Real People in Showtime Lakers HBO Series 'Winning Time'
The HBO series "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" debuted in 2022 to critical praise and is based on the 2014 nonfiction novel by New York Times bestselling author Jeff Pearlman. It followed up with a second season in summer 2023.
Pearlman's book chronicles one of the most amazing stories in professional sports history — the Los Angeles Lakers "Showtime" era of the 1980s that featured a colorful cast of characters led by point guard Magic Johnson, center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, head coach Pat Riley and owner Jerry Buss.
These are the real-life people behind the HBO series, created by "The Big Short" and "Don't Look Up" director Adam McKay.
Los Angeles Lakers Owner Jerry Buss
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers owner
Born: Jan. 27, 1933 (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Died: Feb. 18, 2013 (age 80, Los Angeles, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": John C. Reilly
Bottom Line: Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly)
One of the central figures in "Winning Time" is real-estate tycoon Jerry Buss, who purchased the Lakers, the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and The Forum, where both teams played, for $67.5 million from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. Buss also got a 13,000-acre California ranch in the deal.
Buss, who is played by Academy Award nominee John C. Reilly, was a larger-than-life figure in sports history and turned pro basketball into what it is today.
Buss died in 2013, at 80 years old, passing the team's ownership to his four children. Daughter Jeannie Buss became the team's controlling owner in 2020 and in July 2021, the Lakers were valued at approximately $5.5 billion.
Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Jerry West
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers general manager
Born: May 28, 1938 (Chelyan, West Virginia)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Jason Clarke
Bottom Line: Jerry West (Jason Clarke)
Jerry West — the man the NBA logo is modeled after — played his entire career for the Los Angeles Lakers and was their head coach for three years before moving into an administrative role, first as a scout then as general manager.
West won one NBA championship as a player then eight more as an executive for the Lakers. All that being said, he still thought the Lakers would be OK taking Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief No. 1 overall in the 1979 NBA draft instead of Magic Johnson.
Los Angeles Lakers Point Guard Magic Johnson
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers point guard
Born: April 14, 1959 (Lansing, Michigan)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Quincy Isaiah
Bottom Line: Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah)
One of the players that changed the NBA, Earvin "Magic" Johnson was selected No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979, just months after leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship. Newcomer Quincy Isaiah, a former NCAA Division III football player, came out of nowhere to land the role of Magic in the HBO series.
Johnson, widely regarded as the greatest point guard of all time, won five NBA championships and three NBA Most Valuable Player awards with the Lakers. Through various business ventures, including a stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Johnson has an estimated net worth of $600 million.
Los Angeles Lakers Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers center
Born: April 16, 1947 (Harlem, New York)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Dr. Solomon Hughes
Bottom Line: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Dr. Solomon Hughes)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar owns the NBA career scoring record and the record for most NBA Most Valuable Player awards with six, which matches the six NBA championships he won over his 20-year career.
That being said, his career was largely defined by his time with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, playing alongside Magic Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar, for all his greatness, had developed a reputation as being a surly superstar by the time Magic arrived.
This view somewhat softened as the two teamed to win five NBA championships as teammates.
Los Angeles Lakers Point Guard Norm Nixon
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers point guard
Born: Oct. 11, 1955 (Macon, Georgia)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": DeVaughn Nixon
Bottom Line: Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon)
No player was more displaced on the Los Angeles Lakers roster with the arrival of Magic Johnson in 1979 than point guard Norm Nixon, who suddenly found himself playing second fiddle to the exuberant young star.
Nixon and Magic still played together for five years and won two championships together, with Nixon even making a pair of All-Star teams in that stretch before Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers in exchange for Byron Scott.
In an interesting twist, Nixon's son, actor DeVaugh Nixon, plays his father in the HBO series.
Great Western Forum General Manager Claire Rothman
Position/role: Great Western Forum general manager
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Gaby Hoffmann
Bottom Line: Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann)
Few people have run a big-time venue better than Claire Rothman, who was in charge of booking events at The Great Western Forum — first under a tyrant-like owner in Jack Kent Cooke, then under Jerry Buss.
