Sometimes, a work of art comes around that seems like it was formulated in a lab to be analyzed and obsessed over at The Ringer. An A24 drama starring Adam Sandler as a jeweler making stupid-ass bets around a Sixers-Celtics playoffs series and in which Kevin Garnett shows up as himself? In retrospect, Uncut Gems’ theatrical release should’ve been a company holiday.
Now HBO is cooking up something that might transcend our company-wide Uncut Gems mania. The network has given a series order for “The Untitled Los Angeles Lakers project,” which will focus on the Showtime-era Lakers of the 1980s. (It would’ve been an absolute flex if HBO named the series after one of its biggest TV rivals, but I digress.) While its 2022 release date is still a ways away, this month, the project has been rounding out a star-studded cast. And, really, that’s all the reason we needed to do this ranking evaluating the basketball and pop culture implications of what’s been revealed so far.
To help digest this, we broke the characters into tiers using a highly sophisticated and proprietary formula that took endless hours of hard work to perfect. (We screwed around on Slack until it seemed about right, then we broke for lunch.) The groupings and order are unimpeachable.
You will no doubt notice that some big names who featured prominently in the saga of the Showtime Lakers are not listed. It is possible some of those characters haven’t yet been cast, or perhaps they won’t appear at all, but it seems worth mentioning who’s missing. Among them: Mitch Kupchak (who played for the Lakers and later went on to run the front office), Byron Scott, Mychal Thompson, Kurt Rambis, and Vlade Divac (who landed on the Lakers at the tail end of what could be considered the Showtime era). Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo and James Worthy are also notable omissions. But, for our purposes, the biggest brick is the obvious missed opportunity to cast A.C. Green. Back in the ’80s, the Showtime Lakers were best known for two things: winning and fornicating. And not necessarily in that order. Green was a good player who was perhaps most famous for being an open and proud virgin on a team so outrageously horny that Caligula couldn’t have kept up.
We should also point out that while Larry Bird will appear in the series (more on that later), it looks like some of his Celtics teammates didn’t make the cut; Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Danny Ainge come to mind. Of course, this is a series about the Showtime Lakers, not the Boston Celtics. Frankly, we’re not too broken up about it. No one at The Ringer cares about Boston sports, anyway.
The “Get to Know Them” Tier
Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman
Molly Gordon as Linda Zafrani
John Gonzalez: Claire Rothman was the general manager and vice president of the Forum—in the ’80s, that made her the only woman to run a major arena in the United States—when it was at the height of its glitzy and glamorous powers. For Hollywood’s elite, it was the scene to be seen. Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon were regulars, and so were, uh …[spends way too much time Googling] … many other famous faces! (Despite being one of the few staffers here who was alive in the ’80s, I was very young then and I did not get many Lakers games on the no-cable rabbit-ears TV in my boyhood bedroom way across the country in Philly.) Given the well-documented debauchery of the Showtime Lakers, I’d imagine Rothman saw some things.
Linda Zafrani, meanwhile, is now named Linda Rambis. (If Kurt isn’t a character in this show, that might sting at the breakfast table.) Much more importantly, Linda is the longtime friend and behind-the-scenes consigliere of Jeanie Buss. Consider this ESPN piece from a couple of years ago on the Lakers’ palace intrigue after Jeanie shoved (shivved?) her brother Jim out of the way and took control of the family business:
Jeanie Buss respects advice from senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis … but it’s Linda Rambis’s opinion Buss has long valued the most, according to league and team sources. Many believe Buss has leaned on Rambis even more after [Magic] Johnson blindsided the organization with his resignation.
Kurt might have played, but Linda does all the dunking.
Miles Surrey: Considering Hoffman’s very first role was in Field of Dreams, it feels like she’s coming full circle here. If you build it (a solid career in Hollywood), they (HBO, with a prestige drama about the Showtime Lakers) will come.
The idea of Jeanie Buss and her consigliere fucking shit up behind the scenes of a sports franchise sounds thrilling, but I’m a little skeptical the spice will be flowing from their direction. I mean, Molly Gordon is best known for a supporting role in Booksmart as Triple A—a nickname I’d rather not explain in this forum, otherwise HR will [clears throat] come for me—and is generally in the “playing a high schooler” stage of her career. Jeanie and Linda were only in their 20s during the Showtime era—it’s probably safe to assume they won’t be essential players on the show.
