Jack Out of the Box blog

JERRY WEST AND WINNING TIME

When I was a kid, I had a poster of Jerry West hanging on my wall.  As I grew older, I remained impressed not only with Jerry West’s accomplishments on the court, but I admired his performance as a general manager.  He helped put together the Showtime Lakers, the Golden State Warriors and more recently the Los Angeles Clippers.

So I was surprised when the HBO Series “Winning Time” portrayed him as an over the top rage machine, complete with depictions of him throwing things through windows and otherwise being more part of a problem than an architect of the solution.  West was surprised as well.  And he and his legal team recently sent a letter to HBO and series producer Adam McKay demanding that they set the record straight.  Former players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper have given statements in support.

West wants an apology and a retraction and he has hinted he may seek damages.  So, would he have a case?  Maybe.  While the show is called a “dramatization,” which suggests some facts may get glossed over, it’s not a work of fiction.  West is a real person who either behaved in the manner depicted or didn’t.  It doesn’t seem like HBO has an opinion defense here.  Complicating things is that the TV series claims to be based on the book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” by Jeff Pearlman.  But Pearlman’s book doesn’t paint that picture of West.

So incidents portrayed as facts – like throwing objects through windows or drinking at work – may, if false, support a defamation claim.  But other parts of the portrayal may not.

For example, West’s letter complains that West is portrayed in the series as objecting to the Lakers drafting Magic Johnson, and pushing for Sidney Moncrief.  That may be a tougher task.  West admits that he pointed out Moncrief’s scoring ability, and suggested that the Lakers consider him.  And indeed, at the time the Lakers had a pretty competent point guard in Norm Nixon.  A two guard like Moncrief made some sense.  So suggesting that West preferred Moncrief may not be false and it doesn’t exactly make him look like an idiot.  His legal team might have an uphill fight with that battle.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  West may not really want to pursue a costly defamation claim, so this may not go anywhere.  On the other hand, West may still be a fan favorite, and HBO may not want to take a chance on a high stakes game of one on one here.  After all, Jerry West is capable of some pretty amazing stuff.