Forget the NBA playoffs, the NHL postseason stretch run, or the early part of the MLB schedule. The most intriguing drama in sports television right now is the new HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
The scripted show, which is based on real-life events surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers teams that won five NBA championships in the 1980s, has been a hit with viewers but has been slammed by people associated with the Lakers for allegedly taking too many creative liberties with those real-life events.
One of the most notable critics has been Jerry West, the Lakers’ former superstar guard of the 1960s and ’70s who worked as a coach and front-office executive for the team into the 2000s. West isn’t just a Lakers icon, he’s also an NBA icon; the NBA logo, as you probably know, is a silhouette of West as a player.
In Winning Time, West is portrayed by actor Jason Clarke. In contrast to the real-life West (now 83 years old) who is viewed as an intensely competitive yet genial and wise grandpa-like personality by many basketball fans, Clarke’s version of the younger West is “an out-of-control, alcoholic rageaholic” and a “purposely misleading caricature” that “bears no resemblance to the genuine man” according to a letter submitted recently to HBO and series director Adam McKay by West’s attorneys.
West is seeking an apology and a retraction from HBO.
A handful of former Lakers players and employees have stepped up to support West, co-signing another letter claiming they never saw West commit acts his on-screen counterpart has committed on the show, such as drinking on the job and having rage-inspired outbursts.
Two of the players backing West are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes, both Muslim reverts who played on those 1980s Lakers teams.
Abdul-Jabbar played 14 seasons in L.A. after arriving in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975. The former UCLA star took the shahada and accepted Islam in college, but he did not publicly announce his conversion and change his name (from Lew Alcindor) until after he’d gone pro. Abdul-Jabbar retired as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time league MVP, six-time champion (five titles with the Lakers), two-time Finals MVP and four-time league leader in blocked shots, among a long list of accolades. The 7-foot-2 center is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time (although Michael Jordan and LeBron James fans will have a lot to say about that) and a giant in the sports world. Since retiring from the game, Abdul-Jabbar has become a best-selling author, community activist and global ambassador.
Wilkes, who played eight years with the Lakers, is another UCLA product. He embraced Islam early in his NBA career. He legally changed his name from Keith Wilkes to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef, but has continued using the Wilkes surname professionally. Wilkes won four NBA championships, three with the Lakers, and was a three-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive Team selection. The 6-foot-6 small forward was known for his seemingly effortless scoring ability; he averaged 20-plus points per game three times in his career, and in L.A.’s famous 1980 NBA Finals-clinching Game 6 win over the Philadelphia 76ers — the game best known for rookie Magic Johnson’s MVP performance — Wilkes put up 37 points.
Abdul-Jabbar and Wilkes are both members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In addition to offering his support to West’s cause, Abdul-Jabbar has publicly criticized the Winning Time series for other reasons. He wrote a blog post titled, “Winning Time Isn’t Just Deliberately Dishonest, It’s Drearily Dull” in which he calls out the show’s “bland characterization” and “crude stick-figure representations” of the friends, teammates and colleagues he got to know personally during his time with the Lakers.
In regard to the show’s portrayal of West, as expected, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t approve.
“It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression,” he wrote. “Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”