Gonz: I’m a big fan of Molly Gordon and Booksmart. Also a big fan of Miles Surrey, who I hope will not get fired before finishing this piece.
The [Dominic Toretto Voice] “Family” Tier
Tamera Tomakili as Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly
Rob Morgan as Earvin Johnson Sr.
Surrey: With only a couple of very minor roles to her name, showing up in such a buzzy production could be a stepping stone for the rest of Tomakili’s career. Regardless of the size of her role, playing Cookie ought to feel like (I’m sorry) a slam dunk.
Morgan, meanwhile, is a stealthily good casting here. He’s far from a household name—he’s probably best known for playing the petty criminal who appeared in every Netflix-Marvel television series—but the career character actor always shines no matter how small a spotlight is afforded to him. There’s a reason that The New York Times listed Morgan among the 25 best actors of the century; quintessential That Guys deserve some love, too.
Gonz: While we’re both irrationally excited about the series, we don’t have a lot of information about what direction this series will take or what will be its ultimate focus. We don’t even know the name of the show yet. At present, the casting is all we have to go on. To that end, I wonder how heavily the family members will play into the narrative. Magic is often hilariously bad on social media, but I do enjoy when he’s earnest about how much he loves his dad. Less warm and fuzzy: Cookie stayed by Magic’s side despite her husband’s less-than-discreet off-court activities. That could make for delicate and cringey content.
Quick note, Miles: The editors brought me in to be the “basketball expert” for our little two-man weave. (Joke’s on them.) But here you are dropping technical terms like slam dunk off the top. Your PER is already off the charts.
Surrey: Give me a bit of credit: I’ve analyzed every Washington Wizards draft pick from the past decade like the Zapruder film.
The “Obligatory Sportscaster” Tier
Spencer Garrett as Chick Hearn
Gonz: As basketball broadcasters go, Chick Hearn is as famous as they come. Between March 1965 and December 2001, Hearn called 3,338 consecutive Laker games. (Cal Ripken could never.) In 2003, Hearn became the first broadcaster to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The press room at the Staples Center in Los Angeles is also named after him.
That last thing is somewhat less of an honor: For the unaware, the press room at the Staples Center is a windowless concrete bunker where often-unwashed sportswriters (hi!) go to binge on the pregame buffet before returning at halftime to avail themselves of the free soft-serve ice-cream machine (hello again!). Pro tip: If you ever find yourself in the Chick Hearn Press Room, under no circumstances—and I cannot stress this enough—should you eat the gratis vegan hot dog. Those basically exist as a trick to play on rookie reporters.
Surrey: When I interned for a summer at D.C. United, I’m pretty sure there was a similar rule at RFK Stadium when it came to the chicken tenders. Anyway, given that Garrett—the acting equivalent of a journeyman NBA player who can give you a solid five to 10 minutes off the bench—just came off portraying Sean Hannity in Bombshell, playing a legendary sportscaster sounds like a major step up.
The “Nepotism, but Also Good Enough?” Tier
DeVaughn Nixon as Norm Nixon
Surrey: It’s easy to chalk up DeVaughn Nixon getting cast to play his dad, Norm, as Hollywood nepotism running rampant, but this might be more of a “Wait, Ice Cube’s son is also a solid actor?” type of situation. DeVaughn got his start as a child actor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and has revived his career of late, scoring a recurring role in Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways (boy, that’s a mouthful).
Being Norm’s offspring undoubtedly helps, but at least the acting résumé isn’t a complete blank. More importantly, Gonz, will playing Papa Nixon during the Showtime era require any future family therapy?
Gonz: If DeVaughn Nixon is half as good in this as O’Shea Jackson Jr. was in Den of Thieves, we’re in for a real treat. As for family therapy, I think that’s what this whole project is. When this is over, the Nixon family will have to get in line for therapy behind the Johnson and Buss families. Maybe they can get a group rate.
The “Somebody Had to Do It” Tier
Kirk Bovill as Donald Sterling
Gonz: Kirk Bovill is playing Donald Sterling? Tough beat for Kirk Bovill. Look, I understand that this is a dramatization and actors play despicable people all the time. But Donald Sterling really was one of the biggest bastards to own any team in any sport in my lifetime.
