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    ‘Winning Time’: When the NBA Went Pop

    A new HBO drama chronicles the 1980s Lakers, whose fluid style and Hollywood flair changed the game and the culture. An N.B.A. writer takes account.When asked to describe the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, the actor DeVaughn Nixon, 38, paused for a moment. “Stylized,” he said. Then he rattled off more words: “Fast. Cool. Fun. Sexy.”That’s not how most sports franchises are typically described. But the Lakers of that era were built differently.The Showtime Lakers, as the team was known, set a new template for how professional basketball came to be viewed on and off the floor. The team crossed over into pop culture consciousness in a way no N.B.A. franchise had. It spurred discussions about the place of money, race, celebrity and sex in the game. With their brash new-money owner, Jerry Buss, the Lakers challenged what was then the status quo — which included poor attendance and ratings. They helped save the league.They also made for great TV, both in their time and as the basis for an equally flashy new HBO docudrama, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” in which Nixon plays his own father, the point guard Norm Nixon. Episode 1 of the 10-part first season debuts Sunday.Created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, the series is based on the book “Showtime” by the journalist Jeff Pearlman. But the chatty, fast-paced, fourth-wall-breaking style of “Winning Time” is signature Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Don’t Look Up”), who executive produced and directed the pilot.“It was a story that I thought I knew the basics of,” McKay, a lifelong basketball fan who hosted a podcast last year about the N.B.A., said in an email. “I thought it was mostly about Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. Buss.”“I had no idea until I read that book what a complicated, layered story it was,” he added. “It was like ‘Brothers Karamazov,’ only about basketball.”DeVaughn Nixon, left, plays his father, Norm Nixon, in the series. He said he hadn’t truly understood the impact of the Showtime Lakers until he got a bit older.Warrick Page/HBO“Winning Time” isn’t the first chronicle of the 1980s N.B.A., a seminal period for the sport and the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Based on the eight episodes provided to journalists in advance, “Winning Time” tells the story in a tone befitting those Lakers teams. Cuts are frenetic, needles drop hard, and characters frequently deliver commentary and exposition straight to the camera. Grainy film and glitchy video mix with real and faux archival footage, adding to the vintage vibes.Much like the Johnson-era Lakers, it’s an unconventional show that doesn’t pretend to be subtle.The legendThe accomplishments of the Showtime Lakers have become the stuff of lore. The Lakers won five championships from 1980 to 1988, one of the most successful runs of any franchise in N.B.A. history. Their main rivals, the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, won three in that same period. (This N.B.A. writer grew up a Celtics fan and was exposed to the rivalry out of the womb.) Together, those teams produced some of the greatest basketball players the world had ever seen.DeVaughn said he hadn’t understood the importance of the Showtime Lakers until he was older and on a trip to Positano, Italy, well after his father had retired.“I come back from the bathroom and Michael Jordan’s sitting down next to us, and he’s just chopping it up with my dad,” Nixon said. Jordan, he recalled, called his father a “bad boy on the court.”Solomon Hughes, right, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The rivalry between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics was in many ways a rivalry between opposing views on what basketball should be. Warrick Page/HBO“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, all right, cool.’” Nixon added. “He was a part of something.”Jordan wasn’t alone in his admiration. Eighties basketball, particularly the Lakers, had a cultural and political poignancy that has influenced the game and the world at large ever since. One could draw a straight line, for example, from the political activism of Abdul-Jabbar, who played for the Lakers from 1975 to 1989, to that of LeBron James. (Something that hasn’t survived: Abdul-Jabbar’s deadly skyhook, which has rarely been seen in this century.)And today’s fashion parades, sexy dancers and boisterous lineup introductions — with their pyrotechnics, laser light shows and T-shirt guns — owe a lot to Buss (played in the series by John C. Reilly), the transformational owner who purchased the Lakers in 1979.Buss helped usher in an era that put celebrities courtside and expanded the fan experience. Celebrities had long been connected to Los Angeles sports teams — Doris Day and Jack Nicholson were already frequent sightings at Laker games — but Buss ratcheted up celebrity attendance, a dynamic that still exists.Solomon Hughes, who plays Abdul-Jabbar, said that “the uniqueness of that professional sports team in the backdrop of Hollywood really just changed how we how we look at sports.”The Lakers were nicknamed “Showtime” was because of a nightclub called the Horn, which Buss frequented. There, a singer would start a show by saying, “It’s showtime,” and Buss adopted the phrase to describe his approach to the Lakers. A frequent guest of the Playboy Mansion who held a Ph.D in chemistry