HBO’s current series Winning Time is a highly stylized look at the Los Angeles Lakers series through the 1980s, especially its decades-long rivalry with the Boston Celtics. The pilot directed by Adam McKay (Moneyball, Don’t Look Up) takes advantage of a style that is heavily indebted to Tarantino, with crashing graphics, regular breaks on the fourth wall and a lot of irrelevant information dumping. It’s also hugely entertaining, well-cast and beautifully shot – but largely bypasses the era’s actual tensions and dramas in favor of contemporary wardrobe and hairstyles.
Which does not mean you should not watch Winning Time; it just lacks a bit in historical context and meaty basketball content. Fortunately, ESPN’s ingenious documentary series 30 for 30 covered the same story in Celtics / Lakers: Best Of Enemies, an exhaustive three-part, five-hour documentary released in 2017.
In the 1980s, basketball went from a marginal interest to an absolute phenomenon. The reasons for the game’s progress are varied and complicated – including increased TV interest, approval agreements with McDonald’s and Nike and the expansion of the league to more markets – but a major feature was the rivalry between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics, and especially, between the Lakers point guard Magic Johnson and Celtics forward Larry Bird.
Like all major rivalries, it is the differences between enemies that allow for the closest matchups. Magic was Hollywood personified; with his thousand-watt smile and dazzling playing style, he brought showmanship to the NBA. Lakers games were a form of theater, and sold-out arenas filled with people like Farrah Fawcett, Rob Lowe, and Jack Nicholson sitting on the field.
Celebrities started attending Lakers matches at the LA Forum just to be seen; the narrator (and a Celtics fan), Donnie Wahlberg, dismissively calls the forum “the arena that acts as a nightclub.” Lakers games quickly became the center of Hollywood glamor, and Magic was the leader, standing 6 feet 9 inches tall and appearing much larger.
Boston, on the other hand, was pumping Irish blood and its team took a worker’s approach to basketball. Their players were violent and harsh. They did not have time for theater. Bird, born and raised in the small farming town of French Lick, Indiana, was fiercely opposed to the growing fame he received; you will feel his inner discomfort when you see him shoot a squirting Converse ad. He was a graceful athlete with superhuman basketball skills and a sharp tongue.
The only concession to his own physical health was cutting back on beer in a low season late in his career and buying an exercise bike for his farm – a new magazine that Boston commentators marveled at. His career was shortened due to a back injury caused by dry pavement of his mother’s driveway: he was a famous multimillionaire at the time, but it had to be done, and Larry got things done.
A more perfect set of rivals could not have been cut out in a TV writer’s room. The pair became the NBA’s two faces and a light shorthand for the racial tensions that inflamed the United States in the 1980s.
The first part of the Celtics / Lakers: Best Of Enemies goes back through the 1960s and 70s to cover not only the Boston and LA rivalry, but the overriding perception among white Americans that the NBA was a “black league.” filled with the stuffed references to “playground hangers” verse “fundamental basketball,” which colored most coverage at the time.
While Winning Time has a lot of fun with the mutton chop, cocaine, poolside profits from 1980s LA, all played for voyeuristic delight, Best of Enemies shows a land in free fall. Crack cocaine ravages inner cities, Boston’s high hopes Len Bias dies of an overdose, racial disharmony spreads to racist violence, and the sexually promiscuous Magic Johnson becomes infected with HIV – at the time considered a quick, painful death sentence.
If you want a real look at the era with its complicated societal problems, this is a wonderful documentary series. The facial hair is still amazing and the razzle glare is completely genuine.