Scribbling. Mics. Camera. Buss. Yes, we open on a press conference, and Jerry Buss is going to have to answer some serious questions. Last week ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Magic Johnson delivered an ultimatum, demanding that he be traded so as not to play for Paul Westhead anymore, after his plea to owner Jerry Buss that Westhead should the one to go was disregarded. We flashback to Salt Lake City, the morning after Magic’s very public trade request. Pat Riley is outside smoking, wearing a truly beautiful coat, swatting away questions from players like, “Is it Romeo or Juliet?” (Magic or Westhead). Everyone is stressed, except for Westhead, who seems downright chipper, dismissing the whole thing as “Earvin’s petulance”—then the press show up and ask Westhead about a meeting with Buss. His eyes flash, and it’s clear he genuinely did not expect one and had not been told. He stands, a bit dumbfounded, until Kareem Abdul Jabbar generously whisks him away, then says, “I appreciate you coach” as they get on the bus. He asks the other players if they do, too, and we hear a unison “yeah,” but Magic looks over his shoulder to break the fourth wall and reiterates, “I meant what I said.” Alas, poor Westhead. Goodnight, sweet prince.
As we all know by now, if you’ve watched the episode or just know your stuff (as do many of the folks who comment on these recaps), Westhead is out, and the way that unfolds is the focus of this episode. And guys? It really isn’t pretty or nice…but it is funny. One of Jason Segel’s specific talents as an actor is in drawing out humor from humiliation, and this a career best in that regard. I mean, he’s given so much to work with.
Westhead is a character who, in season two, has gone from some major highs (that Sports Illustrated photo and article probably ranking high among them for this guy, playing to all aspects of his ego) to a serious low. He’s all Shakespeare quotes and lofty language in this episode’s first scenes, dining with his wife and college-aged daughter at The Hamburger Hamlet. (Where else? It is the title of this episode.) His kid is worried, while he’s in denial, snapping his fingers to summon the “garçon” and whatnot; she tells him straight up, “Dad. You’re gonna get fired.” He goes from confidence to panic, his face falls and his fork drops. (Then a waiter, hilariously, pops up to cheerily welcome him to “The Hamlet.”)
At the door to the office where Bill Sharman and Jerry West are throwing around names of potential Westhead successors (we can see them on the blackboard behind Sharman as he chats with the coach, poor bastard), Westhead speaks in folksy sayings: “I thought I would come down so that we could all pow wow about the bee in Magic’s bonnet. Make sure we’re all singing the same tune.” He’s down to platitudes as he encounters Magic in the hall: “There are moments in life when lessons are learned. I want you to know I still believe in you.” (Magic’s not into this, by the way.) Then he’s all childlike pleading when he finally meets with Buss, shadowed and small in the shot while Buss is in the foreground and bathed in light, the smoke from his cigarette trailing out in front of Westhead’s sad figure. “We came up with a way to win. I did. I came up with it,” he says. By the time he talks to Pat Riley later, after the shit has gone down and they’re being real with each other, he’s purely casual. It’s all sad, but things all work out okay for him historically. This look didn’t become him.
Speaking of bad looks, it is sure not a good look for Buss to tell Magic, “I want you to cash your big fucking check and play nice” after he argues that Buss wants him to be a silent partner, saying that his true alliance is with Westhead (before the firing, obviously). He evokes Magic’s dad’s salary, too, and how hard he worked for way less money than he’s giving the star. Oof, the context on that one (see: entire racial history of America). Magic tells him he’s not being paid for love, for being “like a son” to Buss, but because he earned it. “It’s because I’m the best player,” he asserts. (Jeanie tells Magic later that he’s her hero for standing up to her dad like this.) We all know he wins this debate, setting a precedent for star players going forward. Jeff Pearlman, author of the book on which this show is largely based, points out in episode four of the show’s recap podcast that this marked the transition from the coaches’ era of professional basketball to one in which players became more akin to partners in their respective organizations. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the big names of today being able to get rid of a coach if things weren’t working. Before this, that certainly wasn’t the case, and in his meeting with Buss, Westhead tries to evoke the status quo of the time to no avail.
