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‘Winning Time’ Goes Out With a Loss

Showtime is over for ‘Winning Time,’ as HBO’s NBA docudrama gets canceled after only two seasons (and, awkwardly, a Lakers loss)

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the Season 2 finale of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Celtics coach Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) gets the last laugh. Amid a haze of cigar smoke and a flurry of champagne showers, Red, wielding the freshly minted Larry O’Brien Trophy, looks directly into the camera—and into the very soul of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly)—and proclaims: “Leave the dynasties to us.”

In an ironic twist of fate, Winning Time ends with the Celtics’ addition of another championship banner to the Boston Garden rafters, and the birth of “Tragic” Johnson. On Sunday night, HBO announced that the episode would double as a series finale. Winning Time concludes its run after just two TV seasons, and only two titles for the show’s Showtime Lakers out of their eventual five. Even with its rich and glamorous subject matter, the series couldn’t attract a big enough audience to earn a renewal—partly because of the show’s shortcomings and partly because of bad timing. Thus, though it’s not the ending cocreators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht initially envisioned, one of the final, lasting images of Winning Time will be a defeated Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) sitting on the floor of a locker-room shower following the loss against Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) and the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals.

The seven-episode second season of Winning Time had its highs and lows, but it delivered a gripping finale that captured one of the most iconic NBA Finals ever. The entire season’s narrative is framed around the fateful playoff matchup between the Lakers and Celtics in 1984; the first episode begins with Buss’s team’s attempt to make a quick getaway from the rabid Boston crowd after stealing Game 1 before the show rewinds to four years earlier, essentially picking up where the first season ended. The story that follows chronicles the Lakers’ growing pains as Magic led the team to the 1980 title after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) went down with an injury.

Across the first six installments of the season, Winning Time divided its attention among several story lines, including the power struggles between Lakers teammates and coaches, Magic’s growing ego, a fledgling romance that ends in a lawsuit for Buss, the ever-dysfunctional relationship between Jerry and his children, the rise of head coach Pat Riley, and the origins of Bird. It’s a lot of narrative ground to cover in a more limited window than the series was afforded in its first season, which featured 10 episodes and narrowed its focus to the 1979-80 NBA season alone. As a result, Season 2 often felt rushed, as four years passed at a sometimes arbitrary pace, and the story was spread thin among too many characters.

With the stage set for the 1984 Finals, however, the season finale slows its pace dramatically. Months passed between scenes in previous episodes, but the finale’s near-hour running time focuses on a single seven-game series. There are more basketball scenes than ever as the show re-creates the most famous moments from the hardwood battles, with a rigorous attention to detail. Magic’s freezing at the end of Game 2 with the clock waning. The clothesline in Game 4. The scorching Game 5 “Heat Game” in Boston. The riot that followed Game 7.

As memorable as the matchup was, the 1984 Finals are an odd and unfortunate send-off for a show that was clearly designed to last longer. (After all, the series called Winning Time now ends with a bitter loss to the Celtics.) Character arcs and plotlines are cut short as a rather unexpected montage closes out the finale to summarize what happened to the teams and key figures in the aftermath of the 1983-84 season—in 13 slides that span nearly two minutes. Some of the season’s more strained subplots—like Magic and Cookie’s (Tamera Tomakili) beleaguered romance—seem even more frustrating in hindsight knowing that they’ll never have satisfying on-screen conclusions. As Riley (Adrien Brody) tells his players during one last impassioned speech ahead of their Game 7 matchup, they have “unfinished business” in Boston. Unfortunately, it will remain that way for these fictionalized Lakers and the many characters whose lives revolve around them as the series comes to an abrupt end.

Winning Time will ultimately go down as a failed endeavor for HBO, a series full of untapped potential that could have—and perhaps should have—been a massive hit that lasted for many seasons. The show had the star power from a stacked cast of actors including Reilly, Brody, Jason Clarke, and, dating back to the first season, Wood Harris and Sally Field. It had the emergent talent of Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes, and it even had a fantastic opening credits sequence, a marker of just about any successful HBO series.