and sported disco lapels and an impressive comb-over, he was intent on marrying Hollywood glamour with high-quality basketball — a significant break from the standard mold of how N.B.A. teams operated.The rivalryThat standard was strongly influenced by the Celtics, who dominated the N.B.A. in the two decades before Buss bought the Lakers. Red Auerbach, the former coach and general manager of the Celtics (played by Michael Chiklis), detested, for example, the idea of cheerleaders at games; Boston didn’t have them until 2006. Buss was an interloper, wreaking havoc on the sanctity of basketball.But Buss wanted more than just a glitzy experience surrounding the game. He wanted the basketball itself to be flashy. That made Johnson’s availability in the 1979 N.B.A. draft all the more serendipitous. Johnson played the game with an eye for fast-paced showmanship, frequently whipping behind-the-back, no-look bullets to teammates as if he had a third eye.“He wanted to put on a show,” Quincy Isaiah, the 26-year-old who portrays Johnson, said. “But he definitely wanted to make everybody in that arena feel good while watching, including his teammates.”Not everyone felt good, especially outside Los Angeles. Chiklis, a native of Lowell, Mass., grew up a fan of the Celtics, a franchise with a diametrically opposed view on how basketball was supposed to be.“I had just about as much hate and ire for them as I did for the Yankees,” Chiklis said, adding, “You couldn’t be in Boston at that time and not get sucked into the vortex of that rivalry.”The rivalry had a racial component, too. Bird was a transcendent player like Johnson, but some wondered whether he would have received the same attention had he been Black. Dennis Rodman, one of the game’s greatest rebounders, said in 1987 that Bird won three straight Most Valuable Player awards “because he was white,” adding, “Nobody gives Magic Johnson credit.” Isiah Thomas, Rodman’s teammate on the Detroit Pistons, agreed, adding that if Bird “was Black, he’d be just another guy,” setting off a furor.As the Lakers and Celtics rivalry evolved, interest in the league grew and more games were shown live on TV. (The rise of ESPN, which debuted in 1979, also helped.) Johnson became a household name, especially as the Lakers kept winning.John C. Reilly, left, (with Isaiah, center, and Jason Clarke, as Jerry West) plays Jerry Buss, the flashy, new-money owner who helped usher the N.B.A. into a new era. Warrick Page/HBOThe celebrityBefore the 1980s, the N.B.A. was a struggling league with low ratings, and the networks wouldn’t give it prime slots. One Finals game in 1977 tipped off at noon Pacific. Many games were aired on tape delay.The Lakers helped turn the N.B.A. from a fringe sports league into a titan, which set the stage for Jordan and, later, Kobe Bryant to help make the game a global phenomenon. As McKay put it, the Lakers “changed fashion, music, the way people behaved, the way they spoke.”“It’s an explosion that just rarely happens in any form of culture,” he continued, “let alone sports.”Along with Bird, Johnson became a star unlike any basketball player before. He and Bird appeared in TV commercials together and clocked huge endorsement deals. When Johnson — a heterosexual athlete who was averaging 12.5 assists and 19.4 points a game — announced in 1991 that he had H.I.V. and was retiring, it sent shock waves around the world. Pau Gasol, a native of Spain, said he had been so inspired by Johnson’s news conference that he vowed as a boy to find a cure for H.I.V. Instead, he became an N.B.A. All-Star, who helped lead the Lakers to multiple championships.Some of the key figures in the story have said publicly that they aren’t happy with the show, including Johnson. (Neither the central figures portrayed nor the Lakers organization were involved in the production.) In an email, a spokeswoman for Abdul-Jabbar described the series as “based on a fictional account taken from a book” written by “an outsider,” adding that Abdul-Jabbar had not seen the show and that “the story is best told by those who lived it.”Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Lakers and the daughter of Jerry Buss, who died in 2013, is executive producing a documentary series about the franchise for Hulu, set to debut this year. Johnson is developing one about his own life for Apple. (Spokespeople for Johnson and the Lakers declined to comment.)“If I was Kareem to Magic or any of those guys, and I looked at it personally, like they’re telling my story, it would probably feel weird to me, too,” Rodney Barnes, an executive producer and writer of the show, said. But the creative team wanted to tell a story about everything that period encompassed, he added — about not only the Lakers but also “America as a whole.”And their story would hardly be the last take on the Showtime Lakers, Barnes acknowledged.“There’s still a lot of meat on that bone,” he said. More

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    If Luka Looks Familiar, You Must Have Watched Larry Bird

