Rodney Barnes is a producer on Winning Time and a credited writer on the next nine episodes of the series. So there’s no one better to talk to about diving into these characters than Barnes. And as he says, it’s tricky, because we don’t always see flattering representations of these people, many of whom are still very much alive. To the point where, and I did mean this as a compliment, I could see just about every single living person depicted in Winning Time not being happy about something. Is Barnes worried about getting some angry phone calls? Not really, because, as he explains, he really did do the best he can to capture them as human beings.
Also, I asked Barnes about two specific scenes and how true they are: Without giving too much away, in an upcoming episode the Lakers pursue UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and it turns out the mob isn’t happy about that idea. And, of course, did Kareem really tell the kid from Airplane! to fuck off?
So I was just talking to Max and was about to ask about the Jerry Tarkanian episode. I’ve never heard that before. That really happened?
It really happened.
The mob basically said you can’t take this job?
Yeah. I don’t want to give away the big reveal at the end. It really was… yes. Yes, that really happened.
There’s so much in this series that you think you kind of know the story, did that happen to you while researching?
It did. When you look at the Jack McKinney story…
I knew of Jack, but I did not know that Jack basically revolutionized the way basketball was played, that modern way. I came from an era when I actually played the game of basketball that was very traditional. If you tried to dunk, if you did all of this stuff, it was seen as showboating. And the way Jack McKinney was able to infuse his ideas into the game and make that running style a regular thing – and you look at how fast the NBA goes right now. For a guy who contributed to all of that stuff and is basically forgotten, to me that’s the tragedy of Jack McKinney.
It feels like he got a raw deal, not just through history, but the team, too.
Yes. Yes. That’s true. I think that’s another story that could be told in a completely different way. But for a guy who contributed so much and to not necessarily be recognized by the team in a major way, it’s kind of sad. But then again, I look at a character like Spencer Haywood as well. And when I look at the modern NBA and how guys like LeBron and Kevin Durant and all these guys can move around from team to team, a lot of that was because of Spencer Haywood.
In regards to Spencer Haywood, the player I kept thinking of was Colin Kaepernick…
He’s told, hey, you pissed off these white owners. They don’t forget, and they won’t let you play anymore. And it kind of hits like, well, that’s still happening.
And you had a different type of owner at the time. You had more of a Jack Kent Cooke guy and really conservative guys who looked at their team as their property. And they didn’t necessarily like guys like Spencer Haywood who were kind of rabble-rousers. And then you look at a Dr. Buss who embodied the modern owner. He fraternized with the players. He got to know them as people. They were his friends, way different than the guys that came prior.
Who was the most difficult character to capture? I have a guess.
I’m going to say Kareem.
Okay. That was my guess.
I’m going to say Kareem because the way that we start his journey – with him being kind of surly in the beginning, and to where his journey ends up – it’s hard to do that in a nuanced way without making a judgment. Because you’re still telling the story of a guy you don’t know, and you don’t want to do anything disparaging to anyone’s character in this because we love these guys. This is all out of appreciation and really being a fan of theirs. But when you’re going on a journey of an arc, and you’re trying to get to a place where you get to know this guy, and you’re telling the facts of what really happened, being able to kind of walk on that thin ice of not going too far in one direction or the other is the thing that’s always difficult.
There’s a big argument between Kareem and Magic I thought was just so well done because they both have good points. They’re both kind of right.
Yeah, and the stuff that’s under it is highly charged as well. It’s not just about basketball. Ideologically, they were so opposed to one another, where you have a guy who thinks it should be this way, and you’ve got a guy coming in that plays it a different way. And again, it speaks to the development of both Quincy Isaiah who plays Magic and Solomon Hughes who plays Kareem – two guys that had never really acted before just raising their chops from being green, for lack of a better word, to really bringing some stellar stuff to the screen.
Did that Airplane!, Kareem scene really happen where he tells the kid to fuck off?
I will say that it actually happened.
Aw, that poor kid. He loved Kareem.
Yes. What do you do? What do you do? What can you do?
What an experience that kid must have had on Airplane! with all these weird jokes being thrown in his face, and then that happens.
That’s the punctuation. That’s the stamp.
You mentioned trying to develop these characters and you’re trying to do basically right by them. Have you heard from anyone? Because, and I mean as a compliment, I could see almost every character in this, if they are still alive, being mad at you. Which means you’re getting to some sort of truth probably.
Only Norm Nixon, who I happen to know in real life.
He’s a friend, and hopefully he’s still a friend, and since his son is playing him, it’s hard to keep the secret when your son is playing you. So he was privy to information along the way, and I hope he likes what he sees when he finally sees the show.
Who would you be most worried about that you might hear from? Like if someone’s says, “Hey, Magic Johnson just called” would think that would be a positive or negative conversation?
Here’s the thing. It’s not so much of their reaction to me. I would hope that they would look at the show and see how much work we put into really capturing them as human beings. If they’re angry, I get it, because if someone was telling the story of my life, and I wasn’t a part of that storytelling, that would probably irk me and be a little weird. We don’t do anything, I believe, that is disparaging or in any way desecrates their legacy as players or people. We’re fans.
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