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Jerry West demands retraction of his ‘cruel’ portrayal in ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’

Jason Clarke as Jerry West in “Winning Time.”
(Warrick Page/HBO)

NBA icon and Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West is declaring the depiction of his character in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” to be “cruel” and “deliberately false,” and is demanding a retraction within two weeks from today.

“The portrayal of... West... is fiction pretending to be fact — a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family,” Skip Miller, West’s attorney, said in a statement. “Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history.”

The series, which premiered in March, shows how the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, with the help of rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson and veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, created the team’s “Showtime” era, realizing Buss’ revolutionary vision of mixing muscular athleticism with noisy, sexy entertainment.

In the series, West, as played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, is a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed executive given to furious tantrums and mood swings.

We explore the real-life saga behind the Laker coaches — Jerry West, Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley — who appear in HBO’s ‘Winning Time.’

In a letter sent to HBO, Warner Bros., Discovery and executive producer Adam McKay, who directed the show’s pilot, West’s attorneys said “Winning Time” falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic. The Jerry West in ‘Winning Time’ bears no resemblance to the real man. The real Jerry West prided himself on treating people with dignity and respect. ‘Winning Time’ is a baseless and malicious assault on Jerry West’s character. You reduced the legacy of an 83-year old legend and role model to that of a vulgar and unprofessional bully — the polar opposite of the real man.”

The letter also declares that the series has damaged the “Showtime” legacy of the Lakers.

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“For the players, coaches and the entire Lakers organization this was a magical and amazing time; and they, along with Jerry West, enjoyed it and got along great with one another,” said the letter. “This reality is directly contrary to the portrayals in your show.

“Unfortunately, your false portrayal of the Lakers in your show has caused harm to the reputation of the Lakers organization and its people. Some of the individuals portrayed have passed away and are unable to defend themselves. For others, it has tarnished their reputations and shown them in a damaging false light. ... You took a happy and super successful Lakers era and turned it into a pulpy soap opera. You depicted the people in a false light, not at all who they are, to garner ratings and make money.”

The letter also contains testimonials from former Lakers Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes; former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, the current president of the Charlotte Hornets; and others who found the characterization of Jerry to be “egregious and cruel,” said Miller.

The letter comes on the heels of a blistering essay by Abdul-Jabbar, who called “Winning Time” “boring” and “deliberately dishonest.”

Everything you need to know about the true story of the Showtime Lakers, all in one place.

“The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans [sic] Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” wrote Abdul-Jabbar. “Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous P—. They are caricatures, not characters.”

Added Abdul-Jabbar: “It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression. Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”

McKay and the show’s other producers have said that the series was extensively researched, and that the project was developed out of admiration and love for the Lakers.

The Times has reached out to HBO and West for comment and will update this story accordingly.

HBO’s “Winning Time” captures the Lakers’ Showtime spirit, but the show gets one thing very wrong: its over-the-top portrayal of legend Jerry West.


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