People who knew Jerry West lept to his defense after episode one of the HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” — West was portrayed as a rageaholic, alcoholic man prone to tantrums. Anyone who has known West — or read the Jeff Pearlman book “Showtime” on which “Winning Time” is loosely based — knows West is a complex man who has battled depression but a gentle person who rarely, if ever, ever drinks.
West and his attorney have now sent a letter to HBO and the series’ makers demanding an apology and retraction. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN got ahold of the letter (as did the Los Angeles Times) and ran excerpts of it.
West’s lawyers allege that “Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic,” saying that “bears no resemblance to the real man.” They ask for a retraction no later than two weeks from the receipt of the letter.
“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,” said Skip Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess LLP law firm in Los Angeles and attorney for West. “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.
“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.”
When people who knew West — longtime Laker trainer Gary Viti, for example — came to West’s defense after the first episode, producer Adam McKay and others tied to the show talked about it being a dramatization, not a documentary, and that they had taken some artistic license in the name of good storytelling. The HBO website defines “winning time” as a drama series.
However, that is hard to do when the people the story is based upon are alive, especially when the new portrayal is not flattering (West is far from alone in not liking his portrayal). Talk to West and he can be curmudgeonly, he is unquestionably direct, and he has admitted his battles with depression, but his way of dealing with that is to internalize everything. He is consistently gentle with others. While West eventually had issues and moved on from working for the Lakers, those issues were not with the late owner Jerry Buss.
Kareem-Abdul Jabbar — also a character in the show, he was still an MVP-level player at that time and 1985 Finals MVP — had the most stinging critique of “Winning Time in his latest Substack newsletter.
There is only one immutable sin in writing: Don’t Be Boring! Winning Time commits that sin over and over…
The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans Solo resembles Harrison Ford. Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous Prick. They are caricatures, not characters. Amusement park portraits that emphasize one physical feature to amplify your appearance—but never touching the essence.
The result of using caricatures instead of fully developed characters is that the plot becomes frenetic melodrama, sensationalized invented moments to excite the senses but reveal nothing deeper. It’s as if he strung together a bunch of flashing colored lights and told us, “This is the spirit of Christmas.”
How was the plot constructed? If you gathered the biggest gossip-mongers from the Real Housewives franchise and they collected all the rumors they heard about each other from Twitter and then played Telephone with each other you’d have the stitched together Frankenstein’s monster that is this show. I was shocked that for all the talent and budget, the result was so lacking in substance and humor.
Don’t be surprised if other people — Paul Westhead has a right — step forward and ask for their own apology from McKay and the show producers.