SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the Season 2 premiere of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” now streaming on Max.
The Los Angeles Lakers are on top of the world at the start of “Winning Time” Season 2. It doesn’t take long before they find themselves back on their asses.
After taking down the Philadelphia 76ers to win the 1980 NBA Finals, it’s no surprise that a championship would inflate some egos in Inglewood. Basking in the glow of a city’s adoration, Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) finds himself a media darling, fielding fawning reporters that regularly overrun the Lakers locker room. It’s enough hot air to irk Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) — who also hasn’t shaken the awkward disappointment of suffering a sprained ankle during the Finals. The team’s de facto leader watched from home as Johnson took over his position at center to clinch the championship.
The clash between young ambition and veteran authority comes to a head during a roughhousing scrimmage at the Lakers’ training camp. After the coaches attempt to call it a day so Abdul-Jabbar can rest his ankle, Johnson presses for another match-up between everybody else, asking — maybe even goading — his older teammate to let the new blood play on. Abdul-Jabbar is off the bench instantly, sprinting ahead of Johnson to block his fast-break dunk. Things escalate and the game ends with Abdul-Jabbar suffering a scratched cornea. It’s not exactly the last time that a personality clash behind closed doors cast a shadow on a championship team.
“Quincy really tried to dunk on me. We were both in character and I was still able to block the shot. The benefit of playing basketball is the physicality helps ramp up the tension,” Hughes tells Variety, recalling the intensity to shooting the sequence. “Here we are at training camp again and now Magic’s going to try to publicly proclaim that he’s better off without me. It gets out of control.”
Johnson comes out on top, but it’s not long before he plummets back to Earth. When he takes the court early in the season, the young player imagines himself alone in the spotlight, sweating and shooting as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” plays overhead. He’s talented. He’s virile. And then he tears the cartilage in his left knee, dooming him to a sophomore slump spent on the sidelines.
The first episode of “Winning Time” Season 2 positions Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar as foils, and not only on the court. While Abdul-Jabbar reorients his priorities after welcoming a child with his partner, Johnson begins the episode dodging that same responsibility, hiring a legal team to handle an old flame that he’s knocked up.
In interviews conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike, Isaiah and Hughes spoke with Variety about the rivalry between their characters.
Quincy, in interviews for Season 1 you shared that you tried not to research Magic Johnson’s life ahead of the events depicted in the show. Did you take the same approach for Season 2?
QUINCY ISAIAH: Yeah, went up to ’84 this time. Of course, I knew more already. But the depth of what actually happened in each of the players’ lives, I wanted to wait until I got to that next chapter to really get into the minutiae.
What surprised you while researching for this season?
ISAIAH: That Magic had a baby that wasn’t Cookie’s. It was a lot of things this year that I didn’t know about. When you think of Magic, you don’t think about all those little details, but those details make up the great businessman that he was and the great father that he becomes. Those small doubts early in your life help you become a better person later. Those were the things that I was able to learn, but also admire about him.
After winning a championship, both Magic and Kareem start this season very defeated.
ISAIAH: I wasn’t expecting that. I was hearing it from Max Borenstein, our showrunner, and the writers, but they allow me to go to such internal turmoil. Magic is very hopeful this season, but he’s very self-loathing.
SOLOMON HUGHES: You have to understand Kareem’s history as a player — six MVPs, a few seasons away from breaking the all-time scoring record, like the Mount Everest of records, and doing it primarily shooting two-pointers. He’s talked about his body and the beatings that he took when people were trying to figure out how to stop him. There’s this sense of, “I’ve earned this” — not the spotlight, but “I’ve got the scars, I have the stripes.” Then this media darling comes in: a great player who also is just nice to look at. He has an incredible smile. Reconciling all those things is where we find Kareem.
There’s a popular notion that the tallest basketball players have the most trouble capturing media affection.
HUGHES: I’ve heard people say this — Michael Jordan was tall, but when you put him next to a seven-footer he looks more average-sized. That’s what makes him relatable and makes people think, “I can maybe do that.” Obviously, you can’t do what Michael Jordan did, but there’s no chance you’re going to do what Shaquille O’Neal did. You’re not going to grow to seven-foot-one and be 380 pounds of muscle.
Solomon, when I spoke to you last year, you mentioned that you were working as a coach for your daughter’s basketball team. I wanted to check on how that’s been going.
HUGHES: We made it to the championship! The semifinal game was one of the greatest experiences because the girls were so excited. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the finals, but it’s beyond that. Maya Angelou says, “People will never forget how you made them feel.” I just hope the girls remember us as coaches who loved them and were excited for them.
Are you running it back?
HUGHES: She’s done with basketball, I think. She’s on track and field now, so… I don’t know what that says about me as a coach.
This interview has been edited and condensed.