There are certain things you just can’t help staring at: sunsets, puppies, Twitter, and the LA Lakers, for instance. There is something intrinsically compelling about the purple and gold with all of their wins, losses, tragedies, and spectacles. That’s why we’re talking, once again, about a project focused on the team and their rich and wild history, following the delicious dramatization of Winning Time and a docuseries focused on Magic Johnson’s life and times. Now we have Legacy: The True Story Of The LA Lakers, a Hulu-made 10-part docuseries from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua in his latest foray into documentary filmmaking and iconic athletes; a series with a story that spans more than 40 years encompassing the entire reign of the Buss family and mononymous legends like Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron.
Current Lakers CEO Jeannie Buss is producing, so it’d be understandable if that sparked some trepidation about whether this is the real story, unfettered by PR concerns and preciousness, but Fuqua assures that there were no guardrails from on high, telling us that every question that got asked got answered. Besides, did Michael Jordan’s involvement with The Last Dance stop it from being interesting? That one is, of course, the easiest comp for this series, though Succession also might be another fit considering the story it’s telling about its larger-than-life patriarch and his children as they try to find their way in and around his kingdom. Family does come first in this story, both the Buss family and the on-court families (quarrelsome as they have been at times) that propelled the Lakers’ multiple dynasties.
Below, Fuqua expands on the series’ focus, the enduring appeal of the Lakers story, navigating conversations about the loss of Kobe, and why comparisons to Winning Time don’t bother him.
What is it about this story that is so compelling, warranting multiple projects?
Well, it’s fascinating what Dr. Buss achieved, a man that came from very humble beginnings. The organization is worth billions of dollars, and he left an incredible legacy for his children. I think it’s the great American story, if you will. What I find most fascinating about it is if this was The Godfather, Jeanie’s Michael Corleone. She winds up getting the first chance as a female owner, and all the things she went through; family drama. All the things the players went through, off camera as well as on camera on the court. I just found it to be rich, and fascinating, and you couldn’t write a Hollywood script this complex.
Was there anything that was off limits or just pushed to the side that Jeanie [Buss] or Magic or any of the others were reluctant to talk about?
Not at all. No. We put them all on the table. Every question we asked, they answered, and we didn’t hold anything back in the context of the story; 10 episodes. We talked to the brothers; Jeanie’s family as well. We talked to her other family members, and everyone spoke their truth. It’s all on camera.
How does this differ for you from when you’re doing a scripted piece as far as your level of immersion?
Well, it depends on the project. I got involved with this two and a half years ago now, so that’s a lot more time involved in the project. You have a blueprint or map of where you want to go, what you’d like to do, and then you start talking to people. Then it starts to take you down other pathways, naturally. Stories you don’t know. It just comes down to the interviews. Documentaries are definitely different in that way where you have to be able to pivot, to quickly go get the information and do the research and do your due diligence to make sure that you’re showing the truth on camera as it’s unfolding. It’s quite different.
Are there specific ways that this is satisfying to you, this kind of storytelling, over scripted storytelling?
Yeah. You’re always surprised because you don’t know the dialogue. In a script, you know every word and you know every turn. You know where to pivot. In a documentary, you’re getting to know the characters. The goal is to go into situations and interview people you think you know, and then you discover more about them as they open up, hopefully. They tell you things, and you start to really see from the inside.
I imagine, this long in the game, that’s exciting as a challenge for someone with as much experience as you have.
Oh, yeah. I love it. You got to exercise all the muscles, right?
I’ve seen five episodes, which takes us right to the point of Shaq signing with the Lakers. How far does this go?
All the way up to pretty much now.
So, if Kyrie goes to the Lakers, then you got to film another episode covering next season. Is that the deal?
[Laughs] No. No, we’ll be done [by then]. Unfortunately. I wish it would happen so I could put it in there, but I don’t think we’ll know anything about that for a while.
Obviously, there’s going to be a large focus on Kobe, not necessarily just his playing career but his unfortunate end. What can you say about those episodes and just the emotionality of those interviews? I’m sure it’s still a very fresh wound for everyone.
Yeah. They were difficult for everyone. Long moments of silence. What do you say? You’re talking about something that, like you said, that’s very fresh, very fresh, and it’s very emotional. Those interviews are hard.
Does that extend into conversations with his family, or does it stay mostly with his on-court and business family?
Mostly, it’s just been with the team and Jeanie and Linda; the people that knew him in the Laker organization. We’re having conversations now with the family about possibly a little bit more, but we’ll see. I’m not done editing.
As you said, this is keeping you on your feet and you don’t really know where this is going to go in a lot of places with the story as you’re telling it. You know the Lakers, you know the mythos of it. What is the one thing that just knocked you out and that was really surprising to you?
I think it’s really how they all feel like they’re family. It really surprised me how they all talked about Dr. Buss. Sometimes, you hear one or two people talk about Dr. Buss or talk about an individual in a certain way, and you think, “Okay. Everyone didn’t love him like that,” but they all really came and had their own personal story. Even times when they disagreed with him and they felt like they were treated a certain way, everyone loved the man because of how he treated them. He was a unique owner. He hung out with some of the team and partied with them, and he was just sort of like a regular guy. You know what I mean? He had his feet planted on the ground. I find that fascinating. We all wish that the people we do business with, just about all of them, 99.9% of them, would have something amazing to say about us and genuinely mean it if someone asked about us.
When Winning Time, the scripted version of Jeff Pearlman’s book came out, obviously, there was some controversy with some of the stuff and the portrayals of some of the people in it, specifically Jerry West. When you’re seeing those stories break as you’re working on this, what goes through your mind?
Not much because it’s entertainment. A lot of it’s made up. A lot of it’s just untrue. Not that it’s not entertainment. Not that it’s not well done. Not that there are not extremely talented people all involved all the way around. It’s just not the truth. For me, as long as no one’s looking at that to be the definitive truth, I got no problem with it. The goal of the documentary is to tell the truth, the real story of the Lakers, the real journey, and I think there’s room for both. I don’t think there’s a problem with it. That’s just entertainment. That’s a show.
It’s such an incredible story that it defies melodrama. I remember watching the Spencer Haywood thing where he was going to kill the coach. You’re like, “There’s no way that that happened,” and you look it up, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, it’s not exactly how they portrayed it, but some shit almost went down.”
Right, you can’t make it up. If you didn’t see certain things, you’d go, “Ah, that couldn’t have happened. That can’t be true.” Then, you see the reality. Some things are close, there’s some crazy shit that happens, but, again, it’s all entertainment. This one’s really important because it is the legacy and it’s the legacy of Dr. Buss and his family, so there’s a bigger responsibility, I think. At least for me, it is a big responsibility to get it right. [But] I have an appreciation for Winning Time and the entertainment value of it.
‘Legacy: The True Story Of The LA Lakers’ is now streaming on Hulu.