Paul Westhead finds himself on the hot seat on the most recent Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. After thrusting him into the head coaching position following Jack McKinney’s freak bicycle accident, the top brass is losing faith in the temporary replacement. Paul has one road trip to turn things around or risk being fired. It doesn’t help that the team ends in the inhospitable grounds of Boston Garden.
The tension for Westhead is palpable. The higher-ups are whispering about him. Jason Clarke’s Jerry West can be annoying when he’s an insufferable wreck but when speaking hard truths, the actor can deliver profane one liners with the best of them. In addition, the players tune him out and run their own plays. Some of the instability is remedied by the hire of Pat Riley as assistant coach.
It further develops the two young coaches’ relationship and ensures that Paul doesn’t have to do it alone. However, it also sets the stage for Riley’s rise in the future by giving him vital experience on the job. More importantly, the differences in the two’s demeanors are on full display. Pat is more assertive, and having been an ex-player, knows what needs to be done to motivate the team. Despite being the newbie, Riley seems more in his element in coaching further pushing the narrative that Westhead is in over his head.
If you haven’t noticed, Winning Time takes plenty of liberties in their storytelling that may have not actually occurred. For example, the holiday road trip to Indiana, Detroit, and Boston never occurred that season let alone the losses in the first two games. The departure builds the drama to the Celtic showdown as well as enhancing Westhead’s anxiety. The flirtation of bringing in Elgin Baylor turns the heat up even more.
Second, it provides an excuse to visit the Johnsons for Christmas and explore the family conflicts that are emerging. Earvin Sr. isn’t fond of Dr. Thomas Day’s influence over his son and finds some of the endorsement deals questionable. This concern leads to an excellent scene between the Johnson patriarch and Kareem.
There is a mutual respect between the pair and highlights the generational differences between these two old school heads and the youngins like Magic. They had to walk a harder path to achieve what they have but at least Earvin Sr. sees the bright side of knowing his son won’t have to fight the same battles. The conversation also leads to a promise by the MVP to keep an eye on junior for his dad. Rob Morgan is always great in every scene he has but Solomon Hughes is more impressive holding his own opposite the other actor. They can transition so smoothly from talking the breeze and keeping it casual to more reflective and serious dialog.
Winning Time continues to invest in the complicated romance between Magic and Cookie. The series creates an inevitability that the two lovers will be together but that journey there won’t be a smooth one. It’s difficult for a normal person to be involved with such a high-profile superstar and the gossip and lifestyle is overwhelming. Despite that, the emotional intimacy they share is undeniable. For Magic’s part, he can’t change his ways regardless of his feelings and it’s only a matter of time before he burns himself again. You kind of wish Cookie would move on because she doesn’t deserve the disrespect.
The episode culminates with the showdown between rivals; Lakers versus Celtics. It crafts a hostile environment with the heckling and taunts not to mention the racist history of the fans. Every good story needs a villain and Larry Bird is the perfect one. The pre-game interviews with the two rookies highlights the differences between them. Bird is uncooperative, cold, and terse yet the media worships the ground he walks on.
Magic is charming, friendly, and provides the great soundbites but still plays second fiddle. It irks the young Laker especially when he’s already defeated the Hick from French Lick on a big stage. Following through with Earvin Sr.’s requests, Kareem cools down his teammate with an insightful speech about the power of silence.
The game itself on Winning Time is a compelling, but formulaic, clash of heavyweights with both sides knocked against the ropes. Sean Patrick Small captures Larry Legend’s signature trash talking while schooling the opposition. The dispute between Westhead and Spencer Haywood that began in the prior episode concludes at a vital moment.
It proves that the coach is big enough to squash his beef giving the Lakers an enforcer and the C’s a taste of their own medicine. It’s hard to ever think of the Lakers as scrappy underdogs but before the prolonged success of Showtime, they had to prove they were worthy. The episode spotlights a turning point with the victory and how the team needs to be taken seriously.
“Invisible Man” hypes up the famous Laker/Celtic rivalry by depicting the intensity and excitement of their early 80s match-up.
New episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty air Sunday nights on HBO.
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