The True Story Behind Magic Johnson’s Trade Demand in Winning Time S2E4
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty episode 4 explores the escalating conflict between Coach Paul Westhead and star player Magic Johnson that leads to their eventual fallout.
The acclaimed HBO series has been careful to distinguish between historical accuracy and artistic license in its portrayal of the characters and events. Overall, Winning Time episode 4, titled “The New World” adheres to the original sources, except for some minor deviations. These changes mainly concern the role of the Los Angeles media in exposing the internal drama of the team in the early 1980s.
Winning Time season 2 episode 3 focused on the origin story of the legendary Boston Celtic Larry Bird, while the fourth episode focuses on the action of the Lakers Showtime era at the beginning of the 1981 NBA season.
The rivalry between Buss’ Lakers and Auerbach’s Celtics reaches new heights of intensity, as both teams are coming off an NBA Championship. The 1981-82 season would be a decisive test for the state of professional basketball, especially with Magic and Larry Bird emerging as dominant forces after their rookie and sophomore seasons. However, before Magic can face his arch-nemesis, he has to overcome his biggest challenge: the rigid coaching style of Paul Westhead.
1. Did Red Auerbach leak the $25 million deal?
No. In reality, Red Auerbach did not leak Magic’s $25 million deal to the press.
In season 2 episode 4, Celtics President Red Auerbach is shown as the source of the leak about Magic Johnson’s $25 million deal with the Lakers, after a tense exchange with Jerry Buss. This is a fictionalized version of the events, as Auerbach was not motivated by spite to reveal the news to the media and disrupt the Lakers’ harmony.
In fact, Auerbach was involved in the Players Association and had a role in approving the unusual contract. The actual announcement of Magic’s 25-year contract extension was made by Jerry Buss before the 1981 season.
The portrayal of Auerbach as the instigator of the leak in Winning Time is only a narrative device to heighten the animosity between the two historic franchises.
2. Magic’s Teammates Were Envious of Him
The revelation of Magic Johnson’s $25 million contract extension caused resentment and alienation among his teammates, who were already envious of his celebrity status and endorsement deals after his rookie season.
The 1980-81 Lakers had a significant age gap between Magic and most of his teammates, especially Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The announcement of the lucrative contract extension by Buss increased the discomfort of the players around the superstar, who was expected to be their leader on the court but was creating tension behind the scenes.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Was Close to Leaving the Lakers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was considering leaving the Lakers at the beginning of the 1981-82 season. The veteran player was solely focused on the game of basketball and was also part of the group that saw Magic’s fame as a distraction.
Jabbar was close to requesting a trade after learning about Magic’s huge contract extension, eyeing another strong team such as the New York Knicks where basketball was valued more.
Kareem did not hold a personal grudge against Magic for the preferential treatment, but he believed that the unequal treatment of one player would undermine the cohesion and harmony of the whole team.
Kareem’s concerns were not personal but rather about his chances of winning more NBA Championships, which he doubted at the time.
4. A Disappointing Beginning for the Lakers
The Lakers had a disappointing start to their 1981-82 season, winning only two of their first six games before recovering with four consecutive victories.
The troubled Showtime Lakers lost their home opener by a narrow margin to the Houston Rockets, which featured NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone, and then suffered another defeat on the road against the Portland Trailblazers, dropping to 0-2.
Jerry Buss was not overly concerned about the slow start, trusting in the roster he had assembled. Paul Westhead attributed the poor performance to the lack of adherence to his offensive system, especially from Magic Johnson. When the Lakers hit a low point of 2-6, Westhead started to feel the pressure of his job security, but a four-game winning streak would soon ease his worries.
5. The Murder of Jerry Tarkanian’s Friend
The intriguing story of Jerry Tarkanian resurfaces in episode 4, after featuring the coach in several episodes of season 1. Jerry Buss had been searching for a new head coach for the Lakers during the 1978-80 seasons and had targeted Jerry Tarkanian, who was a successful coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Paul Westhead mentions in this episode that he probably would not have won an NBA Championship if Coach McKinney had not been injured in a bike accident and if Tarkanian’s friend had not been murdered and stuffed in a trunk in a suspected mob hit due to gambling debt. These words were a result of his growing insecurity.
6. Pat Riley Wore a Neck Brace to Deal with Stress
Pat Riley began wearing a neck brace after the Lakers’ 1980-81 season due to the stress he felt about the team’s situation. Riley is portrayed as being strained by his conflicts with Coach Paul Westhead, which may have contributed to his injury.
However, the actual reason for Riley’s use of the brace was the failure of the Lakers’ playoff run at the end of the previous season. Winning Time implies that Riley’s neck problem was mainly caused by his difficulties with Westhead, when in fact it was a more general reaction to his commitment and worry for the Lakers as a whole.
7. Magic Requests a Trade from the Lakers
The most surprising event of this episode is when Magic Johnson asked for a trade from the Lakers after a convincing win over the Utah Jazz. He told the media that he could not play for the Lakers anymore despite their recent success and signs that the team was finally settling into the 1981-82 season.
Magic clearly used his leverage with his direct access to Jerry Buss and demonstrated his special status, which was exactly what Paul, Kareem, and other Lakers players feared.
While Magic had the right to eventually get Paul Westhead fired, it was a sign of his unwillingness to be a team player. The rest of Winning Time season 2 will surely depict the shift of power from Westhead to assistant coach Pat Riley.
8. About Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is an American sports drama television series created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht for HBO, based on the book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman.
The first season, comprising 10 episodes, chronicles the 1980s Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team (beginning in late 1979), featuring notable NBA stars Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It features an ensemble cast led by John C. Reilly, Jason Clarke, Jason Segel, Gaby Hoffmann, Rob Morgan, and Adrien Brody. The series premiered on March 6, 2022, with the pilot episode directed by Adam McKay. In April 2022, the series was renewed for a second season, which premiered on August 6, 2023.