KAJ, too, lays the situation out in no uncertain terms in a later scene with Buss and their ladies at a skating rink (a lovely, ridiculous touch that gave us Buss’ line “You’re pretty nimble on those puppies,” probably something Kareem could have lived his whole life very happily without hearing). He likens Magic’s contract to that of a life sentence and tells him this whole approach is the very reason he was hesitant to extend his contract. He’s uncomfortable with the idea of money buying loyalty.
Now we’ve gotta talk about Riley. We get it at last: the slick-back! First he uses a little water from the sink to tame his mane, just before they trot him out for the press conference during which he’s hit with kind of a messy “Surprise! You’re the coach now” kind of thing, which really did happen that way (wild). West, Buss says, is going to be “offensive captain,” which is completely made up, it seems, and Riley will be coach, but not head coach—let’s not get crazy. “Hey Pat! Are you gonna keep combing your hair all funny?” one reporter asks. (Is he ever!) It’s not the most dignified or best handled media event, but the way they dramatized this moment really works and brings forward some very real emotions behind it: the joy, the confusion, the sadness Riley feels for his friend “Shakespeare.” It’s poignant. But yeah, later Riley busts out the Armani suit and “Grease,” from the movie, plays as Riley really works the product into those tresses. Now he, and the Lakers, “can be who [they] are.” And part of being who Riley is involves incorporating the input of his shrink wife to employ therapy techniques in his coaching approach, first in boosting their confidence, later in encouraging direct communication with one another. His style of coaching will be less like some yelling dad figure, more like a tough-love therapist (who also occasionally yells).
In the end, Buss and Honey get married at the mansion, and Jeanie looks less than thrilled. Afterwards, the whole team watches the Celtics in their suits in Buss’ bar/Monopoly room. The Celtics lose, but fans cheer for the 76ers to “Beat L.A.” A crowd gathers before the TV, including Honey in her wedding dress. In unison, looking straight into the camera, they all say, “Fuck Boston.” It’s on.
- During their exchange, Westhead’s daughter tells him, “Magic is more famous than Rick Springfield.” Have you seen Rick Springfield lately? He’s 74, you guys. He looks like he’s in his thirties. (And when did I last see him? Why, it was when watching Sammy Hagar’s Birthday Bash 2020 On The Beach with some friends over Zoom during more locked-down times. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.)
- At “The Hamlet,” Westhead’s initial request to split a chicken-fried steak with someone gets misinterpreted, perhaps intentionally, by his daughter, who tells the waiter, bluntly, “He’ll have the chicken.” We all know she basically means “he is a chicken.”
- Riley tells the players, on his first night as coach, to “go out there and wing it, just like I am.” Um…I believe the term is “rooster,” and what you mean to say is “rooster it”? Wow. Jack McKinney really taught us all nothing at “The Hamlet” last episode when he ordered his wings—excuse me, “roosters.”
- After being fired, Westhead asks Buss who the next coach is going to be with the same affect as Jason Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall character when he asks “who’s the dude?” as Marshall leaves him. He has the vibe of a naked, lovelorn guy, too.
- There’s a lot of god talk in this episode: Buss suggests it’s a sign from god to hire West when all other coaches have failed (i.e. been shot, fallen off their bikes, lost in the first round); and Riley suggests it’s a sign from god that Sharman ends up coughing up blood and needing vocal cord surgery just as he seems poised to fire him. It mirrors the theme of decisions being handed down from on high for sure.
- Gillian Jacobs, as Riley’s wife Chris, tells him, “I’m great, by the way, thank you for asking” after he vents to her about coach-y stuff, and it’s the first time we see a woman character acknowledge that they’ve essential been emotional exposition dumping grounds for a lot of this show. It’s great, by the way.