Winning Time recap: The series stumbles in season 2’s penultimate episode

Arcs fall a little flat as the show underscores themes of home and belonging

Winning Time recap: The series stumbles in season 2’s penultimate episode
Solomon Hughes Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

“Home / Let me come home / Home is wherever I’m with you.” Sorry for the earworm, but those Edward Sharpe lyrics pretty much sum up the main theme of this episode. And actually, the song’s later lyrics “… remember that day you fell out of my window…nearly broke your ass?” kind of touch on its other themes. No, no one actually breaks their ass. (Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s house kind of does, but we’ll get there when we get there.) Anyway, things aren’t looking so good for a lot of season two’s penultimate episode, personally or professionally, for any of these characters. Still, there’s some belonging to be found; we also find places for some arcs and devices to land.

And so we begin. After Pat Riley got real and rallied the Laker boys at the end of last episode, we skip ahead to just after their 1982 Championship win against the Philadelphia 76ers. The team bursts into the locker room jumping around joyously, pouring champagne on each others’ heads and generally being happy guys. Magic says, in voiceover, “I’m on top of the world, and right there is where I’m gonna stay.” Except, it’s not.

We skip ahead from here to a big old Finals loss to those Sixers in 1983—with a new guy on the Philly roster, Moses Malone, as well as returning stars Andrew Toney and Dr. J. We see, in montage as text on screen announces each name, that Norm Nixon couldn’t tango with Toney, that Kareem Abdul Jabbar proved no match for Malone. And Magic Johnson? Dr. J swats him and dunks on him for good measure. They get swept, and it hurts like Nixon’s bruised shoulder. Jerry Buss sits smoking and sulking alone in the stadium, and the lights shut off on his sad face as Jeanie takes a cab home.

In all that time we skipped over, going from the ’82 win to the ’83 loss, Jerry West has taken over as GM for Bill Sharman. He tells us about this (breaking the fourth wall, a device they’re returning to a bit more as the season winds down) and how he managed to pick James Worthy in the draft. He gets to do more scouting/trading, wheeling and dealing stuff with this new job development, and that seems to be West’s happy place. But it sends our pal Nixon to a sad place: San Diego. Clippers owner Donald Sterling (keen to build himself a “poor man’s Lakers”) demanded a starter in exchange for Byron Scott, and so Nixon was traded—on his birthday. They have a party for him at The Forum, where he gets to dance it up with his girl Debbie Allen (in an earlier Forum dancing scene, they list her many accomplishments onscreen as she’s groovin’ in the club before revealing her name and relationship to Nixon), but sadly, our guy has to find a new home now. He mourns the memory of when he first stepped into the Lakers’ locker room, a place to which he won’t return.

Meanwhile, as Magic watches Nixon and Allen together, hecomes to realize that home, for him, is wherever he’s with Cookie. He surprises her at a conference in San Diego (Nixon’s new sports home) where he shows up mid-interview to help her impress some fashion-industry guys she wants to work for, after which she agrees to grant him one more chance. (Those fashion guys suck, by the way. Before Magic shows up, they tell her, “We’re after the entire country, not just the…urban demographic.”) By the end of the episode, he has proposed to Cookie, and it’s all pretty nice for them. I mean, we know they’re still together. She wrote that book Believing In Magic. There will be further drama between them, probably soon, but their future together is established at least; they’re officially “playing house.”

You know who’s done playing house, though? Honey Buss. She’s annoyed that Jerry’s not home much, always worrying about the team. He has even delayed starting a family with her until he has his Lakers stuff situated. She comes home high from a party in the Hills and drinks OJ out of a jar in the fridge like a surly teen. Come to find out, she’s pretty justified in her saltiness: Good ol’ Buss never filed the divorce paperwork from his previous marriage, meaning theirs was never legal. So she walks out on him—actually, she insists she’s “fucking running”—but don’t feel too bad for her. Turns out she sucks. When Honey’s lawyer slaps him with a $100 million lawsuit as Buss is watching TV alone in the dark, cradling his top hat Monopoly piece, he explains, “Honey’s a reasonable woman. She’ll settle for Magic and Kareem.” Barf, again with treating these men like property. How freaking dehumanizing—and thrown out there in such a gross, casual way.

In KAJ’s arc, shit really goes down in the home department: His house literally burns down. But before that, we see him as a free agent, trying to find a new basketball home. Jay Mohr plays his agent, so it’s like smarmy sports agent Bob Sugar from Jerry McGuire traveled back in time, which is kind of funny to think about. Sugar calls himself “The Great White Knight” and explains that no one wants to sign KAJ because the Lakers lost in ’83, and he’s not friendly and smiley enough. And…I don’t really like this. Remember back in season one when that kid on the set of Airplane! asked him for an autograph and he told the kid to “fuck off?” (The real KAJ hated this and wrote an essay addressing this specific aspect of his portrayal.) Yeah, apparently it was building toward this moment where his house has burned down, his record collection has been destroyed, and he’s moved to change his ways when a young fan offers him some rare jazz vinyl to replace some of what he has lost. Suddenly, he turns his frown upside down and wants to inspire people, giving his all to the fans, which includes breaking the all-time scoring record (which LeBron James just passed) and becoming a softer, cuddlier player. Knowing how negative they took things initially to build this arc, it falls a little flat, feels a little manufactured. It’s part of the fictionalizing process that does not land so well, but it is what it is.

Now, to tie up the basketball stuff, we really book it through the 1984 season. They do it in a cool way, with the ball passing from team to team as playoff series results flash onscreen, but it goes by pretty fast. We end on Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals: a Celtics win. Buss walks into the locker room, where the team is listening to the radio broadcast of the game, and announces that they’re not going to celebrate; that Lakers v. Boston is not the greatest rivalry, because the Lakers are 0-7 against the Celtics in the Finals—ouch. Post-win, Auerbach gives the Celtics his own corny little speech, evoking Paul Revere: “the Lakers are coming.” We see Celtics fans cheer, “Beat L.A.,” and Lakers fans scream, “Fuck Boston.” The Celtics break the fourth wall and yell “Beat L.A.”; the Lakers do the same, and shout, “Fuck Boston.” Now it’s really on.

Stray observations

  • When they’re playing in Philadelphia in the opening scene of this episode, Buss says to someone,“You guys got a cheesesteak? They’re terrible. Not cheese, not a steak.” Any Philly fans have a retort?
  • West suggests they welcome Swen Nater to the team in a meeting with Sharman and Riley, and Riley excitedly responds, “Seven feet of Swedish meat!?” He’s Dutch, actually. If anything it should be… “7 feet of Dutch…meat.” I couldn’t think of anything better. If you throw out some other nickname possibilities in the comments, that could be a fun activity for us.
  • You know what’s sweet? Norm Nixon and Debbie Allen are still married to this day! And Nixon’s son DeVaughn portrays him in this. I think we all know that by now, but it still feels worth acknowledging, because it’s a cool fact and he does a good job.
  • Speaking of Bob Sugar, this interview in which Cameron Crowe explains how he came to name that Jerry McGuire character is kinda neat.
  • Honey tells Buss, “I am the first naked girl in a book full of naked girls. That’s all you want anyway.” So she knows about his creepy scrapbook. That’s gotta be weird. Also, they were really playing the long game setting up that line showing him gazing at that book in previous episodes.
  • You know what else showed up in KAJ’s article? How much he loved The Great. I bet he’s sad it was canceled.
  • One last little thing about Jay Mohr/Bob Sugar: He just married Jeanie Buss.

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