In 1981, not long after he bought the franchise, the organization ran an ad campaign in which Sterling promised fans, “I will make you proud of the Clippers.” [Narrator] He most certainly did not. For starters, Sterling is a notorious racist who got banned for life by the NBA for his repulsive and unrepentant views, though not nearly soon enough. The league should have crammed his bigoted backside into a halftime cannon and launched him into the night decades earlier.
As a steward of the Clippers, he was also cheap and comically unsuccessful, presiding over one of the ugliest eras of basketball in NBA history. In 33 years under Sterling, the Clippers lost 50 or more games 22 times, and 60 or more eight times. The team didn’t make its first playoff appearance until 11 seasons into Sterling’s reign of terror, and the Clippers never advanced beyond the Western Conference semifinals with him in charge. Sterling was often labeled the worst owner in pro sports, and back in 2009, ESPN the Magazine ranked the Clippers as the worst team.
I can’t think of enough bad things to say about this man. Bovill is gonna have to shower after every scene.
Surrey: Yeah, very tough beat for Kirk Bovill. Unfortunately, having also shown up as Henry Kissinger in Vice, it seems like Bovill is cornering the market for portraying insidious older white men. But that’s a good reminder that awful roles don’t reflect the people who play them. (I don’t know anything about Kirk Bovill, but it’d take a lot to be as bad as Donald Sterling.) I’m pretty sure—like, 99 percent sure—that Anthony Hopkins and Christoph Waltz aren’t a cannibalistic serial killer and a Nazi, respectively, despite winning Oscars for portraying just that.
That being said, and while I don’t want to will this into existence, let’s take a quick look at Kirk Bovill. Is it possible to buy “This guy is going to play Steve Bannon in the future Trump biopic” stock?
Gonz: Oh, wow. If he plays Bannon, that’d be an asshole trifecta.
The “Young Girlboss” Tier
Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss
Surrey: Robinson is fairly new to the scene, with her most recent role also being her most prominent: playing the lead in Amy Poehler’s Moxie, which came out on Netflix earlier this month. And while Moxie is the cinematic embodiment of shallow white feminism that will make you wonder why the film spends so much time within the narrow (and more privileged) purview of its protagonist, Robinson does enough with the blasé material that picking her to play a young Jeanie Buss certainly piques interest.
But other than being a Wob Truther, which is unfortunately way outside the show’s time, I don’t know what to expect out of Jeanie here. How substantial could Robinson’s role end up being?
Gonz: Buss is an absolute boss. After Jerry died in 2013, the team was run largely in concert by his children Johnny, Jim, and Jeanie. But sibling rivalries can get messy, and that one most certainly did. By 2017, it was pretty clear that the arrangement wasn’t working out—the Lakers were bad and Kremlinology suggested there was internecine family warfare behind the scenes. Jim Buss was the odds-on favorite to wrestle control of the organization away from his brother and sister—which is yet another reason gambling is dangerous.
Jeanie won that battle and not only fired then-general manager Mitch Kupchak but also booted her brother Jim to the curb without compunction. Cold but necessary. Now, Jeanie did go on to hire Luke Walton as head coach (which didn’t work out), and she also put Magic Johnson in charge of basketball operations (which ended with him quitting on camera in a bizarre, unplanned press conference before he even told Jeanie). But she—and Miles, you’re gonna like this—rebounded to fix the franchise and empower Rob Pelinka, who brought in LeBron James and Anthony Davis to help the Lakers win yet another NBA championship last season. Meanwhile, Jim has been busy making meager political donations to awful people.
Of course, we’ll be meeting early-era Jeanie, before she became a powerful NBA governor; before she started canoodling with Phil Jackson. I know very little about formative-years Jeanie, but I’m excited to learn what she was up to back then. (A quick Wikipedia check reveals that Jerry bought a World Team Tennis franchise as a gift to then-19-year-old Jeanie, which is a pretty baller present.) This show is basically a hero origin story for her. I can’t wait to see what Hadley Robinson does with the role.
The “Unknown Newcomers Who Are Very Tall” Tier
Delante Desouza as Michael Cooper
Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson
Surrey: Good lord, imagine the casting call for this: “Must be an absolute giant bearing at least some resemblance to NBA legends (or elite defensive specialist Michael Cooper), and it’d be pretty great if you can act too.” All three of Desouza, Hughes, and Isaiah are fresh-faced newcomers who will go straight from complete anonymity to roles in one of the most-hyped and star-studded HBO shows in years.
