When John C. Reilly and, ostensibly, Dr. Jerry Buss turns to address the camera, he speaks not in the future tense but the present. Reilly’s Buss is not granted foresight into what will become of his Lakers. He is far from an omniscient narrator and is in no way all-knowing, all-seeing. Instead, the breaking of the fourth wall acts primarily as a vehicle for Buss to address himself. He is arguing out his frustrations, as we see in the opening montage of Episode 7, “Invisible Man.” The title works as both a callback to the classic piece of literature by Ralph Ellison on the otherness of African-Americans and also to the unseen audience, which is both us and Buss’ id.
When Buss speaks to the camera, it’s to comment on what is happening in the here and now (of 1980, that is). This creative choice keeps the Showtime simulation not only entertaining but semi-believable. If creator Max Borenstein allowed Buss or any of the characters to see into the future or comment on how choices would affect themselves or others down the line, it would drown the show in obfuscation.
By limiting the character’s POV, the show stays in its world, no matter how surreal and zany it may get. It also allows those less initiated in NBA folklore to enjoy the theatrics as scenes play out. Part of the fun is how removed the arc of the Showtime Lakers’ first championship season was from recent memory. We are all a little bit hazy about the narrative, making the grounding of time and place in 1980 Los Angeles welcomed.
This episode finds each character taking a leg up in their situations. Pat Riley leaves the broadcast booth to fill a role as an assistant coach on the bench. Paul Westphal beats the rival Boston Celtics to keep his job for another day. Jack McKinney learns to tie his shoes again after a near-fatal fall. Claire Rothman devises a financial plan to save the team. And Magic has found his great white whale in Larry Bird, his equal, rival, and ultimate antithesis.
Magic takes on the role of Ellison’s nameless narrator, guiding us through a three-game East Coast road trip as the fate of Westphal’s coaching career and the Lakers’ potential championship run hang in the balance. We see fans like the random white girl in Bird’s home state of Indiana who flashes Magic with Bird’s name written on her breasts, telling him Bird will eat his lunch. It’s an aggressive, sexually violent gesture, knowing throughout history how the histrionics of lying white women led to the lynching of so many innocent African American men.
Magic navigates social, business, and racial dealings as a Black man struggling with a newfound double consciousness. As literary critics utilized Black Existentialism as a lens by which to read Ellison’s masterpiece, we too can use it to deconstruct Winning Time. The Invisible Man at play is both Earvin and Magic. As Earvin, he finds warmth in his father’s sensibilities, the proverbs of his mother, and the loyalty of his lover, Cookie. But as Magic, he is but a pawn in the white owner’s schemes. He must smile for the camera, win ball games, and stay in line. Magic is constantly having to overcome racism as an obstacle to achieving his dreams and solidifying his identity.
When Earvin arrives in his hometown of Detroit to face the Pistons, he is reunited with Cookie. But he is immediately distracted by Magic’s responsibilities — business dealings, isolation, and a deadly game of power vs. morality. By now, Magic has garnered a reputation as a womanizer. In the following sequence, a white woman notifies Cookie, thinking she is a fellow thot in competition for Magic’s time, scoffing at her not wearing a bright enough outfit for his attention. Earvin might have an eye on building a family and settling down, but Magic is relishing in the level of visibility he’s achieved.
There’s a poignant scene between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic’s father, played by Rob Morgan, at a Christmas dinner before the big game against Boston. Both men marvel over the naivete of Magic. How can he remain unfazed by all the shit White America continues to throw at black men? Kareem has a taste for knowledge. He has connected himself deep within the emerging Black consciousness. But Earvin Jr. has lived it, noting growing up in Mississippi, he saw lynchings nearly every week in the Jim Crow South. So Earvin Sr. asks Kareem, the elder statesman of the Lakers, to kick his son’s ass if he gets out of line. It’s a simple, loving gesture of a father and big brother towards one of their own. It shows how people of color had/have to look for each other amid the white wolves and the acid-tongued business types surrounding the young prodigy.
It also reminds us there are so many characters crucial to telling the story of the Showtime Lakers properly — some will get left behind. It’s a shame we haven’t been able to see more of Sally Field and Morgan. The poetic dinner scene could easily be forgotten within an episode centered around the pivotal matchup between the Celtics and Lakers. But the stakes of Magic’s soul, and the brotherhood of Magic’s family, on and off the court, are held together by scenes such as these. Whether it happened exactly as Winning Time tells it is inconsequential because these are the matchups the audience is most invested in. Not Lakers vs. Celtics, or Bird vs. Magic but Magic vs. Earvin. Plus, anyone watching this show and rooting for these Lakers then and now knows, “Fuck Boston.”