'Winning Time': Who's Who in the Real-Life Lakers Dynasty Drama

See the real-life players and the actors who are bringing them to the screen in the new HBO Max series.

It's Showtime all over again! Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty premieres Sunday on HBO, giving fans a look back at the legendary franchise's incredible, star-studded run in the 1980s.

"The Lakers really changed the game, the global game that we celebrate today," Solomon Hughes, who plays Lakers icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the series, told ET. "This story is about the beginnings of that."

The Adam McKay-directed show is based on the Jeff Pearlman book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, and tips off when Jerry Buss purchases the team in 1979. The iconic owner would spend the next decade revitalizing not just the Lakers roster and coaching staff -- with stars who would go on to become NBA legends like Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Pat Riley and more -- but the experience of attending a basketball game as well.

"It was an honor to tell his story," said John C. Reilly, who plays Buss in the series. "What an incredible thing that he pulled off. He's pretty much unique as a sports team owner, I mean, the innovations that he made changed the whole world. So, it's a wild story."

A wild story, which includes some larger-than-life personalities and not a small amount of conflict, the cast admitted to ET during the Winning Time premiere and junket.

"You have to try to tell the truth," Reilly shared. "A puff piece does not honor Dr. Jerry Buss, because a puff piece doesn't go into why it was so difficult for him or why it was so difficult for Magic. You need to face the ugly things that they faced, the difficult choices they made, and the hard things they went through to really honor these people, so I hope everyone who knew these people in real life and, and loved them, will feel that this is a love letter, because that is our intent."

Read on to hear more from each of the Winning Time stars about the ways they stepped into their respective roles and attempted to pay tribute their real-life counterparts.


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The Oscar-nominated actor takes the reigns in Winning Time as legendary Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who revolutionized the franchise during the Showtime era by making the team's games not just competitive, but spectacles of entertainment thanks to music, advertising deals, and, of course, the Laker Girls.

"It took everything I had in me, as a person and as an actor, to play this guy," Reilly told ET. "He was bigger than life and those are some big shoes to fill... He was such a complicated person, such an intelligent person, he had a doctorate in physical chemistry to teach chemistry at USC, like, multifaceted doesn't even cover it."

"He was like, the king of LA for the longest time, but on the other hand, he also was pretty private," the actor added. "When he kind of got famous in LA, he would give one interview at the beginning of the year to a local reporter and that's it, and he didn't write an autobiography, so some of it was filling in the blanks. But if you just look at the basic facts of Dr. Jerry Buss' life, it's an incredible ride... He was a brilliant, brilliant man, and he was really good at empowering other people and understanding when to trust people and when to ask more of people and when to tell people, 'No, we can do this. Stand up and fight, let's go.' That's a really important job as a leader." 

Reilly noted that while Buss' legacy includes several powerful women in his orbit -- including his daughter, Jeanie Buss, who succeeded him as the Lakers' controlling owner and team president -- which was, and still is, a rarity in the sports world, "he didn't really brag about that in his life."

However, the actor also noted, "He believed in people. He created great things by believing in people, and at a time when women were having a tough time getting any kind of equality in the world, Jerry saw the possibility in people -- including a 19-year-old Paula Abdul, whom he chose to be the choreographer of his Laker Girls. He believed in people and he rose to the occasion."


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The Showtime Era wouldn't have been what it was without Magic, and Isaiah took the role knowing what kind of shoes he had to fill, as the 5-time NBA champion and 12-time All Star.

"It's one of the greatest challenges that I've been able to do as an actor, and that I'll probably be able to do, playing an icon that a lot of people know, that the public knows," the actor told ET. "He's beloved."

"You get to meet him as a 20-year-old, seeing him being pulled from Michigan and being thrust into this spotlight that's in Los Angeles, California, and playing for the NBA," Isaiah said of where Magic's journey begins in Winning Time. "We meet him at a point in his life where he isn't this icon yet, and you get to see a little bit of where that comes from and how he grows into that. But also, he's just a kid you know? And you see the mistakes and the mountains and valleys of becoming this well-renowned figure. It's great."

Isaiah said he enjoyed spending a lot of time working on the physicality of the part and perfecting his game for the basketball scenes. He also had fun exploring Magic's more competitive side on the court, noting, "Look, you don't become a five-time champion without having competitive spirit to you. That's that fire. And if you don't tell the story of the fire, how can you tell the story of the championships?"

However, he added, "The thing that makes Magic special is that he did reach this pinnacle of greatness... The life that he lived, it created a space for me to be able to play him. Like, he excelled so much that I was able to literally make a career off of, you know, playing him. So I mean my biggest thing is just showing my appreciation for him as a person, as a icon... It' just being grateful."


