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The Ineffable Cool—and Playing Style—That Made the Showtime Lakers “Showtime”

It wasn’t enough just to win championships; what changed the NBA for good was the way the Lakers played, and how that style fed into the product the franchise was ultimately trying to sell

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

It’s really a testament to the Lakers’ preposterous level of success that anyone born in the past 50 years or so can only imagine the time before the franchise was one of the NBA’s foremost superpowers. If anyone out there still can’t picture such an era, come Sunday, they’ll be able to see it themselves on television. HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is a proper origin story, not of the Lakers (who were founded in Minneapolis in 1947), but of the Los Angeles Lakers—a distinct entity in spirit and in practice, functionally beginning with the team’s whirlwind 1979-80 season.

There may not be a clearer before-and-after moment in sports than Jack Kent Cooke’s sale of the Lakers to Jerry Buss in 1979. The franchise had won just a single championship in its almost two decades in Los Angeles; following the change in ownership, it would win five of the next nine titles and, over 43 years, almost double the championships won by any other NBA team. But it wasn’t enough just to win; what changed the league for good was the way the Lakers played, and how that style fed into the product Buss was ultimately trying to sell. The team might never have appealed to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, or LeBron James if not for the consciously cultivated idea of what being a Laker represents. And that idea—the celebrity, the prestige, the ineffable cool—wouldn’t exist without the Showtime generation.

Basketball teams had run the fast break for decades before the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson, but had they, really? There are extended Magic highlight reels packed from start to finish with passes the basketball world had never seen before, and many we haven’t seen since. No player has done more to unlock the potential of the open floor, or managed to replicate the pure electricity in the moment between Magic collecting the ball and his deciding what to do with it. The tallest order for HBO in adapting the Showtime story (err, the Winning Time story, as it’s known for corporate branding reasons) comes in trying to re-create what scores of professional basketball players have failed to. Put John C. Reilly in an open collar and you’re most of the way to the late Dr. Buss, a “Pool Hustler, Scientist, Playboy, Millionaire,” as the Los Angeles Times described him in 1976. Even with dead-ringer Quincy Isaiah cast as Magic, it’s a bit more complex to capture the energy the Hall of Fame point guard brought to a free-flowing game and how, exactly, it felt to watch these Lakers play.

There was a fascinating dynamic present from the beginning. Through a fortunate turn of transactions and a history-altering coin flip (there were more than a few fateful coincidences that made the Showtime Lakers, including a shocking murder, a tragic accident, and a player-led revolt that allowed Pat Riley to climb from broadcaster to head coach), the Lakers were able to draft Johnson in 1979, pairing him with an already legendary center in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was their differences that made them a perfect fit. Kareem was an unstoppable half-court scorer who could post up whenever an opponent managed to slow Magic down; Magic, meanwhile, was such a relentless and charismatic playmaker that he revved up Kareem to run with him for even easier scores.

Their pace weaponized Magic’s size at the point, and his size amplified their pace. His control over a live dribble was astounding. Johnson, to his credit, always seemed to understand that you get to do incredible things with the ball only if you know how to protect it. “I can’t believe God created a 6-9 man who can handle the ball like that,” Kansas City Kings general manager Joe Axelson said of Johnson during his rookie season. Abdul-Jabbar, of course, was anomalous in his own way: a sprawling, 7-foot-2 giant who would go down as one of the most graceful players the sport has ever seen.

It was never just about the Skyhook™, though the move has become synonymous with Kareem for a reason. It was unblockable. It was inimitable. It was a vehicle for the most prolific scorer in NBA history to get ’em up, over and over, despite every defender in existence knowing what he would do. You could try to bump him off his preferred spots or interrupt his timing, but by the time Magic arrived in Los Angeles, Kareem had so mastered the mechanics of that move that he could find ways to set up his steps and turn his shoulder whenever he needed to. Just as important: Abdul-Jabbar, fluid as he was, knew how to navigate in and out of the post in ways that allowed his teammates to thrive.

Kareem and Magic cleared room for James Worthy and Jamaal Wilkes to slash from the wings, and for Bob McAdoo to go to work off the bench. They set up Byron Scott with free-and-clear jumpers, punishing double teams. They found lanes to reward Michael Cooper for his tireless defense, and Mitch Kupchak and Kurt Rambis for their dirty work. Setting up teammates was a matter of course for Kareem, as an extension of his dominance and the attention it would inevitably draw. Magic drafted off that attention—throwing the kinds of close-quarters feeds that are only possible when you know where an opponent is looking and, more importantly, where they’re not.

Even as Magic transformed the Lakers’ entire way of life, it was Kareem who earned MVP honors in their first season together, and who would lead the team in scoring for most of their time together. Abdul-Jabbar is the most decorated player in the history of the sport, and yet even his scroll of accomplishments—the six titles, the record six MVPs, and the 19 All-Star selections, for starters—might undersell how exceptional his career really was. The very idea that a player his size would play 95 percent of his team’s regular-season games over 20 years seems unfathomable by today’s standards. Huge workload? No problem. Achy knees? Wrap ’em up. Kareem made competing and winning at the highest levels look as easy as an extension of his arm and a flick of the wrist.

Johnson knew better, which is why he was openly deferential to his veteran teammate from the jump. “I think I wanted him to know I wasn’t trying to get into his territory; he was the man,” Johnson said. When Abdul-Jabbar wanted to go to work on the block, Showtime went on break. When reporters asked Magic about himself, he talked about Kareem. They weren’t exactly the fastest of friends or the best of them, but the two Lakers stars formed an all-time partnership by carving out and thriving in their respective lanes. Abdul-Jabbar seemed to want little more than to play basketball and be left alone. Magic, meanwhile, could be the face of Showtime—a one-man charm offensive to sell the vision of the Lakers that Buss had imagined.

“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” Buss said in 1986. “I think we’ve been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.” To his credit (and incredible profit), Buss saw the potential in turning Lakers games into an event, and in mining L.A.’s most renewable resource: the need to see and be seen. Players would head upstairs after the buzzer to mingle with actors, musicians, and socialites in the Forum Club, making the game itself just the opening act. In that world—the world of Winning Time—Magic Johnson was in the center of the frame. Kareem never wanted it any other way.