the show’s conception of Westhead as an intensely reserved, scholarly type who has this very public and demanding job thrust upon him. He wants Jack to survive and get better not only for the sake of his mentor, but because he really doesn’t want to have to be the face of the Lakers. He flounders at his opening press conference, and seems thrown when he overhears Spencer Haywood speaking unkindly about him in a hospital waiting room. But when the moment to actually take charge of the team comes, he rises to it, giving a locker room pep talk that evokes the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, and outright quotes the Macbeth line about “the grief that does not speak whispers.” And where we see an imagined Jack McKinney — conjured up by both Paul and by the comatose Jack himself — suggesting that Spencer is the right player to use to try to slow down Denver’s high-paced offense, Paul opts to go his own way, demoting Spencer and leaning on the quick young legs of defensive specialist Michael Cooper(*).

(*) This is another instance of Winning Time taking dramatic license. Yes, Cooper played a lot of minutes in this game, but Haywood played more, and had shifted back and forth between the starting unit and the reserves throughout the season to this point. As with Magic throwing Kareem the inbounds pass for the winning basket in last week’s episode (which did not happen in the actual game), the needs of dramatic storytelling outweigh the commitment to documentary-level accuracy. And not that this show is exactly Shakespeare, but when the Bard wrote about history, he also took plenty of liberty.

Jerry Buss and Frank, meanwhile, spend much of the episode scrambling to deal with representatives of Great Western bank who would very much like them to pay off the balloon loan they inherited from Jack Kent Cooke. Jessie’s brainstorm to put the team into the name of Jerry’s ex-wife Joann seems to temporarily throw the bankers off their game — until, that is, Jerry realizes that his mother is beginning to slip mentally, and never actually submitted the transfer of ownership papers. As is so often the case, Jerry’s sheer charisma and willingness to gamble carries the day, as he gets the bankers to agree to push the loan date back to after the NBA Finals, convinced he’ll be coming to their offices with a championship trophy that will make them beg for his business.

In the midst of one of his attempts to convince the bankers to treat this as a partnership, Jerry tries using his star point guard as a bargaining chip, referring to Magic as “all ours” and his famous smile as “Lakers property.” You hear this kind of language even now in professional sports, where players are referred to as “assets,” and their contract situations described as “being under team control.” It is not slavery, and players like Magic are paid small fortunes, but some of the trappings survive, including powerful white men using words that treat Black men as possessions to be bought, sold, and exploited as needed.

Magic is not exactly feeling that pinch this week, but there is a sense of him being overwhelmed by all the positive attention that comes from being, as new friend Richard Pryor(*) puts it, “white-famous.” The attention is more than he can handle, as are all the business decisions he is being asked to make as a 20-year-old who left college early.

(*) Pryor is played by Mike Epps, who was supposed to portray the legendary comedian in at least two other projects that never quite got off the ground. Better late than never.

Warrick Page/HBO

A lot of the episode deals with his choice of which sneaker company to cut a sponsorship deal with. Phil Knight, founder of a young upstart outfit called Nike, tries offering Magic stock options and a cut of every shoe sold, which would have ultimately netted him billions of dollars. But he doesn’t have the imagination to picture that kind of money down the road versus the much smaller amount that Converse and others are placing in front of him right now. And when he opts to turn to friend-of-the-family Dr. Thomas Day (played by The Practice alum Steve Harris) to act as his business advisor, Dr. Day can’t see the future either. They take the short-term Converse cash, and while Magic is doing just fine financially these days, just think about what his bank account might look like now if he, and not Michael Jordan, had become the face of Nike(*).

(*) You can debate whether Nike made Jordan or vice versa, and whether a similar partnership with Magic five years earlier would have had the same impact. Magic was a joy to watch, but he was neither an athletic marvel nor a scoring machine like the other MJ. It’s easier to build a shoe campaign around a guy who can jump incredibly high and far than it is to do the same with a guy whose greatest on-court gift was his brain, and whose specialty was making his teammates look good. But it’s hard to argue with the notion that Magic would have made a lot more money with Nike than he did with Converse, even if they would have needed a different name than, say, Air Magics. 

Dr. Day is also part of the hour’s most emotionally thorny development of the season, because he’s also the father of Magic’s sometime-hookup Cindy (Rachel Hilson), who has begun presenting herself as Magic’s girlfriend even though he has no interest in settling on any one woman. (Despite the bumps, they have passionate sex in a sequence that is shot and edited more interestingly than the great majority of comparable recent sequences in TV and film.) At first, it seems as if some of Dr. Day’s advice regarding relationships is a warning that Magic had better not cheat on his daughter. But when Cindy makes Magic look bad by showing up at the hospital with a bouquet of flowers for Jack (while Magic is busy being courted by the sneaker people), Magic decides to assign the job of dumping Cindy to her dear old dad — and Dr. Day agrees without question. Cindy is his daughter, but Magic is a meal ticket. (And also, you can see him recognizing that if Magic is willing to so coldly break up with her, it’s probably for the best to just end it quickly and cleanly.) In the episode’s final scene, Dr. Day pursues another romantic errand for his new client, offering Cookie — the one woman for whom Magic might consider settling, even if he’s not right now — tickets to the Lakers’ upcoming road game in Detroit.

Though he makes a bad choice with the sneaker deal, Magic at least learns the power of delegating problems to others. Jerry runs into trouble because he delegated a problem to a person who is not mentally up to the task. And poor Jack McKinney wakes up from his coma to discover that the lieutenant to whom he once delegated jobs has done quite well in Jack’s position for the last few weeks.

For the moment, at least, the prince who didn’t want to be promoted has discovered that it’s good to be the king, while Jerry and Magic are still living it up like kings themselves, despite reasons to feel worried about their positions. All in all, another interesting outing for our fictionalized Lakers.

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