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Fact vs Fiction: Winning Time season 1 episode 7 — Did Larry Bird trash talk players?

Sean Patrick Small and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time
Sean Patrick Small and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Seven episodes into Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty season 1 and we finally got a glimpse of the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dynamic outside of a flashback sequence. 

In real life, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly in American culture. Although for analogy's sake at the beginning of their relationship, perhaps we should say oil and water. While their rivalry is one of legend, we couldn’t help but ask if they really hated each other as we saw in the episode? Furthermore, was Larry that big of a trash talker? 

Also, did Pat Riley really step out of his role as a color commentator to help Paul Westhead coach? 

Here’s what we’ve determined was fact and what was fiction for Winning Time episode 7.

Be sure to catch up with our Fact vs Fiction for Winning Time episode 6 here. 

Did Larry Bird and Magic Johnson hate each other?  

Sean Patrick Small and Quincy Isaiah as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in Winning Timee

Sean Patrick Small and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

The relationship onscreen between Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) in Winning Time can best be described as cold. Johnson and Bird only spoke when the latter was hurling insults at Johnson and professing how he’d beat the Lakers (of course there were a lot more expletives used, but we won’t get into that here). 

Given all we know about the historic Bird and Johnson rivalry, it's easy to believe their second meeting in basketball post-college occurred similarly to how was shown. However, is it true? Did the two really hate each other? 

Partially.  

Let’s start with Johnson’s debut in Boston Garden in real life. It doesn’t appear Bird was quite that icy. Or at least he wasn’t that icy in front of cameras. In fact, in the following interview from that day, Bird is a lot more congenial than what was portrayed in the series.

Now in terms of whether Bird and Johnson hated each other, that’s true to an extent. There have been books, a documentary and even a Broadway play about the evolving relationship between these two. Magic Johnson even said in a Los Angeles Times (opens in new tab)article:

"We used to never even speak to each other. We both wanted to win so bad that we hated each other. I respected him, but I didn’t like him."

However, combing through video and written archives, it would appear that the two didn’t hate each other necessarily, but more so hated losing. They saw each other as obstacles preventing one another from being in the winner’s circle. As Bird stated in that same Los Angeles Times piece, "Hate is a strong word, but I sure wanted to beat him."

Again, the word hate has been used, but the two weren’t exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys. They were competitors who liked to compete and win. 

Did Larry Bird trash talk players? 

Sean Small, Delante Desouza and Jimel Atkins as Larry Bird, Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes on the court in Winning Time

Sean Patrick Small, Delante Desouza and Jimel Atkins in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

In the series, Bird was trash-talking the Lakers throughout his interactions with the team. Whether it was to Johnson at a press conference or Michael Cooper (Delante Desouza) on the court, Bird was sure to say things to get in his opponent's head. Was he that way in real life?

This is a fact.

The Celtic great was definitely known to talk trash, but specifically on the court. Johnson even recalls a specific occasion where Bird said something to the Laker legend in the middle of a game that caught him off guard. 

Again, it isn’t widely known that the Celtic from Indiana would talk trash to opponents during press conferences, but during games it was his M.O. Check out what some former NBA players had to say about Bird’s mouth. 

Did Paul Westhead ask Pat Riley to become the Lakers assistant head coach?

Adrien Brody and Jason Segel as Pat Riley and Paul Westhead in Winning Time

Adrien Brody and Jason Segel in Winning Time (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Also in this week's episode, viewers got to see Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) quit his job as a color commentator and become Paul Westhead’s (Jason Segel) much-needed right-hand man as assistant coach of the Lakers. Westhead was flailing and asked Riley to come help him. Did this really happened?

Yes. 

For a while there, Westhead was coaching the Los Angeles team without an official assistant coach. In an interview with Rich Eisen, Westhead stated that he even turned to Don Ford, a small forward on the Lakers at the time, for help drafting basketball plays. As Ford realized he much rather play than coach, Westhead offered Riley the position. Hear for yourself why Westhead thought Riley was the man for the job. 

Did the Lakers beat the Celtics in Boston during Magic Johnson’s rookie season? 

Solomon Hughes, Tim Soergel in Winning Time during Celtics/Lakers game

(Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

This week fans we’re treated to the Showtime Lakers' first time in Boston. The event represented a make-or-break moment for interim head coach Paul Westhead, who was all but fired in the eyes of Jerry West (Jason Clarke). Leading up to that day, the Lakers were apparently in a rut and finding it difficult to win and went into Boston as the underdogs.

During the game, the Lakers got one bad blow after the other. They were being fouled nearly every possession and the refs were clearly not blowing their whistle. However, after Pat Riley was ejected from the game and Westhead was able to get fired up and inspire his players, the team somehow managed to beat Larry Bird and company. So was this the real story of what happened during that January meeting? 

It’s true the Lakers won, but the story unfolded quite differently.  

For starters, the Lakers weren’t on this big losing streak as portrayed in the episode heading into that game on January 13, 1980. Thanks to Land of Basketball (opens in new tab), we know from December 23, 1979, to January 11, 1980, the Lakers won six out of their nine games, including a previous home game against the Celtics. In fact, when the Lakers team defeated their Boston opponents the first time, they did so convincingly, winning 123-100.  

Then there was Magic Johnson's performance. He may have been all smiles and played into the media narrative of the Bird/Johnson rivalry, but he was relatively ineffective on the court that day. According to the Lakers Nation (opens in new tab) site, Johnson had suffered an injury to his groin two nights prior to the Celtics rematch playing in a game against the Detroit Pistons (a Laker victory in real life despite what was depicted in the episode). That injury severely limited his ability to do much on the court, evident in the fact he only scored one point as recorded by the NBA (opens in new tab)

So with Johnson injured, the other Laker players managed to fill the void. Despite leading LA for more than half the game, Boston found themselves outmatched when the purple and gold squad went on a 21-0 run in the third quarter. In a point of irony, SB Nation’s Celtic Blog (opens in new tab) reports that it was actually Boston coach Bill Fitch who received a technical foul. 

The actual game is available to watch online in its entirety. Here's the video below. 

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.