Obviously, it’s hard to know what to expect from the trio thanks to those blank IMDb pages, but in terms of importance, I’m assuming Isaiah’s got the meatiest role stepping into Magic’s shoes?
Gonz: Yeah, if you were going to rank them, it would be Magic, then Kareem, then a sizable gap, and then Michael Cooper. No disrespect to Cooper, but Magic and Kareem are two of the greatest basketball players to ever live.
And I have Magic ahead of Kareem here for story line reasons only. We can debate which was the better basketball player another time, but the narrative around Magic in the ’80s—how he came in and immediately led the Lakers to a title as a rookie, not to mention his off-court exploits and considerable charisma—was just so massive. Before Jordan came along, it was Magic and Bird and then everyone else.
I am desperate to know whether any of these actors can play, and what their games are like. In addition to reading for the part, did they have to play any pickup? Was there a skills competition or a series of tests like they have for the predraft combine? We’re gonna need a behind-the-scenes how-they-made-it doc.
Surrey: This is about to be the most scrutinized fictional basketball content since The Office pickup game.
The “Holy Shit, They Got Sally Field to Do This?” Tier
Sally Field as Jessie Buss
Gonz: I cannot believe they convinced the queen to sign on. I’m thrilled to imagine what Sally Field might do, though I don’t know much about Mama (and Grandma) Buss beyond that she served as Jerry’s adviser and accountant for some time. I did, however, enjoy this bit of historical yada-yada-ing from Deadline: “As a young single mother, Jessie Buss instilled in her son Jerry a love of math, money, and good times.”
“Good times” is doing some serious heavy lifting in that sentence.
Surrey: I don’t think I need to make much of a case for why a two-time Oscar winner is an exciting addition to this ensemble. I just really hope Field brings the same chaotic, DGAF energy that we’ve seen in some of her more recent stuff. The 2018 Netflix miniseries Maniac didn’t seem to catch on as well as the streamer would’ve hoped, but those who watched it got to revel in Field playing Justin Theroux’s overbearing mom. (As well as the nagging voice of a supercomputer that his character built, which might as well have been named the Mommy Issues 3000.) And everyone was so caught up in Marisa Tomei being Tom Holland’s Aunt May that we totally glossed over the fact that Field did the same thing for Andrew Garfield—although her character didn’t date Jon Favreau.
Also, Sally Field was still married to the late Burt Reynolds in 1980. Would it be weird if someone played a younger version of her sitting courtside at a Lakers game?
Gonz: Less weird than a de-aged De Niro delivering slow-motion faux tough-guy kicks.
The “I Really Hope They Let Jason Clarke Use His Wardrobe From Serenity” Tier
Jason Clarke as Jerry West
Surrey: Jason Clarke has arguably surpassed Patrick Wilson as the most famous actor who seems to show up in everything without really being famous. (Wilson graciously ceded the throne after playing a villain who said “Call me … Ocean Master!” in the cinematic masterpiece known as Aquaman.) Just look at what Clarke has starred in through the past decade: Zero Dark Thirty, First Man, Mudbound, Chappaquiddick, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Everest, Terminator Genisys (unfortunately), Pet Sematary. The dude doesn’t miss, unless it’s the movie that fails him. (Again, very sorry that Terminator Genisys can’t be erased from all our memories; especially sorry for the guy who had to be in it.)
But I really have only one question for you, Gonz. Jerry West is quite literally the NBA logo, but as West, will Clarke be able to rock a fit as iconic as what he wore in one of the most batshit movies ever made, Serenity? Is this Jerry West–core?
Gonz: As you noted, Miles, Jerry West is literally the logo. He’s an all-timer in every possible respect, from his days on the court to his post-playing career as an excellent executive. But I’m honestly less concerned with what Jason Clarke wears for the role than whether Jason Clarke can pull off Jerry West’s wild-ass eyes. Look at them!
Jason Clarke is playing Jerry West, the renowned Lakers all-star who played as point guard for the championship-winning team. https://t.co/vDVu2rLqha pic.twitter.com/sKUxWDEbyh— Variety (@Variety) March 25, 2021
The new NBA logo should just be a Jerry West eyeball emoji.
