Which makes winning timeThe tapestry of exciting stories is how it reflects the chaotic jazz of our lives. Each character is at odds with the world and with themselves. Magic, Jerry Buss, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, each is waging a private war. For many of them, it is a war of the spirit against the flesh. That’s why an episode may open with John C. Reilly’s Buss fingering a girl in a restaurant, while this episode, “Piece of a Man,” opens with an Islamic ceremony of a new disciple, a young Lew Alcindor, bonding with a spiritual rebirth.
The great mosaic of life is like this. It is both perverse and profane. As humans, we oscillate between the two all the time. Basically, that’s what winning time is poised, albeit with a bit of sensationalism, to mirror what the Showtime Lakers used to be.
This leads to a perfect segway to talk about the show’s theme song. While “My Favorite Mutiny” is a moving jamboree, a deeper militant message resonates. Its writer and creator, Boots Riley of The Coup, collaborates with Black Thought of The Roots and Talib Kweli to create the perfect treatise on mid-2000s rap. Upon release, the song was in direct opposition to the ringtone rap that dominated the airwaves. Three of the game’s fiercest lyricists have united as brothers in arms against the music industrial complex.
Against the backdrop of Los Angeles, the creative team behind winning time shows us the excess and absence that rocked the city in the late 70s and early 80s. The opening montage reflects the state of America at the time, a chasm between the haves and The poors. Riley and her bandmates probably never imagined their soundtrack scenes of white women brunching, aerobics and parasailing. But we also see righteous citizens protesting in the streets, a homeless man smoking crack, and even a scene of African Americans enjoying brunch. Shit is everything, all at once. As Black Thought punctuates the edit with righteous indignation, we as audiences are primed for the fusion of the specific brand of American absurdity.
Kareem’s ignoring Magic’s budding tweet before the Lakers’ opener embodies the clash of ideologies at the dawn of the ’80s. Some saw the promise of Reaganomics as a framework for loot and plunder. At the same time, American Nightmare veterans knew how the chapter would end. Magic wanted to impress the old head with the creative mesh of their two games, while Jabbar was just looking to make enough money to step away from the game and escape the conveyor belt, an insidious mechanism poignantly laid bare by the author William C. Rhoden in his book, Forty million dollar slave. The treadmill sees the NBA monolith pulling inner-city black kids out of their communities and planting them on the path to riches and distracting them from the troubles they left behind. Then it isolates and isolates them from the outside world so that they lose empathy towards their fellow human beings. They began to take an “I” versus “we” approach to life, further disconnecting them from the common lot of family, friends, and neighbors. At the end of the belt, you find yourself with a lone figure, alone among its millions, too scared to talk or cause trouble for fear of losing comfort. Jabbar was the antithesis of that. He talked so much that he made his own teammates, those unaware of their place on the treadmill, uncomfortable.
In this episode, we are told how and, more importantly, why Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Essentially it boiled down to what should drive any of us crazy enough to, as Black Thought says in the intro,
“Move, if you have the nerve
Go wild for your just desserts’”
Then, as now, killer cops murdered innocent African Americans. Seems like little has changed in today’s America, where killers with badges are rarely brought to justice for their murderous crimes. As a young man, Jabbar struggled with his father as a transit policeman as a means of earning a living for his son and his family. Cap, as his colleagues affectionately called him Kareem, was at odds with his father’s Christian faith and law and order mentality. winning time shows us, obviously in a table scene, Jabbar’s early rejection of a white Jesus and his principles of “turning the other cheek” that would fuel his outspoken views on war, police brutality and justice race throughout his life. It also made him an enigmatic teammate to those he was with in the trenches, especially Magic and new coach Jack McKinney.
Just when you thought the roster was overflowing, the series adds another new player in Spencer Haywood, played by Wood Harris, of The Wire and Empire. As Haywood, Harris becomes the bridge between Jabbar and the rest of the Lakers. Haywood had sued the league and won the right to skip college and go straight into the NBA to support his family. He set the stage for Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant to enter the NBA right out of high school.
In Haywood, Jabbar saw an ally, a fellow soldier willing to stand up for his beliefs in the face of racist power structures. But as the two share a joint in the back of Jabbar’s estate, we learn the consequences of such a moral war on Haywood’s mind. Wood delivers a heartfelt and poignant monologue about realizing he had a second chance at life, which is unfortunately cut short by a manic edit. It would have done Wood’s performance justice, if the camera had stayed on him in one take, to let us see his expressions and ticks merge. Nonetheless, Wood did some of the best work of his career and should be remembered as a time in Wood’s long and illustrious career.
The battles we fight, external and internal, and their results are what will define us. In winning time, we witness the diversity of characters in the trenches of these wars, public and private. So far, we’ve seen them try to fight as lone soldiers. Private losses, in particular, carried them before they even played their first game. Near the end of the episode, as their first home game begins, we finally see Cap reaching out in solidarity as well. History tells us the Lakers take a 9 and 2 record to start the season. And just as Coach McKinney takes his trusty bike ride through his neighborhood, they finally form a team. It’s safe to say that whatever wars are to come, McKinney’s head injury – the arrival of Larry Bird, Magic’s HIV diagnosis – they will face them together.