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Dominique Jones | May 16, 2022

“The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford.” This is what six-time champion and Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had to say about Andy McKay’s new HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. 

But let’s first set the scene: it’s 1979, nearing the turn of the decade. The ‘80s promise the Los Angeles Lakers a run for the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship and the growing rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Big collars, moustaches, comb-overs and chest hair permeate the screen. But so too does sexism. Winning Time is yet another hyper-masculine sports dramedy. 

Winning Time falls short and fails to provide a factual account of how the Lakers and the Showtime era became key sporting and cultural phenomena. Instead, it reflects the conventional male preoccupation with all things sex, scandal, and money – leaving little room for actual basketball.   

There has been widespread discontent among both the public and those portrayed in the series about the inaccuracy of Winning Time. Whilst episodes are either prefaced or concluded with a statement on the “dramatisation of certain facts and events,” Winning Time exploits this. McKay pursues shock value over credibility. 

The caricatures of real-life people portrayed in Winning Time submit to the stereotypical binaries of masculinity and femininity. The female characters of Winning Time solely exist as support systems for the franchise’s egotistical men whose insecurities lie behind their macho façades. Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson) and Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) fall victim to this typecast. 

Jeanie, the daughter of then-Lakers owner Jerry Buss, is depicted as a naïve young girl dependent on her father’s validation despite rarely ever eliciting it. In Winning Time, Jeanie begins working for her father’s enterprise at 17 years old, without remuneration of course. She unflinchingly undertakes whatever arbitrary tasks her father throws at her. Jeanie does this without complaint – constantly rationalising his actions and her loyal compliance by reminding others of the stress Jerry is under. This absurd level of selflessness, inextricably tied to her femininity, is expected, understood, and performed by Jeanie as part of her good-girl schtick. 

Yet in real life, Jeanie began working for the Lakers after receiving her business degree and establishing herself as a learned sports manager. Abdul-Jabbar stated that “making her a girl-child belittles her early achievements on her own.” Rather than accurately presenting Jeanie’s managerial and marketing expertise, Winning Time opts for a classic daddy’s girl interpretation – one that bears no resemblance to an individual who has been dubbed “one of the few powerful women in sports management” in reality.

Claire Rothman, the leading bookkeeper at the Forum, the Lakers’ former home stadium, receives minimal airtime, disallowing for much, if any, meaningful character development. Instead of being recognised as the woman who revolutionised the Forum as a high-grossing entertainment venue, Rothman is depicted as Jerry Buss’ minder. 

In the series, it is Rothman who is always tasked with having to reel the overly ambitious, irrational Buss back to reality. Rothman is required to remain cautious and calculated to counteract the bombast Buss for the sake of keeping the enterprise afloat. 

Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman in "Winning Time."
Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman in Winning Time. Credit: Warrick Page / HBO

In the season finale, Buss promotes Rothman to treasurer and vice president. And yet, this fleeting depiction as an afterthought in the episode’s final minutes again reinforces Rothman’s status as a secondary character. And of course, Rothman was appointed only after Buss considered his estranged sons, who only appeared in the final episode, for the role. 

“I don’t get out of bed unless I have a hard-on about something.” 

This is Jerry Buss, repeatedly seen puffing his often-exposed chest. As the series unfolds and Buss loses more buttons, what remains is the championing of Buss as a womanising, high-rolling entrepreneur. McKay presents Buss’ notorious playboy antics and financial manoeuvring as awe-inspiring, as he slickly avoids disaster at every turn. 

However, he almost always leaves a trail of havoc behind his schmoozing with high-profile businesspeople and NBA staff. To rectify this, Buss is debilitatingly dependent on the women around him. The intricacies of running an NBA franchise are lost on Buss; his mother runs his finances, while Rothman controls the day-to-day operations of the Forum. Buss even begs to place the ownership of the Lakers under his ex-wife’s name, a move he cheaply characterises as one for Jeanie, not himself. McKay’s portrayal of him embodies a sexist dichotomy that assigns women to the roles of either sexual endeavours or fixer-uppers – nothing else. 

The unequivocal use of these archetypes sees Winning Time join the growing cesspool of sports film and TV that trade nuance for testosterone. 

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Dominique Jones

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