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HBO Says 'Winning Time' Hatchet Job on Jerry West Was Based on 'Extensive Factual Research'

HBO's 'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty'
(Image credit: HBO)

"The Logo," as he's known among NBA fans, feels his personal brand has been badly damaged by the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, and he appears increasingly determined to score justice. 

However, HBO isn't giving up any easy baskets. Rather than concede the obvious -- that at least some of its portrayal of NBA Hall of Fame point guard and legendary team builder Jerry West is grossly exaggerated -- the programmer told The Hollywood Reporter that it wouldn't change at thing about the character played by actor Jason Clarke.

“HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes," HBO told the trade. "Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”

Last week, Skip Miller, attorney for the 83-year-old West, sent a letter to HBO, accusing the programmer of crafting a "deliberately false" and "cruel" portrait of the former Lakers top executive. 

“You replaced the real Jerry West — a consummate professional — with his polar opposite, then portrayed this lie to the public as genuine. You thereby violated the law," the letter stated.

“To mitigate the harm you have caused, we request the issuance of a retraction of Winning Time’s false depiction of Jerry West no later than two weeks from the date of this letter," Miller's letter added. "You also owe Mr. West an apology for your hurtful misrepresentation of his work and legacy, plus damages for the harm you caused to his well-earned and stellar reputation.”

On Tuesday, West seemed to escalate matters further, telling former Los Angeles Times sports writer Bill Dwyre, “The series made us all [the Lakers] look like cartoon characters. They belittled something good. If I have to, I will take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”

So if David Zaslav and his management team running HBO's newly merged parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, are irked today about inheriting that CNN Plus mess, just wait until they get a load of this fast-kindling dumpster fire. 

Produced by Adam McKay, who's coming off an Oscar-nomination for his Netflix movie Don't Look Up, Winning Time portrays West as profane, impulsive and volcanic, at one point throwing the one NBA Championship trophy he won as a player in 1972 through an office window. In another scene, he snaps a golf club over his knee when he learns that new team owner Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly) wants to draft Ervin "Magic" Johnson over West's own alleged preference, the University of Arkansas' Sidney Moncrief.

Forget for a moment the very bad optics of portraying the architect who built not just one but two Lakers dynasties -- West was the GM who later moved Heaven and Earth to bring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the Lakers in 1996 -- as "anti-Magic," who became one of the most globally popular figures in pro sports history. 

While West undoubtedly did his due diligence on Moncrief, who led the Razorbacks to a Final Four appearance, there's simply no evidence suggesting he was ever against drafting Johnson at No. 1 in 1979.

And while West has been known as a somewhat mercurial sufferer of depression, and holder of a true competitive hatred for the Boston Celtics, no peer or underling has ever described him as being even closely like the rage-fueled, impulsive jerk who Clarke portrays in the series, which just aired its eighth episode Sunday night. 

Longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said he was hired by the production to serve as a consultant but left the show when he saw how West's character was being handled. 

“It was a total mischaracterization of Jerry West,” Vitti told The Athletic (opens in new tab). “I said I don’t want to be a part of this."

The subscription sports news site also interviewed former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, who learned the ropes under West. 

“The guy in the show playing Jerry and the Jerry I worked with for 14 years is not the same guy,” said Kupchak, now the Charlotte Hornets president of basketball operations. “Jerry was passionate but never lost his temper and threw things. Never. I would know.” 

Further damning HBO's portrayal: West's office never had a window to throw a trophy through. 

Hall of Fame Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (played by actor Solomon Hughes in the show) has also been critical over the overall portrayal of his Lakers "Showtime" era teammates, coaches and execs, calling them "cartoon" versions of the actual people involved. 

Scoring an 84% rating on aggregation service Rotten Tomatoes, Winning Time has been, for the most part, warmly received among critics, who seem somewhat in consensus in describing the show's characters as "over-the-top." 

HBO has billed the show as being based, at least to some degree, on writer Jeff Pearlman's 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The creators, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that their "loving" portrayals of team figures have been misunderstood. 

The famous aloofness of Abdul-Jabbar, for example, is revealed to be the manifestation of a shy, serious young African-American man, uneasy with how his seemingly trivial athletic pursuits help the far greater cause of the Civil Rights movement. 