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }The NBA SeasonVirus Hotspots in the N.B.A.LeBron and Anthony DavisThe N.B.A. Wanted HerMissing Klay ThompsonKobe the #GirlDadAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storymarc stein on basketball‘This Is Larry Bird Reincarnated’Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks is often compared to Bird, the Boston Celtics great. When he’s hitting game-winners, as he did on Tuesday, this can seem about right.Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks can pass, shoot and rebound — a varied skill-set that many liken to that of Larry Bird, the Celtics great.Credit…Tony Gutierrez/Associated PressFeb. 24, 2021, 12:41 p.m. ETCedric Maxwell played for six seasons and won two championships alongside Larry Bird in Boston. He was named the most valuable player of the N.B.A. finals in 1981. So you listen intently when someone like Maxwell refers to Bird in assessing the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic.“You can quote me: This is Larry Bird reincarnated,” Maxwell said.Maxwell told me this last August, after watching Doncic beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs with an icy 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer that has been replayed over and over. He said it again this week as he prepared for a radio broadcast of the Celtics’ game on Tuesday at Dallas — before Doncic beat Boston with two 3-point daggers in the final minute of the Mavericks’ 110-107 victory.“This would be Larry Bird of the 2020s,” Maxwell said, “exactly how he would play now.”Maxwell’s latter statement has been my primary interest in the relationship between these two whenever the subject comes up. As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, who romanticizes those days above all others in N.B.A. history, I like to imagine Bird dropping into today’s game somehow and playing Doncic-style — with the ball in his hands so much more to probe and create and the freedom to shoot 10 3-pointers per game.In his 13 seasons with the Celtics, Bird averaged at least three 3-point attempts per game just three times. He was a true forward in a more bruising era, flanked in the Boston frontcourt by the larger Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. While Doncic, at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, is built similarly to Bird (6-9, 220 pounds), he has been a triple-double-minded point guard almost from the minute he set foot in the Mavericks’ practice facility in September 2018.Beyond positional differences, comparisons that measure on-the-rise prospects or even emerging greats like Doncic against one of the game’s giants are invariably tricky — no matter how seemingly common it has become to link white players to Bird. Making such comparisons is one of the most instinctual aspects of basketball fandom and, at the same time, that reflex can put too much focus on the immeasurable. For all the similarities you can see in their ability to pass, rebound, shoot from distance and control the game, Doncic and Bird are limited edition, one-of-one originals.White N.B.A. players are often compared to Larry Bird, but Luka Doncic does share some of Bird’s do-it-all talent.Credit…Dave Tenenbaum/Associated PressYet Maxwell has a gift for making convincing cases. I am stubbornly measured and tend to resist the comparison game. He’s no holds barred and inevitably made me curious. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is another rising franchise player who is often likened to Bird, but Maxwell leaned into the notion that Doncic “is a carbon copy of Larry.” After an association with the N.B.A. that has spanned more than 40 years, he maintains that “comparison is good” — daunting (and downright damaging) as it has been for too many failed Next Jordans to list.“Luka is better than Larry was at that age,” Maxwell said of Doncic, who turns 22 on Sunday. “The biggest thing is that there’s an arrogance, a cockiness, that Luka has that is directly out of the bloodstream of Larry Bird.”Doncic turned pro at 16 with the Spanish power Real Madrid, where he developed that maturity beyond his years. Bird was 22 when he scored 14 points in his N.B.A. debut.Another key contrast: Doncic didn’t land with a franchise as close to title contention as Bird and, in Year 3, finds himself in his most challenging stretch since he reached the N.B.A.After the buzzer-beater that toppled the Clippers and so much more from Doncic in last summer’s bubble at Walt Disney World, he began the season among the favorites for Most Valuable Player Award honors, with Dallas similarly expected to push for a top-four seed in the West. At just 15-15 after Tuesday’s victory, Doncic’s Mavericks would probably be branded the league’s most disappointing team if not for the Celtics, who are 15-16 after blowing a 24-point lead on Sunday in New Orleans and then losing to Dallas.Doncic remains as brilliant as ever, averaging 28.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game, but numerous issues recently dragged the Mavericks into a 3-10 funk. They made improvement on defense an off-season priority and promptly tumbled to 25th in the league in defensive efficiency. They have slumped to 24th in 3-point shooting. There have been numerous coronavirus-related lineup disruptions: Four key rotation players not named Doncic (Kristaps Porzingis, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber) have missed at least nine games each. Porzingis’s mobility after off-season knee surgery has been slow to reload, especially defensively, and the team misses the chemistry influence of the veteran J.J. Barea, who now plays in Spain.At the Mavericks’ low point, they had lost 12 consecutive one-possession games before Doncic and Golden State’s Stephen Curry staged an irresistible duel on Feb. 6 from which Dallas escaped with a 134-132 victory. Doncic said afterward that it was the first time in a long time that he played with sufficient joy and said he needed “to have more