Fact vs Fiction: Winning Time season 1 episode 1 — did Magic Johnson almost say no to the Lakers?

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson in Winning Time
(Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

The first episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty season 1 has aired, and as with any series that’s based on real-life events, we the viewers have questions about the authenticity of what was shown. 

Did Magic really almost reject the Lakers’ offer? Did Dr. Jerry Buss pay almost $68 million for an NBA team? Did Norm Nixon dislike Magic so much that he would play him one on one in a white fur coat in Los Angeles? Okay, so this last question may be a personal thought about the practicality of wearing a fur coat outside in LA in late spring to play basketball. But seriously, Did Norm Nixon really hate Magic Johnson? 

Here’s what we’ve determined in our effort to separate fact from friction. 

Who did Jerry Buss buy the Lakers from?  

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss on the floor of the Forum in Los Angeles

John C. Reilly in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty was absolutely correct when it showed Dr.Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) purchasing the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O'Keefe). However, what the show didn’t air was just how complicated this purchase was for Buss. 

According to a Los Angeles Times article from 2013, for more than a year, the good doctor had routinely taken trips to Cooke’s home in Las Vegas to talk basketball and discuss the possibility of buying the Lakers. So there was nothing quick about the deal between Buss and Cooke. 

Viewers also weren’t made aware that when Cooke eventually decided to sell the team to Buss, the Chrysler building wasn’t a part of the deal. As a matter of fact, the Chrysler building was a last-minute request from Cooke. This was a problem for Buss considering he didn’t own the property at the time, which meant he had to acquire it.

Additionally, although Winning Time showed Buss borrowing money from his ex-wife JoAnn Mueller to get enough cash for the deal, it didn’t show that he also received loans from one-time Indiana Pacers owner Sam Nassi and former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling, though Sterling does make an appearance in the episode.

Lastly, while the show for obvious reasons focused on the Lakers in this deal, Buss didn’t just purchase the NBA team from Cooke. Viewers were led to believe Buss paid $67.5 million in cash and property for just the team sporting purple and gold. He actually paid $16 million for the Lakers, $8 million for the NHL team the Los Angeles Kings and $33.5 million for the Forum. 

Did Norm Nixon hate Magic Johnson? 

Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon one on one

Quincy Isaiah and DeVaugh Nixon in Winning Time (Image credit: HBO)

Depends on who you believe. DeVaughn Nixon, who plays his real-life dad Norm Nixon, recently stated in a USA Today interview, "My dad and Magic were cool." The actor also noted there was a competition between the two as Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) was a "rookie coming in trying to threaten his position." But DeVaughn Nixon assured that the HBO series portrays "added drama." 

However, former Los Angeles Laker Michael Cooper told Jeff Pearlman, the author behind  Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, "... we all knew Norman was really jealous." While jealously doesn’t always lend itself to dislike or even hatred, in most cases it’s not an emotion used to build a life-long BFF bond. 

By the way, the infamous Winning Time scene with the one-on-one pickup game between Nixon and Johnson appears not to have ever taken place.  So Nixon wasn't hooping in a fur coat. 

Did Magic Johnson almost reject the Lakers' offer? 

Winning Time HBO

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah and Jason Clarke in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Magic Johnson didn’t agonize over a decision between playing for the Lakers and returning to play basketball for Michigan State University, as shown in the premiere episode. In actuality, referring to his decision to leave college, he stated in a 1991 Los Angeles Times interview, "the only reason I came out was to play with Kareem and the Lakers." Johnson was certain about his choice to play with the Lakers if the chance arose. 

Speaking of chance, Johnson’s decision to enter the 1979 draft ultimately came down to just that. As shown in the episode, a coin was tossed to determine if the first-overall draft pick would go to the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers. Had Chicago won the coin toss, Johnson made it quite clear he would have returned to Michigan to avoid playing for what eventually became known as The House that Jordan Built. 

Did Magic Johnson's parents really dislike his nickname?  

Rob Morgan in Winning Time

Rob Morgan as Earvin Johnson Sr. in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Before the world knew him as simply Magic, his parents named him Earvin Johnson Jr. Then in 1974 while covering a Lansing Everett High School game for the Lansing State Journal, Fred Stably Jr. found himself so impressed with the talent of Johnson that he started referring to him as "Magic." The nickname stuck. 

Although the world grew to call him that, his parents did not, according to an article from Bustle. His mother did actually find the name blasphemous. So much so, that she and his father opted to call him Junior or Junebug instead.  

Was Jerry West against the Lakers drafting Magic?

Jason Clarke as Jerry West in Winning Time

Jason Clarke in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

In Winning Time, Jerry West (Jason Clarke) appeared to be very frustrated over the prospect of adding Magic Johnson, which was the case in real life. Again according to Jeff Pearlman’s book, West thought the talents of Sidney Moncrief, a guard from the University of Arkansas, would prove to be more useful for the Lakers. West made that sentiment known to Jack Cooke. But as the story goes, Moncrief never wore a Lakers’ uniform. 

Regarding West’s "moodiness", it would be unfair to West to simplify his "expressive" behavior as him just being angry. As described in the clip below, decades after his time as a coach with the Lakers, West revealed to the world that he suffers from depression and didn’t have the easiest childhood. Both aspects, he’s admitted, have impacted how he’s carried himself in life.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty airs on HBO and HBO Max platforms on Sundays at 9 pm ET/PT. The series is now available in the UK via Sky TV.  

Terrell Smith

Terrell Smith has a diverse writing background having penned material for a wide array of clients including the federal government and Bravo television personalities.  When he’s not writing as Terrell, he’s writing under his pseudonym Tavion Scott, creating scripts for his audio drama podcasts. Terrell is a huge fan of great storytelling when it comes to television and film. Some of his favorite shows include The CrownWandaVision, Abbot Elementary and Godfather of HarlemAnd a fun fact is he's completely dialed into the TLC 90 Day Fiancé universe.