Late team owner Jerry Buss' well-established womanizing is softened by his depiction as a bold, larger-than-life entrepreneur and loving father to an ambitious daughter, who sees beyond race and class, and who seems to operate on the square when it comes to the rights and dignity of women in the workplace. 

Buss' daughter, and current team overlord Jeanie Buss, is played by the youthful Hadley Robinson as an intelligent, earnest protege, cutting her teeth on the role she touts to this day -- protector of her father's legacy. (Buss said she had nothing to do with Winning Time's research.)

The producers do attempt to provide some level of nuance and insight into West. He is depicted as the son of an abusive alcoholic, a lonely child whose only refuge is battered basketball hoop mounted above the driveway of his Cabin Creek, Virginia home. 

His 14-year Lakers playing career is revealed in short flashbacks to be a somewhat heroic, tortured, almost Quixotic quest, failing again and again against the Celtics in the NBA Finals, the team's then owner, Jack Kent Cooke -- villainously played by Michael O'Keefe -- too greedy to offer West and the Lakers the talent resources to get over the top. 

As for the rageaholic man this allegedly turned West into? HBO is saying it has the creative right, just as the producers of Hulu's recent Pam and Tommy biopic, to take some liberties and tell an entertaining story in what remains as an hourlong TV format. 

But there are -- and if not, probably should be -- limits to those liberties. And far from coming off as vain and overly sensitive, West -- cool enough under pressure to have earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" during his decorated playing career -- has also certainly earned the right to not have future generations know him as a buffoon. 

Curiously, beyond Vitti, no former or current Lakers denizen has publicly copped to consulting McKay, writer Max Borenstein and the rest of the Winning Time production team. 

Johnson, who's magnetic smile, charm and deceptive competitive grit are all effectively conveyed by actor Quincy Isiah, has also denied any form of cooperation. In a very "Magic" way, he has publicly critiqued the show's portrayals while also denying to have ever even seen an episode. 

Given the mystery of where HBO's self-described "reliable sourcing" came from, it is worth mentioning some circumstantial components as they relate to West and Buss.

West is now semi-retired, but still consults for the Los Angeles Clippers, the long-moribund NBA franchise that has, only in recent years under the ownership of former Microsoft Co-Founder Steve Balmer, emerged as a rather bitter crosstown rival with the Lakers, with whom the team awkwardly shares Crypto Arena. 

West said publicly several years ago that he wanted to finish his career with the Lakers, the team he had spent four decades serving as an All Star player, coach and wunderkind front office executive, but was rebuffed by the current management group led by Jeanie Buss. 

In February, West described an outright estrangement with the Lakers, noting that they had abruptly pulled back the courtesy season tickets they'd offered him and his wife for decades. 

However, West seemed to duck any kind of direct conflict with Jeanie Buss.

“ ... But sometimes you feel like you’re discarded, like a piece of trash," West told The Athletic (opens in new tab). And there’s a couple of people over there—not Jeanie—but there’s a couple of people over there that, uh … I don’t get it. I don’t. … I always had a great relationship with Jeanie—at least I thought I did. I don’t know where it is now.”

Like many NBA front-office executives, West is known to not have had the best of relations with Rob Pelinka, the current Lakers basketball operations chief who previously irked many team GMs as a powerful player agent whose top-shelf client list included the late Kobe Bryant. 

Pelinka, however, was attending grade school in Chicago during the 1979-80 season which Winning Time depicts. 

Notably, West also endured a contentious relationship with NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson, who coached West's second Lakers dynasty, the team led by O'Neal and Bryant, to NBA championship glory three times from 2000-2002. Notably, Jackson and Jeanie Buss were romantically tied, and even engaged, for more than a decade. They broke their engagement off several years ago but reportedly remain close, with Jackson even advising Buss on how to ease the Lakers' current on-courts struggles. 

West wouldn't be alone in strategically ducking an outright public feud with Jeanie Buss.

The Lakers are currently coming off what has been dubbed by some sportswriters as the most disappointing season in NBA history. It's the second time in four seasons under future Hall of Fame player LeBron James that the Lakers have missed the playoffs, and the team's front office has been described as "dysfunctional" on many occasions. 

Still, perhaps understandably, few in the sports media feel emboldened to hold Buss -- one of only a finger-full of top-level female executives in pro sports -- accountable. 

Even ESPN's famously outspoken Steven A. Smith seemed to mince words when criticizing her, referring to her as the "wonderful jeanie Buss." 

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!