HBO has lately been airing “Winning Time: The Birth of a Dynasty,” which dramatizes the major characters and themes of the composition that became the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers basketball team of the 1980’s. That was the team that drafted Magic Johnson into the mix with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, Spencer Haywood (briefly), etc.
This was the team that finally broke the magic spell (or curse, as some have called it) the Boston Celtics had on the Lakers. Boston had beaten the Lakers seven straight times in the NBA finals by the time Magic Johnson came to the team and Dr. Jerry Buss had become the new owner.
The basic dramatization of the story was supposedly taken from a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, and given that the Los Angeles Lakers are now a relatively stable sports leviathan in California, the filmed version was expected to be a must-see TV event. And so far it has been. HBO has reported major audiences for each episode it has shown so far.
But along with the large audience numbers has come intense criticism and bitterness toward the producers of the HBO film. Everybody does not take well to a thorough drubbing of their cultural heroes and this new HBO series brings a big bat to the movie set.
Dr. Buss, for all his business acumen, for example, is often shown to be a serial sex fiend and financial loon who was just lucky, not really that bright. Magic Johnson is both luminescent and a cartoon character. Kareem is scary, etc. But the biggest character smashing is reserved for Lakers’ and NBA legend Jerry West. His characterization, according to the real Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is akin to Wile E Coyote, the perpetual villain in the “Road Runner” cartoon series.
The series never shows the Jerry West who brought Kareem to the Lakers, and who also signed Shaquille O’Neal later. It doesn’t show the Jerry West that brought the teen-aged phenom named Kobe Bryant to the team.
The Jerry West we see is an out-of-control drunkard twisted totally into craziness by the then never-ending dominance of the Boston Celtics over the Lakers and every other team in the league.
Usually, getting into squabbles with a creative entity such as HBO films over character depictions is an exercise in futility. Mr. West and his legal team, however, are now pressing HBO for a public apology and a closing statement to the audience which explains that the characterization of Mr. West in the film was not accurate, but instead was purely fictional.
So far, HBO has not agreed to do so, and the series is continuing as written and filmed. The West forces have strongly hinted at a major lawsuit being filed within the next few weeks for character assassination.
Jerry West is a living legend in L.A. and California. The series itself will probably maintain its audience, but I would not bet against the Jerry West forces slicing a thick bit off the hide of HBO before this fracas is over and done. This is not “Game of Thrones.”
Sometimes, real heroes should be left alone. Everybody does not laud those who do the lynching.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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