As one announcer puts it in the last moments of this finale, “When you go seven games, that’s one of the classics,” and that’s exactly what we get to see: the highlights from all seven games of the 1984 NBA Finals. It feels kind of like a clip show but with dramatized moments in basketball rather than a collection of cuts from the live broadcast. Still, there’s some solid acting and story mixed in. Jeanie Buss’ arc for the season comes to a nice close, and Claire Rothman (Gabby Hoffman) gets more to do than we’ve seen from her throughout this batch of episodes. It’s a decent outing all in all. Let’s break it down.
We’ve come full circle, back to that first scene of this season’s first episode, where Celtics fans chase the Lakers down as they’re boarding their bus and pelt it with garbage, sore because the Celts lost Game 1. Magic Johnson puts his headphones on, and we hear what he hears and see what he sees: breezy hip hop, his teammates smiling and laughing all around him, high on their win. Pat Riley interrupts him to say “great game,” and to caution him about getting too cocky moving into the next one. But Magic brushes it off, saying, “Coach. I appreciate the words. I do. But you don’t gotta worry about me.” Then he freezes in Game 2, and Boston wins it in overtime.
Before Game 3, Magic gets a pep talk from Jerry West, who reassures him that he’s far from selfish as a player. In fact, he has, “a way of making everybody love to play the game,” but he needs to do be better about involving “no-names” on the court, like Celtic Bill Russell did and West never could. That sparks enough joy in Magic to allow for a Laker win in Game 3, with Magic setting a record 21 assists. Larry Bird is pissed off, though (of course), and gives his famous rant to the press about the Celtics having “played like sissies,” and how they would need “12 heart transplants” to play right. He walks, bare assed, away from the reporters in the locker room, and his team is all fired up and angry like him now.
Influenced by Bird, Kevin McHale is mad enough to do something dirty in Game 4. (Laker fans hate McHale to this day for that one, and his heel turn is handled well.) Bird has just yelled at him on the court, then we get a closeup of his face, and you hoop heads know what coming next, don’t you? It’s the Kurt Rambis clothesline. The blow is shown in slo-mo as Rambis goes down. We see the guilt register on McHale’s face, but Bird tells him, “apologize and I’ll break your fucking neck,” then he breaks the fourth wall and says, “we got ’em.” Now the Lakers are forced into playing Celtics-style, aggro ball; they’re in their heads. And Riley gets upset enough to rage out in the physician’s office, smashing bottles of (probably important) medical stuff before snatching a cig from the doctor’s desk and giving the guys a little speech about how everyone needs to keep their cool against the Celtics. They all probably could have used a “Believe” sign, to be honest.
It doesn’t help that Game 5—“The Steambath Game” at the Boston Garden—is so damn hot. It was a balmy temp in Boston that day, but with no AC inside the arena and all those dang bodies in there, it was extra sweaty in the Garden—94 degrees! And boy does Red Auerbach get to be the cartoon villain in this one, smoking cigars on the sidelines like he’s Mr. Swackhammer. We see him scheming with the janitor about turning the Lakers’ water back on—but only the hot water—something the real Auerbach was rumored to have done, while simultaneously providing his Celtics with plenty of ice, cold towels, and three uniform changes to keep them comfy. Another thing that actually happened: Some poor ref passed out from the heat.
And now seems like a good time to talk about this whole Buss/Auerbach dichotomy. Auerbach’s methods are shady at times, and his players and fans remain quick to leap into a brawl, but they’re nothing if not consistent in their approach. Auerbach tells Buss that the Celtics’ secret is the culture they’ve created (i.e. being a bunch of jerks). By contrast, Buss seems kinder, but what does he really offer? Big, well-meaning promises to players and people in his life who he can’t always keep—like Honey, who’s currently suing him for alimony.
And the collapse of this promise can cause others to fall. Should he end up paying this $100 million to Honey, which is what she’s seeking, this could topple the Lakers’ franchise. As Rothman says, she, his employee, wouldn’t be allowed to run “a high school gym” if this organization were to crumble in disgrace. “Fuck you, Jerry!” she screams for all to hear as she leaves his office, and it’s justified. Will he learn? We don’t know. Jeanie kind of scoops him up and saves him in the end, and brings him to Game 6 with her.
While Magic, Cookie, and Buss seem a bit lost this episode, unsure about the promises they’ve made and how equipped they are to keep them (to their partners, to win championships, etc.), Jeanie has stepped into her power and gone full Barbiecore Buss in pink powersuits. Even her former boss Rothman has to give it up for her “new look.” We first see her after she has given her boyfriend, L.A. Kings defenseman Jay Wells, confidential salary information that has allowed him to negotiate a 20-percent increase. When Claire confronts her about this, she argues that it wins them “goodwill from the athletes” to know what other players make, which is “in the interest of California sports.” She knows what she believes now as well as how she wants to present herself.