Perhaps above all else, it had the brand recognition of the Los Angeles Lakers and HBO tied together for a rare, high-budget sports drama series focused on one of the most pivotal eras in NBA history. As evidenced by the finale’s lengthy montage, the road map was right there for tons of drama to be mined in years to come, including two more Finals bouts between the Lakers and Celtics, the rising popularity of the NBA, and Magic’s announcement that he had contracted HIV and his subsequent first retirement in 1991, which effectively ended the Showtime era.

Although there were plenty of narrative and pacing issues in Season 2 that could have driven viewers away over time, not enough people were watching the latest season from the jump. In early August, Deadline reported that ratings had dipped 30 percent across linear and delayed viewing between the Season 1 and Season 2 premieres. The Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former streaming executive who analyzes the industry pseudonymously, noted in a recent streaming report that Winning Time had 1.8 million hours viewed on streaming during the week of its Season 2 premiere, according to Nielsen. That figure is a mere fraction of the streaming hours that other “acquired” TV shows, such as House of the Dragon or The Last of Us, received on Max, and it’s only slightly higher than those for the latest season of Hard Knocks.

Entertainment Strategy Guy, Nielsen

A few factors, aside from the show’s inconsistent quality, could have contributed to Winning Time’s lack of viewership this season. For one, HBO decided to start releasing the latest episodes in early August, well outside the NBA and college basketball seasons. (In contrast, Season 1 premiered in early March, right around the time March Madness kicked in and ahead of the NBA playoffs.) There’s also the timing of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which have limited the promotional opportunities for the series’ writers and stars.

And as the Entertainment Strategy Guy wrote to me over email, the show was already facing the challenge of airing at a time of the year when people are typically watching less TV. “Historically, July and August are down months for linear TV (though streaming sees some uptick), because people go out on vacation and spend time outside,” he said. “So it’s not just that the NBA isn’t here to provide a natural marketing synergy—TNT can push Winning Time during their Thursday games, for example—but it’s also the summer lull. So add in no NBA and summer, and being down 30 percent is about right.”

The series’ cancellation had seemed imminent in recent weeks as reports of low viewership surfaced, especially when author Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the book Winning Time is based on, took to Twitter in mid-August to plead for more eyeballs. “I’m telling you—the future of ‘Winning Time’ hangs in the balance,” he wrote. “We need viewers. The strikes are crippling. Please help spread the word. Season 2 is amazing. But … HBO is big on #s.”

According to executive producer Kevin Messick in a recent interview with Vulture, HBO relayed the possibility of a cancellation to the show’s creative team in January, and a plan was put in place in the event that the ax came down. A new scene was filmed in January to serve as an alternate ending—and that’s the one we ended up with. The season was originally intended to finish with Magic as he absorbs the Finals loss in the Lakers locker-room shower, a powerful image that would have set the stage for his impending revenge against Bird and the Celtics in the next playoff confrontation.

Instead, the series now ends five days after the championship, and Jerry has his own version of a Lion King–style talk with his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) on the floor of the Forum as he explains that this Lakers kingdom will be hers one day and that everything will be OK because “We fucking own this.” The final montage lays out all the success that followed for the Lakers, including more rings and Jerry West’s trade for the young Kobe Bryant, but it all makes for a bittersweet ending to an uneven series that sometimes touched greatness, if only in brief glimpses. (I could have watched a whole season centered on Brody’s Pat Riley alone.)

If Winning Time manages to attract a belated audience, perhaps aided by recent celebrity support from the likes of the real Jeanie Buss, there’s always a chance that the makers of the show could shop it elsewhere. As Messick told Vulture, it’s too early to tell, but they’re not shutting down the possibility: “I think the plan is this: If the universe wants more Lakers, the universe knows where to reach us.” Thus far, not enough of the universe has tuned in.