[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty season two.]
How the second season started — the Lakers celebrating their win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA World Championship — isn’t how it ended: In the finale, the Celtics beat out the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals. But it’s the moments in between those defining games that give audiences a clearer picture of what the central players in the Lakers franchise were up against on and off the court.
Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and his relationship with then-on-again-off-again girlfriend Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) was a focal point throughout season two, which began with the 6 foot, 9 inch pro baller finding out he’d fathered a child, his first son Andre Johnson, born to Melissa Mitchell in 1981. Over the next seven episodes leading up to Sunday’s finale, audiences saw how Magic and Cookie navigated this and many other hurdles in his early years in the league. And deciding how to portray that journey was an important consideration for finale director Salli Richardson-Whitfield.
“I’m trying to protect that love that I think is true,” says Richardson-Whitfield, who’s also an executive producer of the series. “We’re not going to cover up all the dirty spots, but I feel protective of that storyline,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Though season one of the series created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht drew criticism from Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former Lakers general manager Jerry West for its dramatization of historical events, Richardson-Whitfield stands on the creative team’s diligence in not shying away from hard truths.
“I think people have realized this season that if you just watch the show instead of judging the show without seeing it, it’s a great show,” she says. [Editor’s note: On Sunday night, news broke that HBO had canceled the series after two seasons. Borenstein and Richardson took to social media to express their surprise and disappointment.]
You have the bookend episodes of season two, starting with the premiere and then the last two episodes. How much pressure is that as a director?
I love doing this show so much, but let me tell you, I think that those three episodes have 90 percent of the basketball in it for the whole show. So, the process, I always say it was like having a baby. You forget the pain, and that’s why you come back again. But it was hard. It’s a TV show, you get a limited amount of time. I did sports growing up and I’m competitive, and me and Todd Banhazl, the DP, when we came back this season, we were like: We are going to crush basketball this season. We felt like we did that in the finale of last season, but now I really know the show. So, this year, we were thinking of tricks — are we going to shoot in the mirror this time? Are we going to get a drone? We were coming up with all sorts of stuff to shoot.
How did playing basketball in high school inform your choices as a director?
It’s definitely helpful. Can you direct this show if you don’t know basketball? Yes. But doing big sequences and having to corral so many different guys, young guys, on the basketball court, it makes it easier for me because I know the language. I know what it is to maybe not be the coach, but I know how I should be talking to you and what I need to get from you. I know when your defense looks lazy. I know when that pick don’t look right, and I don’t have to rely on other people to do that. Just as a general challenge, you don’t expect to see me, this little brown woman coming in and directing a show like this. So then there’s also that added thing where I’m like: Watch this. I’m about to crush it. Good luck picking this apart.
In contrast to the action-heavy scenes this season, episode six delved more deeply into the romantic lives of many of the characters, particularly Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon. What was important to get right as you explored their intimate relationships?
For me, with Magic and Cookie in particular, I always want to make sure that people — no matter what the other drama is in their life that’s portrayed — see that these are two people who absolutely love each other. If you see Magic and Cookie now, everybody would wish for that love story, no matter what the bumps were to get there. They love each other and that’s what I see in the show. That’s what was written and when I’m directing it, I’m trying to protect that love that I think is true. We’re not going to cover up all the dirty spots, but I feel protective of that storyline.
Even with Norm, when he has to leave the Lakers, seeing how much he loves it and that hurt was important. It wasn’t just about money. The Lakers meant a lot to him. Then on a personal note, I’m friends with Miss Debbie Allen so I was not getting in trouble. This is when I had to take the reins from everyone. I was like: I’m picking Debbie Allen out. She’s not gonna come fight me. She’s gotta be a fabulous dancer. She’s gotta be gorgeous. She’s gotta have some of that spunk that Debbie has. And although she’s not in the episode that much, I think you see Debbie Allen when you see who we cast.
Have you talked to Magic or Cookie about the series?
I have not. It’s very hard for me because I know a lot of these people. We’re not best friends, but we’re friends. I obviously came on the show later, and I’m sure they understand it, but when we have seen each other and we’re around each other, it’s this thing that no one speaks of. I always say that I hope they know what I just talked about — that no matter what’s put before me, I’m very protective of making sure things are told in an honest way.
