‘Winning Time’ Showrunner Max Borenstein On How He Cracked The Story Of The Lakers While Also Making It Insanely Entertaining

It’s truly remarkable how entertaining Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty turned out to be. At this point, I’ve seen eight episodes and, honestly, I could watch 100. A huge reason for this, as showrunner Max Borenstein confirms, is the work of John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, who at the beginning of the series buys the Lakers and demands the team draft Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah, and even both of these aspects are very complicated and almost don’t work out). So many truly crazy things happen during the course of this series about the beginnings of the Lakers dynasty, but Dr. Buss kind of becomes our, the viewer’s, pal. He’ll often break the fourth wall and talk straight to us. And it gets to a point, well, why wouldn’t he talk to us? He is, after all, our pal.

Another interesting aspect is Jack McKinney (played by Tracy Letts), who replaces Jerry West as head coach. When you think of the Lakers head coach from that era, you think of Pat Riley (played by Adrien Brody, surprisingly, at least at first, as kind of a sad sack). But McKinney starts out that first season as the head coach and, today, is almost forgotten. His story alone could be its own series. And, ahead, Borenstein explains why he hopes Winning Time might restore some of the credit that’s due to McKinney.

(At the time of this interview I was supposed to speak to both Borenstein and fellow producer and writer, Rodney Barnes at the same time for a set period of time. What happened was, right before the interview, it was changed to speaking to both separately, with one half of the allotted time being used for Borenstein and the other half for Barnes. I mention this because at the end of this interview I ran out of time and make a comment how I’ll save the question for Barnes. Which I did and that interview will publish next week.)

How did you crack this story? This really could just be people in a boardroom going, “maybe we should draft Magic Johnson.” As opposed to being unbelievably entertaining.

Well, I love to hear that. I mean, the truth is the whole story is about the way in which Magic Johnson, Jerry Buss, a whole group of people transformed basketball. From a sport that was the third, fourth, fifth tier sport in the country into the thing that was the most exciting thing to watch. And they did it on the court with this incredible fast-break style that Magic was the point guard of, that Jack McKinney initiated, that all these characters were part of. Jerry Buss created this show around the sport, a way of presenting sports as entertainment. And that’s what this moment was about.

They made sports into entertainment. And in doing that, they transformed the way that sports impacts culture at large – from fashion, aesthetics at every level. And so it felt like we absolutely had to find a way, totally, to bring to our show the same kind of energy, the same kind of showmanship. And that’s really how we landed on things like talking to the camera or cutaways to animated sequences. For all of those things, it was about having a freewheeling style that was similar, in its own weird way, to the freewheeling style of the game.

I always knew who Jerry Buss was, but I didn’t know his personality that well. As you mentioned, with John C. Reilly talking to the camera, after a few episodes, as a viewer, it starts to feel like, oh, my new pal, Dr. Jerry Buss, is going to take me through another hour of this wild world.

Yeah, it’s funny you should say that because John C. Reilly, it’s hard to imagine, honestly, anybody filling those shoes so brilliantly, but he looks at it that way. He sees himself as the kind of your escort into this world. And he brings such a level of charisma and charm and humanity and depth of emotion at the same time, to this character who’s larger than life. He’s a PT Barnum. He’s a very American success story who came from nothing, has a dream and the drive to accomplish it, and a great deal of charm along the way.

Speaking of that, obviously a lot was made about the situation with Will Ferrell, but now that I’ve seen this show I can’t imagine anyone else playing Jerry Buss. And it makes so much sense why it had to be John C. Reilly.

I can’t wait for audiences to watch John. And I mean, I love John in every role he’s done for his 80 odd movies, but I think still there’s something he’s bringing to this that’s special, that we’ve never seen before.

You mentioned Jack McKinney. There’s literally there’s an episode titled “Who the Fuck is Jack McKinney?” I think there is kind of a misconception that Pat Riley just took over the Lakers and off they went. And you portray Pat Riley, at first, as a sad sack. And then Jack McKinney’s this genius who comes in and then this thing happens to him. It feels like McKinney got kind of a raw deal with his place in history.

Well, I mean, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but assuming that you’ll treat it with kid gloves in that respect. Yeah, the story of Jack McKinney is something I didn’t know when I, even as a Lakers fan, first read Jeff Pearlman’s book. And he was the visionary who started it all and had the initial conception of what this sort of fast break offense could look like and brought it into being. And for reasons that I won’t divulge, has been largely forgotten from the history. I hope that one of the things that our show gets to do is bring him back into the public’s attention, or into the public’s attention in a way that he’s deserved.

At the same time, the story of Pat Riley is every bit as counterintuitive to what we’ve come to expect. We know Pat Riley, the Armani-clad icon of ’80s. The fashion and sex symbol that he became and has kind of remained. What people don’t know is that, at this moment in time when we begin, he was a washed up NBA player who was wandering the beaches of Southern California wondering what the next act of his life would look like. And it was not obvious or inevitable that he would become the Pat Riley that we remember. Because how many NBA players retire and never become these iconic figures?

It’s a similar thing with Jerry West. Jerry West is one of the most famous and beloved and respected figures in the league as a general manager. He’s arguably one of the greatest general managers, if not the greatest general manager ever in the game, or in any game. At this moment in time, he’d never been a general manager. What he was, was a retired player who hated coaching and who didn’t know what his future was going to hold. So one of the fun things about the show is that even though people think they know what happens, and maybe know where it ends, there’s a lot along the way that’s surprising and compelling.

I was going to ask you about this Jerry Tarkanian and the mob story, because all of that is insane. But I’m out of time, so I’ll save that for Rodney Barnes…

Excellent. Yeah, ask Rodney!

[And we did ask executive producer and writer Rodney Barnes about the Jerry Tarkanian story and much more, coming soon.]

‘Winning Time’ premieres March 6th on HBO and HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.