John C. Reilly as Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clarke as Lakers coach Jerry West
Solomon Hughes, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, reenacts a scene in the 1980 comedy Airplane!, which the Lakers center filmed during a summer break.
Adrien Brody as Lakers head coach Pat Riley
Reilly as Jerry Buss; Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman, general manager of the Forum; and Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss
John C. Reilly and Adam McKay on set
"Man at the crossroads at odds with an angry sky/There can be no salvation, there can be no rest/Until all old customs are put to the test." — Gil Scott-Heron
Adam McKay has some nifty tchotchkes in his office, a welcoming, unfussy wood-paneled space inside his home in L.A.'s tony Hancock Park neighborhood. There's a turntable and a couple dozen records. A bust of a nameless Roman figure that looks expensive but is actually a five-dollar foam prop. Some trophies for his work, naturally. But one of the most revealing items is a signed copy of Gil Scott-Heron's first studio album, 1971's Pieces of a Man.
Looking at McKay, a six-foot, five-inch white dude, or his oeuvre of offbeat comedies (Talladega Nights) and piercing dramas (Vice), few of us would guess that he finds inspiration in a spoken-word poet whose fusion of jazz, soul and sociopolitical lyrics created an early prototype of rap music. "He was way ahead of the curve in speaking truth to power — he laid the ground for the fusion between activism and culture," McKay says of Scott-Heron.
And though he's too self-deprecating and folksy to do such a thing, he could be talking about himself.
Like his hero, McKay has a distinctive style that's a mashup of disciplines — drama, comedy and "message" films — and it bucks convention. Beginning with The Big Short in 2015, a steady throughline in works McKay has created or executive-produced has been sharply pointed societal critiques: the faulty financial system in The Big Short; corporate wickedness in Succession; Washington malfeasance in Vice and, with his latest feature, Don't Look Up, the nature of climate-change denial.
Mosey over to McKay's Twitter feed, and you'll find that it reads more like the scroll of an Oakland hippie (gun control! abortion rights! government propaganda!) than that of a high-profile Hollywood producer. His proud proclamation that he's a Democratic Socialist might've been a career-killer just twenty years ago. But as progressive as his sensibilities clearly are, there's one social issue that hasn't been touched much in his TV and film projects: race.
That changes with Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, the latest major TV project from McKay's new-ish production house, Hyperobject Industries. The ten-episode series, now on HBO and HBO Max, is McKay's first work to deal explicitly with race — and not just race, but the impact Black culture, Black athletics and Black entertainers have had on American culture at large, and the capitalist structure that connects these circles.
"I feel like I've always been orbiting around the subject in my work," says McKay, who grew up in Philadelphia, loving basketball and hip-hop music but only becoming conscious of race and his identity as a white man when he moved to Chicago, where he helped found the sketch-comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade in 1990. "Everything I've done is about class. The first big thing where we've gotten to dive in fully [into race] has been this Lakers show. It's one of the reasons I love this show so much — I get to directly dive into these waters."
Based on sportswriter Jeff Pearlman's 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the series examines what McKay believes to be a pivotal time in America. Showtime — a series title that might have been fine were it not the name of HBO's longest rival, thus provoking months of brainstorming — practically begs to be adapted to screen. It paints a vivid portrait of a team, a time and a place packed with drama, jealousy, sex and lots of cocaine.
"[The Showtime-era Lakers] is this collection of incredibly disparate characters who come together at the moment when African-American culture becomes American culture," McKay says. As with Succession, he helped craft the direction of Winning Time and directed the pilot, then backed off to serve as a guide and consultant for subsequent episodes.
"I would argue African-American culture has always been American culture," he continues. "But this is the moment when it goes mainstream in a way that it's never gone before, and the Lakers were right at the center. It's the moment the NBA becomes the NBA. It's a time when we start looking at race slightly differently, in bad ways and good ways, and when America changed in large ways."