Jeanie has also grown in the way that she responds to her old man. We see this as she attends Game 6 with her dad not to gauge her place in his life, whether she registers as visible or invisible to him in any given moment, but because it’s important to her to rally him from his heartbreak and legal woes to go together. She self-advocates during a heart-to-heart with him, sharing her feelings and disappointments: “When you bought the team, it was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me, because it meant I got to spend time with you.” She also evokes this series’ well-worn photo device, telling Buss, “you want the picture in the frame, to pick it up when it’s convenient for you, and to put us down when it’s uncomfortable.” Later, as she chats with Rothman in Buss’ office, she’s the one to pick up and put down a photo of her family. She can help them on her terms now and draw better boundaries. Toward the end of the episode, Jeanie sits in Buss’ chair and says to Claire that she thinks that she could do his job. (“Can you imagine? A woman owner?” they wonder.) As we know, she will. And from the looks of things, she’ll provide a bit more stability than her pa is capable of bringing the team.
As Jeanie’s finding herself and repairing her relationship with her dad ahead of Game 6, poor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is fighting off a severe migraine. They visually translate this, which is a cool artistic choice, but a cruel reminder for migraine sufferers of the awful crap we go through. (This reminds me of how migraineur Jeff Tweedy of Wilco decided to try to create one in audio form at the end of the song “Less Than You Think”; I can’t bear to listen to it.) KAJ yells at everyone to be quiet, ice pack on his head; we’ve just heard in a news-report voiceover that he had vomited and received fluids intravenously earlier that day. (That’s the dream, honestly. I would love an IV when I’m down with a migraine.) Is this the first depiction of a migraine that I’ve seen in a show? Have there been others? It’s at least the first depiction of a magical migraine that I’ve seen. “When I’m in pain like this, I take it out on punk-ass white boys,” Kareem tells Magic, and they win, tying the series three-three. This really happened! Now I’m wondering why I’ve never done anything that cool when I’m in pain like that, besides, I guess, navigate L.A. traffic with blurred vision.
In Game 7, the Lakers come back for a bit, but in the end, they fall just short. “Boy does it hurt when you know it’s not gonna be your ring.” Buss gives the camera a look as the Celtics are declared the champions, and the Lakers punch out fans who had stormed the floor to attack them. The punch Rambis threw resulted in a lawsuit, though the fan who filed it later admitted to having egged him on. Led Zeppelin plays us out with “What Is And What Should Never Be,” the fitting title of this finale, with the lyrics: “You will be mine/ By taking our time.” And the Lakers will win against the Celtics eventually. (But will we get to it in the run of this show? That’s the big question). This episode, and season, ends with Magic sitting, clothed in full uniform, beneath a running shower (a moment Johnson himself described in his book Magic). But Winning Time can’t go out like that, can it? They’ve gotta give this thing another season.
- This episode starts off with an old-school HBO graphic and a vintage style CBS Sports broadcast. It’s a satisfying aesthetic trick that also serves a handy expository function. We get some warbly broadcaster-style narration and ’80s instrumental music over grainy footage, too, and it hits all the right nostalgia buttons.
- The song Magic is listening to on the bus after that first game of the ’84 Finals, as his teammates smile and laugh around him, is “Hey DJ” by World’s Famous Supreme Team, which Mariah Carey sampled for her 1997 hit “Honey.” Get it? Like Honey Buss? And they’re on a bus? And the Lakers and Celtics are, maybe, competing to be the World’s most Famous Supreme Team? Too much of a stretch? Well, I had fun making those little connections, anyway. Oh, and the scene ends with Magic nodding along to the line “you’re smoother than Dr. J.”
- There has not been enough Gabby Hoffman as Claire Rothman in this season of this show, but she gets a few scenes to absolutely own in this episode. (Did you guys see C’mon C’mon? She was great in that, and I still think about that movie all the time.)
- Here’s a fun Bird quote from his book When The Game Was Ours: “I wanted to fight every teammate I had after Game 3.” Wow, dude.
- Real person Linda Zafrani says she’ll be sitting with the Rambis Youth. “Look for the kids in the wigs and the funny glasses.” They sound fun.
- “Life of Illusion” by Joe Walsh is such a cool needle drop. Just as Jeanie sees on TV that her dad might lose his fortune, and as we see her driving past reporters to get to him and help him out of his funk, we hear that bright riff and fitting opening line, and it defines the whole scene with a tone more of casual mishap than melancholy.
- In a pretty cruel coincidence, I ended up with a migraine, like Kareem’s, while finishing this recap. Now that I think about it, it’s not that unusual for me to work through migraines, and basketball was his job, so we’re the same. I, too, am a hero.
- Bird’s ma makes a joke that Magic is her second favorite player, and her first is Bill Laimbeer, a guy Bird hates. She asks if he’s impressed she knows who that is, and that is such a mom-to-son question.
- Before Game 7, Riley tells the team: “Picture how it ends. Picture how it’s gonna feel.” Which is visualization—another therapy technique! His gal Gillian Jacobs has been teaching him some stuff.
- Well, we’ve sure had some times, haven’t we? Remember when I called Red Auerbach the head coach of the Celtics and said Molly Gordon’s character Linda Zafrani was made up? Thanks for gently correcting me and being cool. I hope we’ve had some laughs together, at my mistakes and maybe even at my jokes. I’ve had a ball recapping this season with you folks, and I appreciate you following along.