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Fact vs Fiction: Winning Time season 1 episode 5 — did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycott the Olympics?

Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing a jump hook in Winning Time
Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Episode 5 of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty had a number of moving pieces that left many viewers saying "wow" a few times in light of the events shown. However, as the season has taught us thus far, we should do a little research into what actually happened. For example, was Jack McKinney involved in a terrible bike accident? Also, did Spencer Haywood pave the way for Lebron James and Kobe Bryant? Perhaps more importantly, did Haywood really perform a self-circumcision? 

Here’s what we’ve determined for Winning Time episode 5. 

By the way, you can catch up with our Fact vs Fiction for Winning Time episode 4 here.

Did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycott the Olympics? 

Solomon Huges as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Winning Time

Solomon Huges as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page )

Through the course of episode 5, it’s clear that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) wanted "to do more than get rich and make 'them' happy." He wanted to make an impact socially. With that in mind, Abdul-Jabbar mentions that he boycotted the Olympics on principle. 

In real life, Abdul-Jabbar did actually boycott the 1968 Olympics. Sitting down for an interview with Arsenio Hall, the NBA legend described why he opted not to participate in the Mexico City Games that year. 

Was there a Jack McKinney bike accident?  

Tracey Letts as Jack McKinney Winning Time

Tracey Letts as Jack McKinney in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

As episode 5 of Winning Time was coming to a close, Lakers coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) was seen riding his bike on his way to meet assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel).  Suddenly, a piece from his bike broke off and he had an accident leaving him unconscious in the street. 

Sadly, McKinney did have a bike accident. 

As detailed in The New York Times (opens in new tab), on November 8, 1979, after a 9-4 start to the Lakers’ season, McKinney was riding his bike in the Palos Verdes neighborhood of Los Angeles to meet Westhead for a game of tennis. As McKinney was approaching a stop sign, his bike gears locked and he was tossed over the handlebars onto the street. His head hit the concrete causing a brain injury that would lead to a three-day coma. The accident would have lasting impacts on McKinney’s health and career.  

Did Spencer Haywood pave the way for Lebron James and Kobe Bryant?  

Spencer Haywood Lakers

Spencer Haywood (Image credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

In this latest episode of Winning Time, viewers got introduced to Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris). Outside of being the only one who Kareem Abdul-Jabbar genuinely liked, it’s mentioned that Haywood had to sue his way into the NBA. He was further credited with opening the door for superstars Lebron James and Kobe Bryant to make the jump to the NBA from high school. So is this fact or fiction? 

It’s fact. 

Prior to 1971, the NBA had a rule (opens in new tab) that a player was considered ineligible to be drafted until four years after his high school graduation or would-be graduation in those cases where the player resigned from high school. However, many saw this policy as a manipulative way for the NBA to compel individuals to play four years in the NCAA. Given that universities stood to make millions on the back of college basketball players, and the league would get "better trained" athletes, the benefits to the players in this arrangement appeared to be unfair. 

Enter Spencer Haywood (opens in new tab). He graduated from Pershing High School in 1967, went to Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado from 1967 to 1968, went to the University of Detroit from 1968 to 1969, went to the ABA from 1969 to 1970 and signed a deal to spend the 1970-1971 season with NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. The problem with that was Haywood was technically not eligible to play in the NBA until the 1971-1972 season. 

After the commissioner of the time, Walter Kennedy, invalidated Spencer’s NBA contract, Haywood acquired a legal team and sued the league in 1971. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court in a case titled Haywood v. National Basketball Association, and Haywood’s team won the suit. 

As history has shown, NBA greats Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley and even Haywood’s teammate Magic Johnson greatly benefited from the court ruling. 

On a slightly unrelated note, if you wanted to know if that story about Haywood’s self-circumcision was true, the answer is yes. He details the event in his autobiography, Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery (opens in new tab).  

 Was Paula Abdul a Laker Girl?  

Carina Conti as Paula Abdul in Winning Time

Carina Conti as Paula Abdul in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

As shown in Winning Time, Paula Abdul (Carina Conti) danced her way into the heart of Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly). She impressed the owner with her nuanced choreography blending cheerleading and dance. So much so she was appointed the leader of the Laker Girls. 

Is this true? We’re going to say kind of. 

In an interview with James Corden, Paula Abdul herself describes how she came to be a Laker Girl. 

What’s not true in terms of Paula Abdul being a Laker girl is that she didn’t join the squad in 1979 as it’s portrayed in the show. She wouldn’t dance as a Laker girl until 1980 as reported by the Los Angeles Times (opens in new tab)

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 (opens in new tab).   

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.