‘Winning Time’: Author Jeff Pearlman Talks Series Backlash, Meeting Adam McKay and Who Should Play Phil Jackson

·7-min read

One week ago, NBA legend and Los Angeles Lakers icon Jerry West employed his legal representation to send a letter to HBO, Warner Bros. Discovery and Adam McKay demanding a legal retraction for his portrayal on HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” The correspondence included testimony by former members of the Lakers organization, including retired ballplayer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to reinforce its argument of the show creating “a deliberately false characterization.” Weeks before, Earvin “Magic” Johnson himself voiced his criticism of the series to Variety, saying “You can’t do a story about the Lakers without the Lakers… the real Lakers.”

Author Jeff Pearlman, whose book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” has been adapted to the HBO series, gets where they’re coming from.

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“I don’t get mad when people are talking about that. Obviously, people have a right,” Pearlman tells Variety. “Some guy is writing a book. You don’t know him. ‘OK, well, how much are you going to pay me?’ I’m not going to pay you. ‘Well, what about editorial control?’ No, you have no editorial control. ‘Well, can I read my quotes before?’ Actually, you can’t. I get why people don’t talk to us. It always rubs my motor a little bit. I’m going to call every other teammate and every ball boy and every Laker girl, and I’m going to record the hell out of this… It makes sense that they have weird feelings about it. I harbor no grudge or ill will or anything”

In a conversation with Variety, Pearlman discusses his extensive research while writing “Showtime,” the thrill of seeing anecdotes he uncovered being adapted to the screen and taking a meeting with series executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay.

Since you write about sports at large, do you still root for any teams in particular?

I’m one of those guys who covered sports for such a long time that I stopped rooting for anybody. So I grew up a diehard New York Jets fan, diehard New Jersey Nets fan, diehard Mets fan. Now I root for good games.

It’s liberating, isn’t it?

When I was rooting for teams, I’d have the ups and downs and the misery and blah blah. And most of my life was watching really shitty sports. I actually find myself a much happier human being not having a vested interest.

I get it, I’m a Sacramento Kings fan.

That’s amazing. That’s like being a Jets fan except in basketball. Well, you don’t have to worry about the Kings being in the playoffs. So that’s actually a good way to go.

When I asked Jason Segel, who plays coach Paul Westhead on “Winning Time,” about the 2021-2022 Lakers season, he said it was much more about power dynamics than it was about basketball. Does that phrase connect with you as a sports writer?

I think most sports writers who write books will tell you that the thing that interests them the least is what happens on the court. It doesn’t hold up in a book, it holds up in a newspaper the next day. You’re always looking for quirky characters, people who maybe wouldn’t be thought of that much. Obviously there’s Magic Johnson and Kareem, but I liked Mark Landsberger [played by Austin Aaron on “Winning Time”]. I like the idea that you throw 15 people together and they all have to get along in this little tiny world — a little tiny room, a little tiny plane, a relatively small court.

You also wrote “Three Ring Circus,” which documents the years when the Lakers were helmed by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. Since that period was more recent, were people less open to discussing the material with you?

The more recent you are, you still have an edge to the stories. Getting fired from a job isn’t funny. It’s a little more funny five years after it happened. It’s a lot more funny 20 years after it happened, you can totally laugh about it. It’s the same with sports.

Especially with regards to “Three Ring Circus,” which was released shortly after the death of Kobe Bryant. I imagine something like that radically shifts the way people want to talk about things.

I was very nervous about that book coming out. I didn’t want people to think I was just capitalizing on Kobe’s death — just another guy coming out with a get-rich-quick scheme on the back of a real tragedy. I’d worked on that book for years before he died. It ended up OK, but I was very nervous about that.

Was there immediate interest about adapting “Showtime” to the screen?

[Series co-creator] Jim Hecht somehow got a hold of me. He grew up loving the Lakers and thought it could be a great TV series. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I did a Google search and found his big credit was “Ice Age: The Meltdown.” So I was like, “Who knows?” going into it. He wound up coming to our house on Easter Sunday. I’m Jewish and he’s Jewish, and maybe that’s why it was no big deal. He came off as very sincere. I ended up giving him the option rights to the book for free. You really should never do that. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I never expected anything.

Did you even think about it after?

I thought about when he called me every now and then to give me some update. I thought it was bullshit. In 2019, Hecht said “Adam McKay wants to meet.” And I didn’t know who that was; I’m like a moron. I Googled it and I go to his house — he’s lying there, and he likes the book. I still don’t think anything’s going to happen. I get a contract with HBO. And I still don’t really think anything’s going to happen. They pay a little bit of money. I have no faith whatsoever. And then I’m home one day, and a friend of mine from college emailed me a link to an article saying John C. Reilly agreed to star in an HBO series.

Is there a specific anecdote that you uncovered while researching the book that you are proud made it to “Winning Time”?

This is going to sound small and insignificant, but, for me, it was awesome. Magic and his dad go to the Forum and are served sand dab, which is a super weird fish. That came straight from the book. Another thing that really satisfies me is the story of Jack McKinney (portrayed by Tracy Letts on the series). I got pretty close to the McKinney family. Nobody knew who he was. He was like a little footnote of a footnote of a footnote in Laker history. It was very satisfying to me that I wrote this book and I learned all about him. And now there’s a TV show with Jack McKinney.

Picture the world years from now. We’re in Season 20-something of “Winning Time,” exploring the Shaq and Kobe days. Who is playing Phil Jackson?

What’s-that-guy’s-name would be good. He’s too old now though, but the guy from the “We are Farmers” commercials.

J.K. Simmons.

He’s not bad. I would probably try to pull Brad Pitt. That’d be amazing. They optioned the book and people always get excited over things way prematurely. A lot has to happen. If the show ended right now, I just had the luckiest run in my life. It’s all gravy for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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