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"It's so funny, everybody's got a Jerry West story," Clarke told ET at the Winning Time premiere, adding with a laugh that he's been fearing a "sucker punch" from the notoriously tough basketball icon since taking on the role.

A legendary player in his own right -- who is, quite literally, the symbol of the NBA -- West coached the Lakers for three years before transitioning to his role as the team's general manager in 1982, and is credited with the construction of the Showtime Era team. 

"In the beginning of this, you're catching Jerry in a very particular time," Clarke said of the series. "I don't think he understands what's happening to him, and he increasingly just can't function as a basketball coach... Magic Johnson comes in, and lights up Jerry's life, you know?"

"it also shows a different way of playing, you know, playing with a smile on your face," he added. "After the very first game that the [Showtime] Lakers played, he's hugging Kareem as if they just won the the first ring, and it's like, 'Dude it's the first game of the season.' There's just something about that which Magic brought into all of their lives, and Jerry as well. Through this, I think people get a clearer understanding of what it costs to be Jerry West and all that, [the way] a professional athlete has given up everything for that ball."

While he did admit to some worries about how West might react to his onscreen portrayal, Clarke said he did his best to pay tribute to a man whose been with the Lakers franchise since before they moved to Los Angeles.

"Jerry's remarkably open and honest with his own struggles and the cost of those struggles, and his relationship to the people that he loves in the game -- we've seen that recently with Kobe, and what Kobe's passing did to him," he noted. "I respect that in him, and I hope that he respects what I've tried to portray in the heart of who he is."


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As a Southern California native, Hughes told ET that he grew up idolizing the Lakers big man, both on and off the court.

"His autobiography, Giant Steps, is one of the first big books that I read growing up," the actor recalled. "Just thinking about the massive contributions he's made, the varied contributions he's made -- there's obviously pressure, for sure, but I also just look at it as the opportunity to honor all of these contributions to society."

A 19-time All-Star and 6-time NBA champion, Abdul-Jabbar was a key contributor to the Showtime Lakers -- thanks to his trademark skyhook shot -- and remains the NBA's all-time leader in points scored, field goals made, and career wins to this day. However, he's also had one of the most varied and interesting careers outside of world of basketball, as a writer, actor, ambassador and activist, and in 2016, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

"I was thinking about what it's like to be 7'2" -- some people say 7'3" -- and being that famous from a very, very young age," Hughes said of taking on the larger-than-life role. "I can imagine there's some frustration there, but I also think that he's pretty honest about that. His documentary, Minority of One on HBO, even in the books that he's written himself, he confronts that and the stories about how people experienced him."

"[He's] a giant figure, a titan in American history, so in terms of pressure, I absolutely felt pressure, but I also felt surrounded by an incredible group of castmates," the actor added. "He's just given so much to this world, to this country. When I think of my life and the things that I've aspired for, he represents liberation, not being boxed into one thing, so I'm just grateful for just the life he's lived."


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Nixon faced perhaps the tallest task of the Winning Time cast when it came to portraying his own father, Norm Nixon, a point guard who spent six season with the Lakers, winning two NBA championships with the team during the start of their Showtime Era before being traded away.

"He snuck on set sometimes, and he'd tell people not to tell me he was coming," the actor told ET of his experience with his dad during production. "He'd just watch from afar."

"One day he came when we were doing the training camp scene -- Adam was there, Quincy was there -- and the thing that was crazy was when he saw John [C. Reilly, as Jerry Buss], he was like, 'Man, it's spot on. He really took that character on.'"

Nixon said the Winning Time creative team did try to pick his father's brain during production, but he was more concerned about their conditioning sessions to get in NBA shape for the basketball scenes.

"He just wanted me to have fun, you know, he was smiling," he recalled. "He's not big on compliments, but I know he's happy... He was very, very proud and I think I did him justice and I think he's going to be excited to see it."

While the actor said he knows that "you can't please everyone" when it comes to adapting real-life stories, he added that Winning Time is a "love letter" to his dad and the team that revolutionized the NBA in the '80s.

"I hope they realize we made the show to highlight their legacy and that comes across," he shared. "I hope they enjoy it, from the bottom of my heart."


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After Bo Burnham dropped out of the role, newcomer Small stepped in to play Larry Bird, ones of the the Lakers' biggest rivals during the Showtime Era -- and a contentious on-court adversary for Magic Johnson, after the two previously faced off during their acclaimed college careers.

"It was a dream come true," Small told ET of taking on the part. "I had been researching him for so long, I had been writing about him for so long, and then the audition came up and I was like, 'I got to do this.' I mean Larry Legend, he's a Boston and Indiana icon, I have to do it."

