Magic Johnson Slams HBO’s ‘Winning Time’: ‘You Can’t Do a Story About the Lakers Without the Lakers’

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“You can’t do a story about the Lakers without the Lakers,” Magic Johnson says. “The real Lakers. You gotta have the guys.”

In a new interview for this week’s cover story of Variety, the NBA legend shared his unfiltered thoughts about “Winning Time,” HBO’s scripted drama about the Showtime era of the Lakers, which has just been renewed for its second season. Johnson said he refuses to watch the series, and he’s baffled that neither HBO nor the creative executives — which include executive producer Adam McKay — sought participation from him or his teammates. (A rep from HBO declined to comment.)

Showtime coincided with Johnson’s tenure on the Lakers from 1979 to 1991, at which point he retired after being diagnosed with HIV. As explained in Johnson’s upcoming Apple TV Plus docuseries “They Call Me Magic,”  NBA games were so scarcely watched before Johnson was drafted that the primetime networks debated whether to air them at all. But Johnson’s chemistry on the court with his teammates, especially Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, combined with entertainment strategies implemented by new owner Jerry Buss, turned professional basketball into a must-see spectacle.

Because of those unique conditions, Johnson believes that it’s impossible to tell the story without the involvement of the people who lived it.

“There’s no way to duplicate Showtime. I don’t care who you get. So let’s go through it like this,” Johnson told Variety. “Showtime started on the court. Just unbelievable. We changed basketball! Fast-breaking entertainment: Every time out, Paula Abdul and them beautiful Laker Girls came out on that floor. First time ever. Dancing girls! And they turnt it out. All the latest music, and all the latest dances.”

The crowd in the stands was also an important part of Showtime, and Johnson fondly remembers two audience members in particular.

“Jack Nicholson — the biggest actor at that time, killing it — didn’t miss a game. And wouldn’t let nobody tell him the score, if he was shooting, because he had the game taped. Everybody knew that. It was written in this contract.”

Johnson had also befriended the Jackson 5, and traveled with them on three of their tours. He urged Michael Jackson to return the favor by coming to a Lakers game, and Jackson reluctantly agreed even though he didn’t think the fans would let him watch in peace. “He was right,” Johnson says. “He sat down; people went crazy. They were running from upstairs, the sides. We had to stop the game to get him out.”

“You can’t duplicate that,” Johnson says. “We entertain you. Show you moves that you’ve only seen in the nightclub. Then you move up to the Forum Club.”

After the games, the Lakers would party behind the velvet ropes of the VIP lounge tucked inside of the arena, along with who Johnson remembers as “the best, sexiest, hottest people in Los Angeles. Because it’s a club in a club, right? All the celebrities, all the beautiful people move up to the Forum Club. Every team that came in town: ‘Please, Magic!’ In the third quarter. ‘We gotta get in the Forum Club.’ I said, ‘We still playing the game!’”

“We go in there… man, it’s on,” he says. “There’s Hugh Hefner with 20 playmates. There’s Arsenio [Hall]. Eddie Murphy. Rob Lowe. All these people from ‘Miami Vice,’ Don Johnson. All of them at the height [of their careers], but you know what? They got to be themselves. There were so many A-listers, everybody left them alone.”

“Now, that’s inside,” Johnson continued. “[Outside of the Forum Club, there were] 200 people in the hallway saying, ‘Please, let me in!’ You can’t duplicate that. Everybody’s like, ‘Aaah! We can’t get in, but we standing here!’ You can’t duplicate that. You just can’t do it.”

Johnson then unbuttoned half of his shirt to capture the spirit of his mentor. “And then, the most charismatic owner in all the sports. Not the NBA — all the sports,” he says. “I’m not lying! Dr. Buss came and had his shirt down here. As an owner! You can’t duplicate this, man. You can’t do it.”

“Listen: we were about winning. With all that going on, it was about winning championships,” Johnson says. “How are you going to duplicate this? You can’t. You need somebody who lived through it. Not somebody’s opinion. Not somebody’s ‘I think.’ Not somebody’s ‘I saw.’”

When asked if he would support a scripted project about the Showtime era if the former Lakers were properly consulted, Johnson is unsure.

“It just depends. It has to be authentic and real, and it has to be right. The way we played the game, the way we worked together as a unit… It was a show from the owner all the way down. How are you gonna do it? You can’t do it. So I don’t know what this stuff [‘Winning Time’] is, I haven’t watched it, I’m not gonna watch it. And all the guys said the same thing. Kareem, everybody. You can’t do it.”