HBO is currently making some pretty big gains against its competitor Netflix, but one of their much-publicized new series hit yet another snag. Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty has been a bit troubled since its inception, but the hits keep coming for this series based on the exploits of the NBA Lakers team in the 1980s. This new complication comes via lawyers representing Jerry West, a legendary NBA coach and player. He has served HBO with a letter demanding a retraction of his portrayal by actor Jason Clarke on Winning Time and a public apology from the network. This comes after a recent, widely-publicized blog post from fellow NBA icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was also very critical of the storytelling and narrative decisions of the show. As of right now, HBO has not made a public response to West’s letter or demands.
Winning Time portrays the time period in which the Lakers became one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, and featured historically great players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Norm Nixon. The hit HBO show also portrays many of the behind the scene figures of the Lakers franchise at the time, including Jerry West, fellow coach Pat Riley, and then-owner Jerry Buss. The series is heavily fictionalized, a fact that Abdul-Jabbar noted in his blog post was both normal and generally necessary for a show of its type. What has apparently rankled West and prompted his letter to HBO is that he is fictionalized as breaking golf clubs and smashing trophies and generally being obsessive and unhinged, which the letter on the behalf of the 14-time All-Star player described as a “deliberately false characterization” and “egregious and cruel.” The letter to HBO also included support from a number of West’s peers, many of whom are portrayed on the show. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former players Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, and former Lakers public relations director Bob Steiner are all referenced in the letter.
While any portrayal of a real-life figure will always require some fictionalization, it appears that HBO has struck some nerves with Winning Time. The series was adapted from a non-fiction book by Jeff Pearlman, and created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht. It is also notably produced by filmmaker Adam McKay (who also directed the pilot episode); apparently, the show was the cause of a breakdown in relations between McKay and longtime friend and collaborator Will Ferrell. Ferrell reportedly wanted the lead role of Jerry Buss, and McKay’s decision to cast their mutual friend John C. Reilly after original star Michael Shannon dropped out marred their relationship to the point they dissolved their joint company Gary Sanchez Productions. McKay has expressed his regret at this point, and admitted he was basically at fault for the rift between the two. HBO has already renewed Winning Time for a second season, so it will have to be seen how the network deals with the increasing amount of criticism from the real-life individuals the show portrays.