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'Winning Time' felt pressure to portray 1979-80 Lakers

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'Winning Time' felt pressure to portray 1979-80 Lakers
 John C. Reilly plays Lakers owner Jerry Buss in "Winning Time." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, March 6 (UPI) -- Cast members of Winning Time, premiering Sunday on HBO, said they felt pressure to embody the players, owner and manager of the Los Angeles Lakers in their 1979-1980 season, the year Jerry Buss invested in the team and Magic Johnson joined the roster.

Based on Jeff Pearlman's book Showtime, Winning Time cast actors to portray NBA Legends. Former college basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter Solomon Hughes, 43, plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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"There was the acting component, and then there was the physical component of trying to become a silhouette of these mountains of men," Hughes said on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "No one can shoot a sky hook like Kareem. So I'm going to give it my best shot."

Quincy Isaiah, 25, plays Earvin "Magic" Johnson in the series, who was drafted out of college in 1979. Isaiah said he agreed with Hughes that actors could only hope to capture some of the mannerisms of famous NBA players.

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"They're icons for a reason," Isaiah said. "It's hard to emulate that, but we can get a little taste, a little essence of who they are on the court."

Norm Nixon was in the middle of his Lakers career in 1979. His son, 38-year-old Devaughn Nixon, portrays him on Winning Time.

"I'm a spitting image of my father," Nixon said. "I remember one scene that we did, and it started with me shooting a three, and I was talking to myself. I was like, 'Look, man. You can't let your dad down and you can't let the production down. You got to nail it.'"

Nixon said Winning Time created a believable atmosphere of 1979 Lakers games that helped him feel like he really was on the court. Nixon said actors portraying opposing teams, and fans in the stands, contributed to the atmosphere, including doing "the wave" in the stands.

"When we were playing against opposing teams, they would talk trash to us, too," Nixon said. "Somebody might have said, 'Magic sucks.' 'Kareem, he's old, he's fatter.' It put the fire under our butts."

Buss's efforts led the 1979-80s Lakers to win their first NBA championship since 1972. This set the stage for the team to win eight out of 10 championships in the '80s.

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Reilly, 56, said Buss' behind-the-scenes deals were documented in Pearlman's book. However, Reilly said he asked writers Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein not to tell him which scenes were dramatized.

"I've never wanted to know the difference," Reilly said. "I didn't want to know what really happened and what didn't happen, because I needed to act like it all happened."

In 1979, Buss faced many doubters for recruiting Johnson. History would prove him correct in his intuition about the young player.

Reilly said Winning Time will also touch on Buss' personal life as it pertains to his business with the Lakers.

"He was a confirmed bachelor," Reilly said. "After he got divorced. he dated a lot, so we definitely wanted to be truthful about that part of it. But, I think you'll agree when you see the whole series that that's just one small facet of Jerry's life."

Throughout Winning Time, Buss and other characters often turn to the camera to address the audience mid-scene. It is a style director-executive producer Adam McKay also used in his film, The Big Short and Vice.

Reilly said when he addressed the audience, he treated the camera like his co-star.

"You're kind of talking to everyone," Reilly said. "I tried to be as specific and as intimate as I could be to build that relationship from episode to episode, so that you really felt comfortable when I was talking to you and lead the way through this story."

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Gaby Hoffman, 40, who plays Claire Rothman, manager of the Lakers' home court The Forum, said she made no distinction between lines she spoke to co-stars and those she spoke directly to the camera.

"I found it to be quite easy because of the way that it's written," Hoffman said. "It just felt like another beat."

Isaiah said the episode directors sometimes would suggest he deliver some lines directly to camera, even though they were not originally scripted as such.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I feel like they figure out which one feels the best," Isaiah said.

Reilly said the spontaneity of characters speaking to the audience contributes to the chaotic nature of the story.

"The characters in the story could, at any time, turn right to you and start talking to you," Reilly said. "That was a really special part of it."

New episodes of Winning Time air Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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