HBO’s “Winning Time” executive producer Salli Richardson-Whitfield has a quiet understanding with many of the figures depicted in the series that chronicles the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty.
“I know a lot of these players,” Richardson-Whitfield told Front Office Sports. “They are friends of mine. Through the years, I’ve played golf with them. So, yeah, I think some of them know I’m doing the show and they just don’t even speak of it and I don’t bring it up. I know it’s not something they’re happy with.”
The brainchild of Adam McKay and Max Borenstein, “Winning Time” doesn’t gloss over the truth — even if it’s often dramatized.
Based on journalist and author Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime,” it’s the kind of content that has become increasingly rare. The series depicts promiscuity, infighting, drug use, and even throwing a chair through a window — the latter an over-the-top portrayal of former player and GM Jerry West by actor Jason Clarke that led West to threaten a lawsuit during last year’s Season 1.
Meanwhile, current and former athletes have played an integral role in how their stories are told — and what bits are left out — in recent years. Derek Jeter’s longtime agent Casey Close, for example, co-produced last year’s ESPN doc “The Captain,” which detailed the former New York Yankees shortstop’s career.
“I thought the Jeter documentary — which was Jeter-approved and -endorsed — was boring,” Pearlman told FOS. “When ‘Winning Time’ came out, you had guys like Magic saying, ‘If you want the true story, come to the source.’ The truth of the matter is that’s no more true or less true because you’re also giving your biased perspective and you’re also giving your slant. You want to be seen a certain way in a lot of ways. I think it’s less honest to be honest.”
Jeter also created The Players’ Tribune. Tom Brady and Michael Strahan co-founded Religion of Sports, a production company that has produced several documentaries. Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe are behind A Touch More, a production company that launched last year.
“What athlete Twitter feed is actually interesting?” Pearlman said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh they don’t need the media anymore because athletes now can reach their fans directly.’ But what are they actually telling their fans? LeBron [James] has Taco Tuesday with his kids. That’s cool, but that doesn’t tell me very much.”
Richardson-Whitfield knows firsthand her series has ruffled some current and former members of the Lakers organization.
“I know Byron Scott,” said Richardson-Whitfield, who has worked alongside some of the top stars in the business as an actor, director, and producer for years. “I ran into Coop [Michael Cooper] at his house, and he was not happy with the whole situation. But honestly, I think that what I found is that a lot of people’s reactions aren’t even from watching the show.”
“Winning Time” producers and writers didn’t trade access for glossing over the past like several recent sports documentaries, including Netflix’s latest “Untold” docuseries “Swamp Kings.” Aaron Hernandez, for example, was barely a footnote in the documentary on the Florida Gators football team, one of several omissions that led to widespread criticism.
“Adam McKay and Max Bornstein love basketball, and they love the Lakers,” Richardson-Whitfield said. “They’re not trying to hurt these people. It’s an homage to them.”
The only former Laker who works as a consultant on the show is Rick Fox, whose Laker career didn’t begin until 1997. Fox was still in high school during the years profiled in the current season.
Episode 5 of Season 2 debuted on HBO on Sunday, and there are concerns voiced by Pearlman and others that there won’t be a third season. The ongoing writer and actor strikes haven’t only hindered work on a third season, but the actors on the show are unable to promote the current one.
Ongoing cost-cutting has also led to quicker hooks for series than before the Warner Bros. and Discovery merger was officially completed in April 2022.
“If there were to be a Season 3 — and we don’t know yet — [the WGA strike] probably delays things because we don’t have writers writing right now,” Richardson-Whitfield said. “Unfortunately I think it has affected part of our viewership because we don’t have our stars out there [promoting the show]. I’m sure you’d rather see Adrien Brody than sit here and talk to me.”
Season 2 was picked up in the middle of the first, which saw an audience jump 73% between the debut and a finale that drew 1.6 million same-day viewers on linear TV and Max. This season’s debut had 629,000 same-day viewers.
Richardson-Whitfield directed this season’s debut, and she promised that viewers “haven’t seen anything like” how game action was recreated in one of upcoming episodes she directed.
As a Chicago native, Richardson-Whitfield said she hopes — beyond a third season, of course — that McKay does a similar sendup of the Bulls’ dynasty. It’d likely be less kind to Michael Jordan, who shared in the proceeds for “The Last Dance” documentary.
“The frenzy and the excitement around that team during those years would make a great show,” Richardson-Whitfield said. “So I’m in. Absolutely.”