Todd Banhazl talked to THR about episode three, which he directed, and building up to the rivalry between Magic and Larry Bird. By the end of the season, we start to see them maturing a bit and developing a sense of mutual respect. How do you see their relationship being central to the series?
Todd’s episode was so important. A lot of people said it felt like this kind of standalone episode and I said, well, if we don’t feel for Larry, if we just see him as a villain, then we don’t care about their rivalry later. We know that Larry and Magic now have a friendship and they respect each other very much so we had to get to that point that you understand who these people are. You need great athletes who work hard and are dedicated as much as those two. Everybody’s personalities aren’t perfect, but they do have an admiration for each other and I think you definitely see that throughout this whole season.
You and Tanya Hamilton are the only female directors on this series and you’re both Black women. How unique of a professional experience has that been for you, perhaps outside of working on Queen Sugar?
I was just so happy. I was happy to see her last year and I was happy that she was brought back again. Tanya tells a great story. She knows how to really dive inside of these characters and that’s all it’s about— Black woman, white man, you want people who can tell a great story. And it’s wonderful that the show has been able to see us as just directors and storytellers. That no matter if it’s basketball or whatever it is, these two Black women can tell this story.
What was the impetus for you making the switch to directing after working as an actress for so long?
It was Ava DuVernay when I was shooting her first film, I Will Follow. I Probably had too many opinions, but at some point, she said to me, “You know, I think you’re a director and you don’t know it.” Sometimes it takes someone else to see something in you that you don’t even know is there. Literally her just speaking those words into me, all of a sudden, I thought about all the times I’ve been paying attention in a different way. Like how I’m not just hanging out between takes, I’m next to the monitor. I was lucky that those producers gave me an opportunity. Obviously, I went and did my due diligence and talked to other directors and did some shadowing. But when I directed Eureka for the first time, I went, “Uh-oh, I get this.” And as things moved quickly, I realized that all those years of acting were my training ground to be a director.
It does seem your directing career exploded fairly quickly. Do you feel opportunities have come more easily in this space than in acting?
We’ve definitely gotten more opportunity, but there’s still a lot more to be had. People think that all of a sudden, it’s only Black women directing stuff. We’re still a very small minority in particular in feature films. But also, with opportunity, if you don’t get those first opportunities to learn, then you can’t get to big shows like this. I was very lucky that I had people who were willing to believe in me in the beginning to give me the opportunity to get the training I needed to be able to do a show like this. I say that to say that we just need the opportunity as people of color and women. We can do this job, but you can’t do it if you don’t get a shot to practice.
In a profile in the LA Times last year, you talked about how at a certain point when you’re on set, people eventually get the message not to mess with you. How do you set that tone and has that been easier to do as a director versus an actress?
Definitely. As an actress, you still have that feeling, especially as a Black actress, that you could be replaced at any point. There’s something about becoming a director in this space. I’ve found my voice. I’ve said this before: I don’t feel replaceable. I feel like what I do and how I do it is special. I’m lucky to be there, but they’re lucky to have me. I’m from the South Side of Chicago. Sometimes they see this little actress who used to be pretty with a little ingenue face and they may take that as weakness. And I think that as soon as I start talking and in certain situations, they go, “Oh wait, hold up.” Rodney Barnes, who is one of the writers of the show, is always like, “Why you gotta be so mean?” I’m like, “I’m not mean, I’m just firm.” And let me tell you, when you have a show like this, with this many moving parts, it’s a big machine. And they have to understand, with kindness, but with strength, that I’m the boss. This is what I need to happen, and let’s get moving. Let’s have a great time, but do what I ask you to do.
Jeff Pearlman, the author of Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, has been encouraging people to watch the show in the hopes of it being renewed for a third season. There are a lot of different factors at play, the double strike being one of them, but have you heard anything about a season three and what it might look like?
Obviously, you see how the season ends. So we would love to have, at the very least, even though we can do this for years, one more season so that we can get the Lakers winning against the Celtics. We don’t want to end with the Celtics winning. That’s awful. I think people have realized this season that if you just watch the show instead of judging the show without seeing it, it’s a great show. It’s a well-written show with unbelievable performances. And you don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy it. I think that what Jeff was trying to say is that he just hopes that people find this little gem that’s out there, because it really is a great show and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Interview edited for clarity.
Winning Time season two is now streaming on Max.