Russell Westbrook looks irritated, even by his ornery standards. It’s Tuesday and he’s stewing over the Los Angeles Lakers’ 128-110 drubbing by the Dallas Mavericks — their most decisive loss of the season so far. He’s at a postgame press conference in a dad hat and matching vest and reporters are grilling him about the franchise’s two-year slide since its last championship. “What changes going forward?” asks the Los Angeles Times’ Brad Turner.
Westbrook shoots back: “What do you think should change?”
“Winning,” Turner responds, and that’s when Westbrook abruptly walks away.
Westbrook’s sour mood underlines the urgency of the situation. Tuesday’s loss came in the exact circumstances that trading for the guard this summer was supposed to ameliorate — a game when the team’s aging star, LeBron James, was on the bench with an injury — and it knocked the Lakers into 11th place in the Western Conference, one spot shy of a chance at the the playoffs.
That means the NBA’s glitziest franchise, headlined by James, the best player of his generation, is on the verge of watching the postseason from home. Its personnel would be on their couches in time to catch the last four episodes of Winning Time on HBO — Adam McKay’s increasingly dissonant TV miniseries about how good the Lakers used to be.
It’s rare to see the construction of a myth at the same time as its implosion. Told over a 12-year span bookended by the 1979 off-season and Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he’d contracted HIV, McKay’s series is a genial ode to the 1980s “Showtime” era, when the Lakers were at the cultural epicenter of the sports world. It’s protagonist is Dr. Jerry Buss, the chemist-turned-real estate mogul who bought the team that first year and remade it in his image: from a consistent loser of money and games into an organization that was synonymous not just with on-court success — the Lakers won five NBA championships between 1980 and 1988 — but a surfeit of money, glamour, sex, and entertainment worthy of its neighbors, Hollywood and the Playboy Mansion.
At its heart, the show is about the special relationship between two people: a unique owner, in Buss, and an even more unique athlete, in Johnson. Played by John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah, respectively, both men are depicted as united and motivated by love, a point of contrast with the cynics who surround them. “It’s not about the money,” says Johnson in one early episode. “It’s about the love.”
Love is the secret ingredient here — the element that lets these seemingly very different men, who became like family in real life, concoct an alchemy of basketball and commerce that wasn’t just triumphant but transcendent.
Love would be a foreign concept to today’s Lakers. “I don’t even want to bring my kids to the game,” Westbrook said earlier this month about the harassment he’s been getting from fans. This is a player who’s known for his prickly relationship with spectators — he was shoved by a child during a game against the Denver Nuggets and got in such an ugly verbal altercation with a Utah Jazz fan that the guy was banned for life from home contests in Salt Lake City, both during the same season. That he didn’t ask his family to stop coming to his games until he became a Laker says a lot about how thoroughly he’s been blamed for the team’s problems.
That reputation has followed him over 76 agonizing games — “unwatchable” has been a frequent adjective on Laker-fan Twitter this season.
The truth, though, is that Westbrook was set up to fail. A whirling Swiss Army knife of an athlete and the first and only player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double over the course of a season, he neither shoots nor defends well, making him an obviously poor fit on a team that built its identity, and won a championship in 2020, on defense.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, from bad play-calling to frequent injuries. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka deserves a lot of it for tinkering with a winning roster then overreacting to its disappointing finish last season by letting guard Alex Caruso walk in free agency, despite being one of the best backcourt defenders in the league. He then caved too willingly to James and co-star Anthony Davis when they were angling to nab Westbrook.
But the buck stops with ownership — the one entity in the organization that can’t be fired for underperforming because its only prerequisite is being rich. And more than most teams, the Lakers’ identity is wrapped up in that of the family that has owned them for 43 years.
Jeanie Buss, the team’s current controlling owner and daughter of Jerry Buss, is a supporting character in Winning Time, where she’s portrayed as a bright-eyed college student learning her dad’s trade. She’s also a natural proxy for the themes the show is trying to impart. If the founding principles of Lakerdom are love and family, the affectionate father-daughter relationship-turned-business succession at its center lends the notion credence.
Like her dad, the younger Buss is a sunbeam cutting through the swamp. Her naive enthusiasm complements his collegial charm, and together they’re a potent antidote to the dominant culture in sports: a world of lecherous zillionaires, ruthless middle managers, and their bitter underlings in windowless offices who’ve forgotten, if they ever knew it, that basketball is supposed to be fun.
Winning Time portrays this dynamic as the key to the Lakers’ success. The results are hard to dispute: Since the Buss family took control, the franchise has won roughly one-quarter of all NBA championships. But time also exposed its less flattering implications. Like most rich dads plotting out ways for their wealth to outlive them, Dr. Buss divided his 66 percent share of the Lakers among his six children when he died in 2013. Each got an equal share, but Buss bequeathed to Jeanie his title as governor and the power to hire and fire anyone. “He said, ‘Jeanie, you will have the hammer if you ever need to use it,’” she explained on a podcast in November. “‘I hope you don’t need to use it, but I expect you to if needed.’”
She used it in 2017 when she spared her older brother Jim, the franchise’s executive vice-president of basketball operations, the embarrassment of getting fired and let him resign. Three days later, their other brother Johnny submitted a legal notice of his plan to oust Jeanie, break up the family trust, and install two new members on the Lakers board of directors — one of whom was Jim. Things only got more acrimonious from there. A temporary restraining order was filed. “[My dad] would be sickened if he saw what was going on with my brothers,” remarked Janie, another one of the Buss children.
This turmoil in the family was set in motion, remarkably, in the name of protecting another family. “I like to say that my dad had his children, but the Lakers were the baby,” added Jeanie. “And my dad put the baby in my arms to take care of.”
If they weren’t quite that, the Lakers were Dr. Buss’s defining achievement. They earned that status by validating him in ways that become clear in Winning Time when his early enthusiasm — what the audience is encouraged to think of as love — starts to curdle. A pivotal early sequence finds him trying to pick the brain of “Red” Auerbach, the legendary former head coach and general manager of the Lakers’ rivals, the Boston Celtics. After finally acquiescing and meeting Buss for dinner, Auerbach dismisses the new owner as unserious — a man who enjoys the perks of being a big shot but lacks the burning need to win. This is what cracks Buss’s amiable exterior: the suggestion, by someone he considers a peer and a potential mentor, that he doesn’t belong here.
Buss commits to victory at all costs. The result, in myth and real life, was no less than the modern NBA’s first dynasty. It was sexy and glittery but not especially romantic. It was driven, after all, by the same base incentives that drive most sports franchises: money and winning. The team eventually became a victim of its own success. To this day, if the Lakers aren’t hanging new championship banners from the rafters of their arena, they’re seen as failures. The perceived culprits, like Westbrook, are treated brutally. Behind the scenes, Dr. Buss’s six heirs snipe and jockey for control of what has become the second most valuable organization in basketball.
The team’s detractors revel in its humiliation. “[If] the Lakers miss out” on the playoffs, wrote Defector’s Chris Thompson on Wednesday, “I will scream with laughter until my lungs shoot out of my mouth and splat wetly on the screen of my laptop.”
If this franchise is the product of love, then Buss loved his creation enough to turn it into something we can all hate.