Surrey: Sadly, Bill Paxton was ahead of his time.
The “Take All The Ringer’s Money We’re Soooo In” Tier
Adrien Brody as Pat Riley
Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach
Jason Segel as Paul Westhead
Surrey: Just a murderers’ row of cool actors to fill out the coaching benches. Chiklis is a Massachusetts native, which was probably a legal requirement to be cast as Red Auerbach. (Even I know Auerbach’s a big deal.) And seeing as Chiklis still looks like the final boss in a video game about bar fights, I can think of no one better for the coach of the Celtics, a team that will probably be framed as the villains of the on-screen story. We also have Jason Segel, a notoriously lanky actor (he’s 6-foot-4) who could probably play Bill Wennington if The Last Dance was turned into a drama series. But I’m just as interested in Segel playing an assistant coach with a fondness for Shakespeare (?!).
And holy cow, Adrien Brody. When was the last time he was in the news outside of starring in a Wes Anderson film? (If you told me he’s being cryogenically frozen between Anderson productions, I’d believe it.) Brody needs this Pat Riley role as much as the Pat Riley role needs him.
Now, if there’s ever a series about the Riley-led Miami Heat, David Strathairn better be on speed dial.
Gonz: This is an outrageous group. I just keep staring at the names while fireworks go off in my head. Adrien Brody as Pat Riley! Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach! Jason Segel as Paul Westhead! It’s a fever-dream casting.
From a purely basketball perspective, Riley and Auerbach are titans. Westhead doesn’t carry that same cachet, but the fact that Segel signed on to play him gives me hope that he’ll feature prominently. I’m very curious how the screen time will be split in this series. I want everyone here to get the Hollywood equivalent of the full 48 minutes, but I fear there won’t be enough playing time to go around.
The “This Is Hilarious Because It Will Piss Off Boston” Tier
Bo Burnham as Larry Bird
Gonz: I do not know much about Bo Burnham, but I do know Boston. I lived there for four long—very long—years. Some of my friends are from there, and they’re the worst. Imagine the Casey Affleck SNL Dunkin Donuts character, only with less couth and charm. Those are my buddies from Boston. They’re all unironically pissed off about this casting. I got a host of texts that basically amounted to Bo not living up to whatever childhood image of Larry Bird still lives in their heads. I don’t know; maybe they were expecting someone with less muscle definition and a more natural mullet? In any event, all of this makes me very happy. I hope Bo Burnham’s shooting form is awful.
Surrey: I get the impression anything less than de-aging Larry Bird with state-of-the-art CGI and having him do it himself will rile up the Bostonians, but the Massholes should actually be pretty stoked about this. Bo Burnham is a legit multi-hyphenate—go watch A24’s Eighth Grade if you haven’t already!—who’s gone above and beyond what even his biggest YouTube supporters in the aughts could’ve dreamed of. Just as crucially: He’s a very lanky lad.
Burnham also has an acerbic sense of humor, which should mesh well considering Bird was a notoriously snarky asshole on the court. Again, it’s no wonder Bird is so beloved in Boston.
The “This Is What Peak Performance Looks Like” Tier
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss
Surrey: I will inhale absolutely anything John C. Reilly is in (except maybe Holmes & Watson), and that goes double when he’s going to be the (in)famous owner of a goddamn basketball team. Perhaps I’m slightly overselling how juicy this could be, but Reilly is playing Jerry Buss in a prestige drama whose pilot was directed by Adam McKay. Is this the most exciting project Reilly has been attached to since his iconic three-year run of Talladega Nights, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Step Brothers?
The only thing I’ll add is that Michael Shannon was originally set to play Buss before exiting the project over “creative differences.” Now I can’t stop thinking about Michael Shannon being—I can only assume—an Extremely Angry Jerry Buss, constantly throwing things at subordinates and taking stuff just a little too far. But when John C. Reilly is your production’s Plan B, that’s (a) an absolute flex and (b) a guarantee that one of the biggest characters for the Showtime Lakers series remains in very assured hands.
Gonz: Aside from exhuming Jerry Stiller, I can’t think of someone I’d rather see play Old Man Buss. Give me hours of a leering, lecherous, overindulgent Reilly chewing scenery at the Playboy Mansion.