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The late novelist and screenwriter Gore Vidal observed that it’s not what things are that matter so much as how they are perceived. The media supplies stories that the public accepts, at times literally, as the gospel truth. Through eye and ear, Vidal said, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience.
Which is the problem with HBO’s new Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a campy, mean-spirited fiction about the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers. The show’s paradox is that it prides itself on being faithful to the facts, and yet — between the formulaic script and stick-figure cartoon characters — reality seldom intrudes.
Hiding behind the disclaimer “this series is a dramatization,” Winning Time imagines itself a “satire” that treats pretty much everyone with equal odium, covers pretty much everything with equal ordure. Pro basketball players are greedy braggarts and narcissists; pro basketball owners, ruthless bigots and hedonists.
Of all the athletes and executives shamed and ridiculed in the first two episodes, the most brutal — and gratuitous — character assassination was reserved for Jerry West (played in the series by Jason Clarke), the universally beloved former Lakers player, coach and general manager known as Mr. Clutch. In the series opener, which aired on March 6, his character seemed to be modeled on Yosemite Sam — a boozy, impulsive hothead who steamrollered anyone in his path, angrily snapped a golf club over his knee and stormed away to curse out a colleague, and chucked his 1969 NBA Finals MVP trophy through his office window in a fit of frustration.
Never mind that West is a health nut who has always shied away from alcohol. Never mind he’s not just a gentleman but a gentle man who prides himself on treating others with grace and compassion. And never mind that his old office at the “Fabulous Forum” didn’t have windows. Indeed, none of the arena’s basketball offices did. I ought to know. I was there.
As a former player agent who is now vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons, I have known West for more than 40 years. During that time, I have observed, negotiated and socialized with him. In all of our dealings, he has been courteous, respectful, generous and self-deprecating. He’s never once lost his temper. He’s always heard me out. Many of the players I represented sought his counsel, both professionally and personally. Having battled depression during his entire adult life, West has a deep awareness of the suffering of others, coupled with the wish to relieve it. Sure, he can be moody. But when frustrated, he doesn’t lash out. He withdraws into himself.
In his 2011 memoir West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, he wrote about his father, an oil company machine operator, who beat him repeatedly. At 12, West kept a shotgun under his bed and threatened to use it on his old man if the abuse didn’t end. Today, at 83, he’s still haunted by a sense that he’d let his college down by losing the national championship in 1959, still blames himself that, during the 1960s, his Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics six times in the NBA finals. “I have a hole in my heart,” he conceded, “a hole that can never be filled.”
Fans of Winning Time defend the show by saying nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And it’s true that, used deftly, satire is a powerful tool to deflate and diminish the powerful, to take them down a peg or two. That’s the power of satire. But Winning Time is less satire than bullying. Though the disclaimer is designed to shield against the possibility of legal action for libel, it’s not a license to damage the reputation that West spent a lifetime building.
The depiction of Mr. Clutch is cruel, dishonest and staggeringly insensitive.
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