On Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley have turned the team around and have them sitting at the top spot of the league. However, their great run is threatened by the imminent return of Jack McKinney, who seems to have recovered from his bike accident. Paul, in particular, is conflicted considering he has ties to both Pat and Jack.
“California Dreaming” effectively portrays the power struggle happening between the coaches and they all have legitimate arguments. There is sympathy for McKinney who is the architect behind the Lakers and their innovative style. But because of his freak accident, he is forced away from his first ever head coaching gig and is anxious to return to the job. Especially, seeing how successful the team is in his absence, he needs to return to prove he’s still needed.
Riley finally finds his calling in coaching and sacrificed his present to go all in. There is no plan B and he’s helped more than merely holding down the fort. It adds to the drama the underhanded methods he uses including using the media.
Stuck in the middle is poor Westhead, who could have easily been made the patsy and scapegoat. Yet he rises to the challenge and sees the potential for the season. He values his assistant coach’s contributions but is also loyal to his best friend. In the end, the subtle ways Winning Time shows how McKinney isn’t completely back to normal along with Paul’s own ambitions influence the final and difficult decision.
Elsewhere, we receive the continued maturation of Magic Johnson. There is plenty going on to stroke his ego from the win streak to starting the All-Star game to his meetings with the NBA brass. Nevertheless, he still does knucklehead things such as disrespect Cookie. In addition, there’s a chip on his shoulder considering the recognitions his rival, Larry Bird, receives and now he has another adversary to worry about.
We are introduced to Julius Erving who a young Earvin Jr. grew up idolizing. He’s a different kind of foe who uses kindness before he rips out your heart. The class that James Lesure brings to the character makes it difficult to hate Dr. J; a definite contrast compared to Bird.
There has been controversy over the accurate depiction of events on Winning Time and this episode should make it clear it’s a series inspired by true events with great liberties taken for narrative purposes. Though the Lakers did lose to the Sixers shortly after the All-Star game, it wasn’t a blowout and we see Dr. J’s “Rock the Baby” cradle dunk. That iconic play didn’t occur until 1983 and it was against Michael Cooper, not Magic.
Despite the changes, it does set up the final episodes quite nicely. The Sixers will be the opponent in the Finals so it’s nice to have them cross paths beforehand. The loss is a humbling experience for Magic and fuels him to greatness. It leads to a fabulous conversation between him and Jerry West in the locker room about the need to be liked more than the need to win on how the rookie must develop that killer instinct to be a champion.
Jason Clarke is a talented actor because despite West’s constant fits and being a miserable wreck, for these more profound and personal moments, he hasn’t lost credibility and can still nail the scene. The writer’s even tie in this version of West and his personality to make it seem organic.
Another character on Winning Time that can run hot and cold is the team owner, Jerry Buss. John C. Reilly can be so charming and affable such as the episode’s opening scene where Buss draws upon the first sub four-minute mile as an example of breaking human limitations and how that idea guides him through life. Yet, your feelings for him can go a complete 180 when he’s the lecherous and creepy old man looking to hook up. Worse yet, he uses his own vulnerabilities to get close to his targets. It’s difficult to tell when he’s being sincere or if it’s all an act to get into someone’s pants.
“California Dreaming” highlights the difficult coaching conflict as McKinney plans his return while introducing an intriguing adversary, because of his likeability, for the end of the season.
New episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty air Sunday nights on HBO.
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