fun playing the game to be who I was before.” The win launched a promising 4-1 surge before the Mavericks were forced into a week off by a horrendous winter storm that ravaged Texas for days.Doncic’s body language and complaints to referees have been talking points all season. He acknowledged in a recent interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that he has to improve his deportment with officials, saying that losing “makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Doncic said last week that Portland’s Damian Lillard, whose team has exceeded expectations despite key injuries, deserved a starting spot in the All-Star Game “more than me.”The onus is on Dallas management to put the right pieces around Doncic. McHale and Parish arrived in Bird’s second season, giving the Celtics a Hall of Fame threesome that provided the backbone for teams that won three championships and made five trips to the N.B.A. finals in seven seasons. The Mavericks’ quest is moving slower.Yet even if they get it right, that will demand more from their centerpiece.“Larry had another gear that I’m waiting to see Luka come up with, and that’s the leadership role,” Maxwell said.Doncic still has room to grow as an on-court leader for a Dallas team still finding its way. He has been criticized at times for his body language.Credit…Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports, via ReutersDoncic, of course, is not even the first Maverick from Europe to be relentlessly compared to Bird. Dirk Nowitzki, who changed the power forward position forever with his ability to face the basket, shoot the 3-pointer with ease and draw big men out of the paint, was described for two decades as a 7-foot Bird.“I was always super humbled and honored to be compared to Larry Legend, but I never tried to think about it that much,” Nowitzki said Monday. “I never tried to live up to his career and put pressure on myself that way. I tried to focus more on paving my own way and finding what works for me.”Doncic is equally modest when reporters bring up Bird or other well-known players he has passed on his way to tie for No. 12 in career triple-doubles (32). He naturally wants to be his own man and leave his own legacy. But this is basketball. Resistance is futile because comparisons are what we do — constantly.The season was one game old when Maxwell got swept up in Luka mania. After a cheeky Doncic assist in the paint to Finney-Smith that flummoxed Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton and the rest of the Suns’ defense, Maxwell tweeted: “Hello Larry Joe Bird. Wow. I received one or two of those passes in my day.”Because of travel restrictions for N.B.A. broadcasters during the coronavirus pandemic, Maxwell was forced to call Tuesday’s game from afar alongside Sean Grande. They were in a studio in Boston when Doncic delivered those two very Bird-like clutch shots that made Maxwell look smart.“When you go by one name, that tells you who you are in this league,” Maxwell said. “All you’ve got to say is Luka.”The Scoop @TheSteinLineNumbers GameJordan Clarkson is one of only seven players to score 40 off the bench multiple times since the 1983-84 season.Credit…Michael Conroy/Associated Press3In three days, Golden State’s Stephen Curry will commemorate two notable anniversaries. Saturday marks eight years since Curry’s unforgettable 54-point game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27, 2013 — and it also marks five years since his audacious shot from steps past midcourt to beat Oklahoma City in overtime on Feb. 27, 2016.135On Friday, Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday becomes eligible for a maximum contract extension worth $135 million over four years. The Bucks acquired Holiday from New Orleans in November in a trade that helped persuade Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $228 million extension in December, but Holiday’s importance has been no less apparent this month. Milwaukee recently lost five consecutive games while Holiday was sidelined by the league’s health and safety protocols to fall to No. 3 in the East.5Since joining the Nets, James Harden has clearly been trying to play the more well-rounded game many skeptics said he could no longer stomach. Harden leads the league at 11.1 assists per game and has taken 20 or more shots in just five of his first 18 games as a Net. He averaged at least 20 shots per game in each of his last three full seasons in Houston.12Jimmy Butler has missed 12 of Miami’s 31 games, which undoubtedly factored into Eastern Conference coaches deciding not to select him as an All-Star reserve. It was harsh to see the coaches go that route, given that Butler is averaging a robust 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game when he does play. It was doubly so because Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who were selected as starters through voting that includes fans, players and media members, have missed 14 (Durant) and 10 (Irving) of the Nets’ 33 games.40Utah’s Jordan Clarkson recently became just the seventh player since 1983-84 to record multiple 40-point games off the bench, according to Stathead. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Lou Williams tops the list with five, followed by J.R. Smith with three. Clarkson is the only active player besides Williams with at least two such games; Ben Gordon, Al Harrington, Nate Robinson and Nick Young are the others with two.Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to reading the main story More