Jason Segal: 'Winning Time' Episode 5 'was almost sweet relief'

Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah, L) got fed up with coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segal). Photo courtesy of HBO
1 of 5 | Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah, L) got fed up with coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segal). Photo courtesy of HBO

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Sunday's episode of Winning Time marked the end of Jason Segal's portrayal of coach Paul Westhead, and Segal said building toward Westhead's inevitable firing produced anxiety.

"It was almost sweet relief because you really start to feel it coming," Segal told UPI in a Zoom interview before the SAG-AFTRA strike.


Although Westhead coached the Los Angeles Lakers to a winning season in 1980, Season 2 showed stumbling blocks. Westhead had conflicts with Pat Riley and the team owners, nixed trades and couldn't settle interpersonal disputes.

"There were moments as we approached the firing where I would read scenes or perform scenes and think, 'This guy's going to get fired, man,'" Segal said.

One such interpersonal dispute was between Westhead and Magic Johnson. Westhead forced Johnson to follow the Westhead system despite Johnson's vocal protests.


"I think the grander and broader miscalculation is thinking that leadership is a dictatorship," Segal said.

Winning Time co-creator and showrunner Max Borenstein said Segal's deal always addressed leaving the show at some point. History showed Westhead was fired in 1981, but how quickly the show reached 1981 was up to Borenstein.

"[Segal] wanted to start as this sort of sidekick character knowing that eventually he would have this full Shakespearean arc," Borenstein said.

In Winning Time's first season, and the 1979-80 NBA season, Westhead was assistant coach under Jack McKinney, who had a bicycle accident during the season and Westhead stepped into the head coach role.

Borenstein said that Westhead evolved "from the guy who's just happy to be there to this guy who's trying and struggling with how to be a leader among some of the greatest players ever."

Ultimately, when Westhead feuded with Johnson, Segal said, the coach sealed his own fate. Johnson requested to be traded, and the Lakers were not about to lose him.

"He really did pick a fight with the wrong guy," Segal said. "Paul Westhead is not going to win the power struggle with Magic Johnson."

Quincy Isaiah, 26, defended Johnson's actions during the season. Isaiah disputed reports that "Magic got his coach fired."


"Magic felt like he wasn't being respected," Isaiah said. "I don't think Westhead was able to understand that, internalize that and try to build a better environment."

Isaiah said that Westhead doubled down on his authority position, forcing Johnson's hand.

"Magic had a little bit more power after he requested that trade," Isaiah said. "You kind of get to see the fallout of it all."

Westhead's departure made Riley the head coach. Though Riley ultimately would coach the Lakers' winning seasons, Brody said Riley observed his friend, Westhead, self-destructing.

"You realize that you have to save yourself and the other teammates on the ship," Brody said. "So it was more sad than anything for me considering the friendship that they had."

Brody agreed that Westhead was blind to the pressures he was putting on Johnson. Brody said Riley's ability to coach Johnson the way Johnson needed led to the whole team's future success.

"Riley's ability to understand that Magic needed encouragement and guidance and a different tact to get ahead led to both of their survival," Brody said.

Segal said he thought impostor syndrome may have gotten the better of Westhead. Despite winning the 1980 finals, Segal said he suspected Westhead still felt like he was under McKinney's shadow and overcompensated.


"You're watching someone's pride get the better of them, I think, most of this season," Segal said. "Paul Westhead ... is someone who wants everyone desperately to believe that they are responsible for the success of the team because he, himself, doesn't know if that's true."

Lakers fans know that Riley would be head coach of the Lakers through the '80s. However, Winning Time will depict the uncertainty behind the scenes after Westhead's departure.

"It's one of the stories that is least remembered by fans," Borenstein said. "What we know to be the outcome was not at all inevitable."

Winning Time airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT and streams on Max.

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