Rothman is played by veteran actress Gaby Hoffmann in the HBO series. Hoffmann's first two roles were in two classic films that came out in 1989, when she was just 6 years old. She played Kevin Costner's daughter in "Field of Dreams" and was also in "Uncle Buck" starring the late John Candy.
Position/role: Daughter of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss
Born: Sept. 26, 1961 (Santa Monica, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Hadley Robinson
Bottom Line: Jeannie Buss (Hadley Robinson)
Few women in sports history have wielded as much power as Jeannie Buss now does as the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most valuable professional sports franchises in the entire world.
Buss was running a pro sports team by the time she was 19 years old with the Los Angeles Strings, a pro tennis team owned by her father, Jerry Buss.
Jeannie Buss eventually became the president of The Great Western Forum, then vice president of the Lakers before taking an ownership stake following her father's death in 2013 and becoming a controlling owner in 2020.
Earvin Johnson Sr.
Position/role: Father of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Rob Morgan
Bottom Line: Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan)
"Winning Time" hit a home run in casting Rob Morgan to play the role of Magic Johnson's father, Earvin Johnson Sr., right before Morgan hit the big-time with his role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in the Oscar-nominated "Don't Look Up" in 2021.
In one particularly poignant scene from Jeff Pearlman's book, Earvin Johnson Sr., who worked in a factory for almost his entire adult life, admonishes his son for asking former Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke for $600,000 per year before the 1979 NBA draft.
Magic made $500,000 for his first two seasons in the NBA. After the 1981 season, he signed a 25-year, $25 million contract, which was the richest in sports history at the time.
Former Los Angeles Lakers Owner Jack Kent Cooke
Position/role: Former Los Angeles Lakers owner, former Washington Redskins owner, former Los Angeles Kings owner
Born: Oct. 25, 1912 (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)
Died: April 6, 1997 (age 84, Washington, D.C.)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Michael O'Keefe
Bottom Line: Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O'Keefe)
Jack Kent Cooke was one of the great team owners in professional sports history. He was also a pretty awful human being. In Pearlman's book, there's one particularly disturbing passage on how he treated Great Western Forum operations manager Claire Rothman at one point. Let's just say we would happily invoke the cancel card on dude in 2022.
Cooke's wealth came from a media empire he turned into ownership of the Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, Washington Redskins and The Great Western Forum, liquidating everything but the Redskins ahead of a 1979 divorce. In the HBO series, he's played by Michael O'Keefe — better known from his role in "Caddyshack" as Danny Noonan.
Cooke died in 1997, at 84 years old and with a reported $880 million fortune.
Los Angeles Lakers Play-By-Play Announcer Chick Hearn
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer
Born: Nov. 27, 1916 (Aurora, Illinois)
Died: Aug. 5, 2002 (age 85, Northridge, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Spencer Garrett
Bottom Line: Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett)
Chick Hearn was the Iron Man of sports announcers. He became the play-by-play man for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1961, and after missing a game in November 1965 because he was stranded after doing radio for a college game, he didn't miss a Lakers game until Dec. 16, 2001, an amazing streak of 3,338 consecutive games.
Hearn was the first broadcaster inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and is credited with inventing the terms "slam dunk" and "air ball" as well as many others.
Hearn died from injuries sustained in a fall at his home in 2002. He was 85 years old.
Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling
Position/role: San Diego Clippers/Los Angeles Lakers owner
Born: April 26, 1934 (Chicago, Illinois)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Kirk Bovill
Bottom Line: Donald Sterling (Kirk Bovill)
In the pantheon of professional sports owners, few people have been as truly abhorrent as former San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Routinely called "the worst owner in sports" throughout his tenure, Sterling was known to sit courtside at Clippers games and heckle his own players.
Sterling was forced to sell his team by NBA commissioner Adam Silver in 2014 after recordings of racist comments made by Sterling to a former girlfriend went public. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the team for a reported $2 billion.
