Max Borenstein is living a dream. The Godzilla vs. Kong screenwriter grew up in Los Angeles, watching the Showtime Lakers and cheering for Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; decades later, he’s the cocreator and showrunner of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. But nothing can prepare you to face criticism from your idols.
Based on sports writer Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the hit drama—which has already been greenlit for season two—is also a major miss, at least according to many of those chronicled. Abdul-Jabbar penned a scathing essay, while lawyers for Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player and former Lakers coach and general manager, have demanded a retraction, apology, and damages for the allegedly “false and defamatory portrayal” of West, played by actor Jason Clarke, as an “out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic.”
In a recent statement, HBO came to the defense of Borenstein and company: “Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”
Winning Time concluded its first season with Sunday’s “Promised Land,” in which the Magic-led Lakers ended their own first season with an NBA championship. To talk about the finale, the detractors, and the future, we went one-on-one with Borenstein.
Vanity Fair: When I do these season postmortems with showrunners, it’s often, “Oh, man, how did you arrive at this shocking conclusion?!” But, here, any die-hard NBA fan or human with Google knew that the Lakers win the 1980 title. So how did you go about making sure it didn’t feel anticlimactic?
Max Borenstein: It’s twofold: It’s making sure that it’s not anticlimactic, and it’s making sure that it’s not climactic, because this is only the beginning of the story. I think people know the broad strokes of this story from the 30,000-foot view, but that’s in the same way that you know the broad strokes of an adaptation of a great novel or Shakespeare. Just the fact that you know the what doesn’t mean you understand the how or the why. And it actually liberates us so that we can still have some surprises for the audience, because there are many things people don’t know, like about the Jack McKinneys of the world who have been forgotten.
People tell most sports stories specifically because they have an end. The template is, you win, you lose. In our case, we’re doing something different. We’re telling an epic that happens to be in the world of sports, but, in many ways, what it’s really about is what happens after. From the very beginning, you meet characters who are entering a second act of their lives or scrounging about hoping that they’ll find a second act in their lives. Jerry West, Pat Riley—those are guys who’ve won, and then the end of sports came and they stared out into the abyss, asking themselves, “Now what?” So hopefully we can dramatize the episode in a way that surprises and engages, while still digging into these fundamental questions where you realize that the victory itself is complicated and nuanced.
I’m interested in how you’re pacing both this season and the series. What was it like plotting out year one, knowing you have 10-plus years of content to work into what probably won’t be 10-plus seasons of a show?
I don’t know if we’ll have 10 seasons, but I know how many seasons it should be in order to do it right. Precisely because people can go to the Wikipedia page and find out “what happened,” there’s no point in doing a show that just recreates those events and adds a few jokes and takes you through the decade in a couple years. By definition, if you’re spending your real estate on moving that quickly through time, you can’t possibly go deep into any characters or the experience, and those are the things that were more exciting and interesting for me. It became clear very early on that the interesting version of this story needed to be slowed down—and still a tremendous amount of stuff happens in this season. Every episode is chock-full of incidents, murders, and pregnancies! [Laughs.] While the nostalgia stuff is a lovely aspect of making a show about a period people remember, if that’s all you’ve got, then you’ve got a pretty shallow pool. This is a great American epic that deserves a novelistic approach.