Jeff Pearlman was skeptical. Hollywood had approached the longtime sportswriter and author before. Nothing ever came of it, until now.
HBO’s highly anticipated Winning Time is based on Pearlman’s 2014 book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.” The series premieres on March 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
Awful Announcing caught up with Pearlman to discuss the process, the show and his next project.
How did this all start?
“Jim Hecht, a screenwriter, reached out to me. He came to the house on Easter Sunday 2014. We’re both Jewish so it didn’t really matter. We had dinner. He talked about his love for the book and thought it could be something. I didn’t believe him, but he was nice. I did give him the rights. I ended up doing it for no money, which was dumb.”
Did you think it would take this long?
“Over the years Jim would call me. I never believed him. I was always skeptical. Then one day, he says ‘Adam McKay wants to meet with us.’ I didn’t know who Adam McKay was. I swear to God. So, I’m standing outside Adam McKay’s house Googling ‘Adam McKay.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, this guy has done a lot.’ We have a meeting. McKay sounds interested. He says ‘I really like that book.’ But I still don’t believe anybody. Then one day, contracts come from HBO. That’s the abridged version, but it’s true.”
Were you still skeptical?
“I’m signing these contracts, but I still don’t believe anything is going to happen. They’re going to pay me a little money. That’s cool. Then one day, Jim says, ‘They’re starting to hire actors: John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Sally Field. They’re going to start taping on this date.’ All of a sudden, holy shit. It’s actually happening.”
Was this a longtime dream?
“It was never on my radar. It’s not like I wrote books thinking that it would be great if these became TV shows. It wasn’t something that was in my head until my first book was optioned years ago. It was about the 1986 New York Mets (The Bad Guys Won!). That was the first time I realized there was this thing where they option your books.”
How similar is Winning Time to your book?
“It’s definitely similar. It’s not a documentary. It’s a dramatic series. For example, in the book, (the Lakers) had a coach when Magic was drafted named Jack McKinney. He coached them for a handful of games and then he had a bicycle accident. Very few people have talked about it. I wrote extensively about it. When I’m watching the show and they’re digging deep into Jack McKinney, it just warms my heart.
“Jerry Tarkanian was briefly hired to coach the Lakers. They dive deep into Jerry Tarkanian. It’s really cool. I thought they did a good job of taking the story and bringing it to life.”
Did you have much influence on the series?
“Very little. That’s not my (job), but they have been incredibly cool. Early on I got a good feeling. Someone called me and asked ‘Do you know what material was used on the summer league uniforms that Magic Johnson wore back in ’79? Do you have any pictures of those uniforms? We really want to get it right.’ I remember going to the set, and they recreated the 1979 NBA basketballs. They actually remade the balls using the same material. You could tell these guys were serious.”
Whose performance surprised you?
“The guy who plays Magic Johnson is my favorite story. Quincy Isaiah was a Division III football player from Michigan. His birth name is Quincy Crosby. He played at Kalamazoo College. Never heard of him. Almost no acting experience. You see the guy as Magic Johnson and it’s ridiculously good. He just oozes young Magic.”
How is John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss and Adrien Brody as Pat Riley?
“Freaking awesome. John C. Reilly is awesome. And it’s funny with Brody. My wife and I have been watching the show. For five minutes in the beginning, I’m like ‘I don’t know. I feel like I’m just going to see Adrien Brody.’ Then suddenly, a transformation happens. I guess that’s why he’s an Academy Award-winning actor. He really channels Pat Riley.”
Are you going to get involved in other TV shows or movies?
“Jon Wertheim and I worked at Sports Illustrated for years, and we’re writing a screenplay. I’m not saying that Winning Time was the exact reason, but it opened my eyes to a different kind of writing. I like the idea of diversifying. It’s with Time Studios, which is owned by Time Warner. It’s about a school shooting.”
Why that topic?
“Time Warner approached us about writing a screenplay concerning the continued travesty that is America’s school gun violence problem. I’m a dad. Jon’s a dad. We both feel passionate about the issue, and it seemed like a real opportunity to write something meaningful.”
Winning Time will premiere on March 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
[Image via HBO on YouTube]