Earlitha 'Cookie' Kelly
Position/role: Magic Johnson's girlfriend
Born: Jan. 20, 1959 (Huntsville, Alabama)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Tamera Tomakili
Bottom Line: Earlitha 'Cookie' Kelly (Tamera Tomakili)
Magic Johnson met Earlitha "Cookie" Kelly while the two were undergraduate students at Michigan State University in the late 1970s. The two had an on-again, off-again relationship that continued through Magic's early career with the Lakers.
One cool thing about Cookie is that when she eventually decided to move to Los Angeles she refused to live off of Magic's wealth and fame, instead finding her own place to live and work.
The couple were married in 1991 — just 45 days before Magic announced to the world he was HIV positive.
Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Pat Riley
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach/head coach
Born: March 20, 1945 (Rome, New York)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Adrien Brody
Bottom Line: Pat Riley (Adrien Brody)
After his NBA playing career was over, Pat Riley cooled his heels as a part of the Lakers broadcast team, then went into coaching. After head coach Jack McKinney suffered a devastating injury in a bicycle crash, Paul Westhead became head coach and hired Riley as his assistant.
Riley was hired as head coach in 1981 after Westhead was fired and went on to win five NBA championships as a head coach — four with the Lakers and one with the Miami Heat.
Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, the youngest Best Actor winner in history, campaigned to play the role and portrays Riley in the HBO series.
Position/role: Mother of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Sally Field
Bottom Line: Jessie Buss (Sally Field)
Jerry Buss put together his business and sports empire with his mother, Jessie Buss, at his side, as the Buss family matriarch. She worked alongside him as he built the Los Angeles Lakers into one of the most successful sports franchises of all time.
Jessie Buss is one of several figures from the Showtime dynasty to be played by Academy Award winners in the HBO series. She is played by two-time Best Actress winner Sally Field, who won for "Norma Rae" in 1982 and "Places in the Heart" in 1985.
Los Angeles Lakers Shooting Guard Michael Cooper
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard
Born: April 15, 1956 (Los Angeles, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Delante DeSouza
Bottom Line: Michael Cooper (Delante DeSouza)
Michael Cooper was a Southern California native who was lightly recruited out of Pasadena High School before playing two seasons at Pasadena Community College, then at the University of New Mexico before the Los Angeles Lakers drafted him in the third round in 1978.
Cooper became one of the key parts of the Showtime era and carved out a career that puts his name in the conversation as one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history. He was an eight-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and won five NBA championships.
Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach
Position/role: Boston Celtics general manager/vice chairman
Born: Sept. 20, 1917 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died: Oct. 28, 2006 (age 89, Washington, D.C.)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Michael Chiklis
Bottom Line: Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis)
The man behind the Boston Celtics dynasty was Red Auerbach, who won 16 NBA championships with the franchise — nine as a head coach and seven as an executive.
Auerbach became famous for smoking a cigar when the Celtics would win — the "victory cigar" — and was the key figure in breaking down color barriers in the NBA, drafting the first African-American player in league history in 1950, playing the first all-Black starting five in 1964 and hiring the first Black head coach with player/coach Bill Russell in 1966.
Auerbach is played in the HBO series by "The Shield" star Michael Chiklis, a Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner.
Los Angeles Lakers Small Forward Larry Bird
Position/role: Boston Celtics small forward
Born: Dec. 7, 1956 (West Baden Springs, Indiana)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Sean Patrick Small
Bottom Line: Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small)
Larry Bird is one of the greatest players in NBA history, and his rivalry with Magic Johnson began when the two faced off in the 1979 NCAA championship game, with Magic's Michigan State team topping Bird and Indiana State.
You can make an argument that the rivalry between Magic and Bird, along with the emergence of superstar Michael Jordan a few years later became the basis for the behemoth the NBA became today.
Bird was originally to be played by Bo Burnham in the HBO series, but he dropped out, and the role ultimately went to Sean Patrick Small, who was coincidentally pitching a miniseries on Magic and Bird leading up to the 1979 NCAA championship game.
Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Paul Westhead
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach/head coach
Born: Feb. 21, 1939 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Jason Segel
Bottom Line: Paul Westhead (Jason Segel)
Here's the thing about coaching superstars. No matter how good of a coach you think you are, you're not the one out there on the floor winning games.
Paul Westhead was a fluke head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers after he was picked from head coach Jack McKinney's staff to lead the team after McKinney was severely injured in a bicycle accident.
Westhead led the Lakers to the title in 1980, then made the decision to take the ball out of Magic Johson's hands in the up-tempo Lakers offense.
The actor who plays Westhead, Jason Segel, has deep ties to basketball in Southern California. He was on back-to-back CIF state championship teams at Harvard-Westlake High in 1996 and 1997 alongside future NBA centers and twins Jason and Jarron Collins.
Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Bill Sharman
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers general manager
Born: May 25, 1926 (Abilene, Texas)
Died: Oct. 25, 2013 (age 87, Redondo Beach, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Brett Cullen
Bottom Line: Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen)
Bill Sharman is an anomaly in the history of the Showtime era for the Los Angeles Lakers. He won four NBA championships as a player for the Boston Celtics then led the Lakers to the 1972 NBA championship as the team's head coach.
Sharman, who is one of just five people inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as both a player and as a coach, then won five more championships as an executive for the Lakers — first as the general manager, then as team president.
Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Jack McKinney
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers head coach
Born: July 13, 1935 (Chester, Pennsylvania)
Died: Sept. 25, 2018 (age 83, Bonita Springs, Florida)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Tracy Letts
Bottom Line: Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts)
In one of the crueler twists in NBA history, Jack McKinney was the person who brought the Showtime era to the Los Angeles Lakers, but most basketball fans have never heard his name.
McKinney was hired as the head coach of the Lakers before the 1979-80 season but only coached a few games before he was left permanently disabled in a bicycle accident. McKinney was replaced by Paul Westhead, and the Lakers went on to win the NBA championship that season.
McKinney died in 2018, at 83 years old.
Los Angeles Lakers Small Forward Jamaal Wilkes
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers small forward
Born: May 2, 1953 (Berkeley, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Jimel Atkins
Bottom Line: Jamaal Wilkes (Jimel Atkins)
Jamaal Wilkes won an NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors in 1975 before coming to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1977, where he won three more NBA championships with the franchise.
Wilkes is one of the more unheralded members of the Showtime era. In the clinching Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, the big story was rookie Magic Johnson, who went from point guard to center and put up 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
Little credit is given to Wilkes, who scored 37 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
NBA Commissioner David Stern
Position/role: NBA commissioner
Born: Sept. 22, 1942 (New York, New York)
Died: Jan. 1, 2020 (age 77, New York, New York)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Andy Hirsch
Bottom Line: David Stern (Andy Hirsch)
The man who oversaw the growth of the NBA into a global powerhouse was commissioner David Stern, who ran the league from 1984 to 2014.
Stern's involvement with the NBA dated back to 1966, when the Columbia law grad began as outside counsel, was hired as inside counsel in 1978 then became executive vice president in 1980.
The year before Stern took over, the NBA made $165 million. When he retired in 2014, the league was making upward of $5 billion per year.
Los Angeles Lakers Power Forward Spencer Haywood
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers power forward
Born: April 22, 1949 (Silver City, Mississippi)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Wood Harris
Bottom Line: Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris)
Spencer Haywood is one of the more troubling figures in Jeff Pearlman's book about the Lakers and their Showtime era. Haywood was a talented but cocaine-addicted star who was thrown off the team during the 1980 NBA Finals for falling asleep during a practice.
Haywood was married to supermodel Iman from 1977 to 1987 and is portrayed in the HBO series by an actor who should be very familiar to prestige TV fans — "The Wire" star Wood Harris, who portrayed Avon Barksdale in the hit HBO series some consider the greatest television show of all time.
