Gen Z needs "Winning Time's" history lessons to understand why they enjoy the NBA now

The Celtics' Jaylen Brown wouldn't be here if Magic Johnson didn't reach the heights we see in HBO's Lakers series

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 27, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Solomon Hughes in "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" (Warrick Page/HBO)
Solomon Hughes in "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" (Warrick Page/HBO)

HBO's "Winning Time" should be required to watch for true NBA fans.

I recently talked basketball with some kids at a summer writing workshop. 

Greg, a scrappy poet, cuts everyone off in a room to scream, "LeBron, it is all about LeBron. The King would destroy everyone in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s on God!" 

"So you never heard of Michael Jordan?" I replied, "Look at your shoes; you aren't wearing LeBrons right now; they are Jordan 2's!" 

How could you not love LeBron?

The class laughed at his Chicago red and white air Jordans. Then I quickly calmed them because I am a huge LeBron James fan. He is one of the most talented basketball players in history, and no one can believe that he lived up to the hype he received coming out of high school. The dude is beyond great, and every professional athlete, or public figure in general, could learn from how he conducts himself off the court. After all he speaks out on Black issues, is a devoted and committed family man and has literally never had a scandal. How could you not love LeBron? 

These kids are all between the ages of 18 and 21, the same age I was when Michael Jordan dominated – and yes, it was hard to sell me on Dr. J having the skills to take on MJ, even though I knew that the Doctor was one of Jordan's biggest influences. The difference between me and these kids is that I took time to acknowledge history and watch films on guys like "Tiny" Nate Archibald, Walt Clyde Frazier, and the great Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. This group was prepared to consider their generation and nothing else. 

This group was prepared to consider their generation and nothing else.

"I can't lie, Professor Watkins. Videos of those guys playing back in the day look really funny," Ebony, a young essayist said. 

I agree that the game evolves. Bob Cousy would not know what to do with Allen Iverson's crossover; however, origins and roots matter. The most dangerous part about ignoring the history of basketball in America is that it erases the pioneers' blood, sweat and tears. 

"LeBron is the GOAT of his era," I told the group, "But there were other GOATs in different eras, and we can't write off the people that LeBron learned from, like Magic Johnson. Did you ever watch 'Winning Time'?" 

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers DynastyJimel Atkins, Adrien Brody, Jason Segel, Austin Aaron and DeVaughn Nixon in "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" (Warrick Page/HBO)

HBO's scripted series "Winning Time" documents the rise of the Showtime era and the beginning of the dominance of the NBA. At the center of the universe is Earvin Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), Doctor Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and Pat Riley (Adrien Brody). 

The show follows all of their unique individual storylines, and the countless amount of explosions that happen when they intersect: Magic's lady problems, Pat Riley's early uncertainties, Buss' lady problems and erratic behavior, and Abdul-Jabbar's rage against racism while working as an entertainer in a country deeply rooted in racism. 

When Magic Johnson entered the NBA in 1979, players were not multi-millionaires with huge shoe contracts, limitless disposable income and the ability to create generational wealth. The NBA was known for fights, drug addiction and its inability to maintain consistent fans. Dr. Buss saw the fledgling league as a gold mine and knew that showmanship provided a direct path to the promised land. "Winning Time" teaches us how Dr. Buss turned his franchise into a real production by implementing halftime shows, the Laker Girls and even a expensive after-the-game hangout spot for players, business tycoons and tastemakers.

 The show also teaches us how the arrival of Magic Johnson and his flashy play, in combination with Larry Bird's gritty, blue-collar hustle, not only created one of the most beautiful NBA rivals of all time but also put the nation on notice – letting sports fans know that the NBA was serious and ready to move past the old stereotypes, had real competitors, addictive storylines and the potential to be as lasting as Pro Football and Major League Baseball. 

"You should watch the show. They cover all of this," I continue to the group, "Anybody knows how much money Jaylen Brown signed for?" 

"304 million!" a kid blurted in response to the young 26-year-old Boston Celtics forward, who just signed the biggest deal in NBA history, a $304 million, five-year contract. 

"Magic Johnson had the biggest contract back in his day, too," I laughed, "It was a $25 million contract to be paid over 25 years. At the time, the deal was mind-blowing, just like the Brown deal is now. But what those two guys have in common is that they both get to thank their elders for setting a precedent and making those milestones available, which is why you should watch the show."

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Basketball Commentary Hbo Jaylen Brown Lakers Michael Jordan Nba Tv Winning Time