While he didn't get a chance to speak with the basketball icon during or after portraying him on screen, Small said that he'd of course love to "have a beer" with Bird, and chat about life. 

As for his breakthrough role in the HBO series, the actor said Winning Time is all about "entertainment."

"Entertainment, on and off the court," he added. "It shows the different sides of all the different characters, all the complexities and the intricacies, and it's just overall fun."


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Perhaps a lesser-known figure in the lore of the '80s Lakers, Segal steps in to play Paul Westhead, who served as the team's head coach from 1980-82, leading them to their first Showtime Era championship before being ousted due to stylistic disagreements with Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss.

"Let's be honest, I don't think that anybody really has Paul Westhead posters on their wall," Segal joked to ET. "So it offered me a great freedom to explore this part kind of free of any expectations."

"What I do think is really cool is this story of the three-headed monster of the coaches in this first Lakers season," he added of the relationship between Westhead, Pat Riley and Jerry West. "As they were desperately trying to figure out how to put not just the Lakers on the court together, but also the coaching staff and the organization... They presented it to me as a Shakespearean drama between these coaches and that's how I thought of it -- loyalty, disloyalty, backstabbing, desperation."

Segal said he shared one "brief exchange" on Twitter with the real-life Westhead, who was "so nice," but added that he "really didn't want to think too much about the real man" when playing him.

"In particular, I wanted to set up the beginning of this arc as someone that, when they become head coach you think, 'Oh no, oh no, oh no,' and so that required me to take a little bit of liberty with his personality at the beginning," he explained, adding that he also didn't worry about offending any of the real-life personalities with Winning Time's portrayals.

"There is some wish-fulfillment to this era," the actor noted. "It's a little bit of why we love Boogie Nights, you know? There's just something about a sense of excitement and freedom and electricity to this particular era that felt a little less observed, a little less judged. Everyone was kinda letting their freak flag fly a little bit -- you can see it in the clothes, you can see it in the behavior -- and I think it was a lot of fun."


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Riley was an assistant to Westhead, and succeeded him as the Lakers head coach in 1981 after Buss -- and, depending on who you ask, Johnson -- decided to fire him. Brody takes on the role just a Riley takes the reins, and before he is the legendary coach that sports fans know and revere today.

"I grew up watching Pat Riley, a both when he was coaching for the Lakers and the Knicks, and I have tremendous admiration for him," Brody told ET. "He is a boss, and he he carries himself in that manner, and it's a fascinating thing to discover the the struggles along the way and that it wasn't all presented to him."

Following four championship with the Showtime Lakers, Riley would go on to coach the early '90s New York Knicks -- who were consistent contenders against the dominant Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls -- before moving on to the Miami Heat, where he won another championship as a head coach before building the "Big Three" team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and still serves as team president.

"It's something that's very easy to overlook when you see a person in that position, where they reach those heights," Brody said of Riley's impressive journey. "It was meaningful for me to discover that... He's inspired me so much and, you know, he owns it now, but he didn't have it always, and it's an amazing thing to watch someone find a path and key into that and know that they have so much to give and relentlessly pursue that."

"I think that's a lesson to all of us," the actor added. "Whatever it is we're trying to accomplish in life, that you have to be in 100 percent. You can't expect to do this without being in 100 percent, and that's what he's done." 


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One of of the most powerful women in professional sports, the role of Jeanie Buss was not something that Hadley Robinson took on lightly, even though Winning Time begins when the future Lakers president was just 19.

"She just had so much motivation, and you can see it in her eyes today," the actress told ET of taking on the part. "It's not just motivation and drive, because I think she has that, but she also has a need to prove something in the beginning because of who her father is, you know?"

Jerry Buss clearly believed in his daughter from a young age, making her the general manager of his tennis franchise, the Los Angeles Strings, when she was still a student at USC. She eventually served four years as president of the Great Western Forum, the Lakers home, before joining the team as executive vice president of business operations in 1999.

"She had the passion for it," Robinson noted. "I think when you have a passion for what you're doing, it really helps your ambition. It helps you get out of bed in the morning, and you can really see that in her."

Following Jerry Buss' death in 2013, Jeanie became controlling owner and president of the Lakers, per her father's wishes. Robinson said that she didn't speak with Buss about the role, but relied on the source material, scripts and political and cultural context of the time to guide the character.

"I really delved into that material and the history of the Lakers, and also just knowing what she went through as a teenager with her family," she noted, adding that she does hope to one day meet Buss in person.

"If she ever watches it, I hope she knows I took it on with a lot of pride and respect for who she is," the actress said. "She's such a great woman... Hopefully she'll know the amount of work and love put into the character."

Winning Time airs Sundays at 9 p.m. PT/ET on HBO.



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