Position/role: Supermodel wife of Los Angeles Lakers center Spencer Haywood
Born: July 22, 1955 (Mogadishu, Somalia)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Mariama Diallo
Bottom Line: Iman (Mariama Diallo)
Supermodel Iman was married to Los Angeles Lakers center Spencer Haywood from 1977 to 1987 — a period in which Haywood had a crippling addiction to cocaine.
Iman was also an actress in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with roles in films like "No Way Out" and guest appearances on "The Cosby Show" and "Miami Vice" among others.
Iman remarried to rock superstar David Bowie in 1992 and was with him until his death in 2016.
UNLV Head Coach Jerry Tarkanian
Position/role: UNLV head basketball coach
Born: Aug. 8, 1930 (Euclid, Ohio)
Dead: Feb. 11, 2015 (age 84, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Rory Cochrane
Bottom Line: Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane)
Jerry Tarkanian turned down a chance to become the Los Angeles Lakers head coach in 1977, when he was offered a paltry sum of $70,000 — barely more than what he was making as the head coach for UNLV at the time.
The Lakers came back to Tarkanian again before the 1979-80 season, and this time, he agreed to become the coach, until his agent, Victor Weiss, went missing. Weiss, a man with known mob ties, was found several days after Tarkanian and the Lakers agreed to the deal, shot to death in a Los Angeles parking garage.
Tarkanian stayed at UNLV and won a national championship in 1990.
Los Angeles Lakers Shooting Guard Ron Boone
Position/role: Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard
Born: Sept. 6, 1946 (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Edwin Hodge
Bottom Line: Ron Boone (Edwin Hodge)
Ron Boone was a key component to the Los Angeles Lakers right before the Showtime era began and set the NBA record for consecutive games played with 1,041 over his NBA career. Boone had an even wilder claim that he never missed a game from the fourth grade through his 13-year NBA career.
Boone's consecutive games record was broken by a member of the Showtime Lakers — forward A.C. Green appeared in 1,192 consecutive games.
Born: Dec. 1, 1940 (Peoria, Illinois)
Died: Dec. 10, 2005, 65 years old (Los Angeles, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Mike Epps
Bottom Line: Richard Pryor (Mike Epps)
It's not totally clear what role Richard Pryor plays in the HBO series, but it's pretty awesome he's going to be in it at all — and it makes sense as Pryor would have been at the middle of the L.A. social scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Another cool casting twist is veteran comedian Mike Epps will play Pryor, who died in 2005. Epps was long-rumored to play Pryor in a biopic that never materialized.
Position/role: Oscar-winning actor, Los Angeles Lakers superfan
Born: April 22, 1937 (Neptune City, New Jersey)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Max E. Williams
Bottom Line: Jack Nicholson (Max E. Williams)
Does this man really need an introduction?
Three-time Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson is one of the most famous actors to ever walk the face of the Earth. He's also the most famous Los Angeles Lakers fan of all time.
Nicholson has had season tickets since 1970 and has had clauses written into his contracts on several films that required the shooting schedule be constructed partly around his ability to attend home games.
Position/role: Laker Girl/singer/dancer/choreographer
Born: June 19, 1983 (San Fernando, California)
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Carina Conti
Bottom Line: Paula Abdul (Carina Conti)
Kids, Paula Abdul was one of the biggest pop stars of the 1990s.
Before that, she caught her first break at 18 years old, when she was one of the Laker Girls in 1980, which was the same year Magic Johnson won his first NBA championship with the Lakers.
Abdul became a choreographer for music videos — most notably Janet Jackson — and her 1988 debut album "Forever My Girl" sold 7 million copies and set a record with four No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
Position/role: Author, "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s"
Born: circa 1972
Who plays them in "Winning Time": Pearlman has a walk-on role as a reporter in the HBO series.
Bottom Line: Jeff Pearlman
We never get to this place without Jeff Pearlman, the author of the book that "Winning Time" is based on. He also has a walk-on role as a reporter in one of the early episodes of the HBO series.
Pearlman has written nine books, including "The Bad Guys Won" about the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and "Three-Ring Circus" about the Lakers' dynasty in the early 2000s with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and head coach Phil Jackson. The book has been optioned by HBO as well.