A huge basketball fan himself (he rode the bench in high school and played intramural in college), McKay explored some of these topics last year in his podcast Death at the Wing, which reexamined the deaths of promising 1980s NBA players through the lens of culture, class, politics, economy and race. Bomani Jones, host of HBO's new late-night sports series, Game Theory with Bomani Jones (of which McKay is an executive producer), says he's awed at McKay's ability to draw insights from such seemingly dissimilar touchpoints.
"It almost minimizes it to say it's unusual for a middle-aged white dude," Jones enthuses, "because there's an intellectual horsepower there that would make it difficult for anybody to put together ideas like that."
But where Death at the Wing was ideas and discourse, Winning Time is a pointed, glossy reimagining of a mythical sports team that practically invented the paradigm for the superstar baller. As in Pearlman's book, the series details how, before the arrival of Earvin "Magic" Johnson as the number-one overall pick of the 1979 draft, the Lakers were, like many NBA teams, a consort of complacent middle-aged guys.
Viewers will see how Johnson — a whiz kid with Midwestern charm and a dizzying smile — disrupted and then transformed a team that included the aloof intellectual, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; how the Lakers ushered in a fast-paced style that radicalized the sport and led them to an unmatched five NBA championship series in nine years; how coach Pat Riley, with his Armani suits and GQ-suave style, became synonymous with achievement and status; and how the Lakers' home, The Forum, turned into a symbol of glamour, packed with celebrities and gorgeous women who came to see, be seen and bed athletes — often at the arena.
All this happened as Ronald Reagan ushered in a conservative worldview that McKay believes still shapes American identity today, as hip-hop started to become a cultural phenomenon and as pro basketball became an unambiguously Black industry — albeit one owned and operated by rich white men.
Rodney Barnes (Heels, American Gods), who wrote the bulk of the scripts alongside showrunner Max Borenstein, says Winning Time demonstrates the concern of NBA owners that the game might be too identifiable with African-American culture, which they believed would turn off Middle America. But the series examines race in less obvious ways, too.
"A lot of times when people hear 'race,' they immediately think of racism," Barnes says. "Here we take an introspective look at how these players related to the cultures they came from. Magic Johnson, coming from Lansing, Michigan; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coming from Harlem and Spencer Hayward coming from the Deep South — that's three different entry points to American society."
There's more to the story, of course, from the rivalries on and off the court to the strategy that took the Lakers to the top. Like The Big Short, Vice, Don't Look Up and Succession, Winning Time bears McKay's signature style — a blend of drama, satire, poignant commentary and unorthodox storytelling techniques. Characters break the fourth wall. The series even looks different.
"We found this video camera from 1979 called an Ikegami, and anything you shoot on it looks like it's [from] 1979," McKay says. "We started mixing in other formats, like Super Eight, and then we shot it on thirty-five [millimeter] and did this really cool Ektachrome process, so it's kind of oversaturated and looks delicious. Visually, it's one of the coolest things I've ever gotten to work on. It looks like a $100 million movie."
That visual treatment is just one aspect of the look. It's impossible to do a series about basketball — not least one about the Lakers' dizzying fast-break game and Magic Johnson's smooth passes — without showing some actual play.
"I jokingly call the basketball our dragons from Game of Thrones," McKay says. "Anytime you do the hoops, you're going to spend money, you're going to spend time. It's difficult, but it's worth it because it's so energetic. We definitely let the basketball fly several times — you see some incredible basketball."
Another thing viewers will see: a blockbuster cast, with allstar names appearing as larger-than-life characters. Adrien Brody plays Pat Riley. Sally Field portrays Jessie Buss, a single mother who groomed her son Jerry, beloved Lakers owner and a notorious playboy, to appreciate math, money and hedonistic delights.
John C. Reilly plays Jerry — casting that was a source of drama in its own right, since Reilly is best friends with Will Ferrell, McKay's onetime creative partner and, according to some reports, former friend. McKay and Ferrell's Gary Sanchez Productions, the banner that gave the world the Funny or Die site, as well as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, had a very specific voice.
"We called them the 'mediocre white man movies,'" McKay says. "And they were all about entitled, prideful white guys. Will and I took great joy in laughing at lame white culture." But as McKay's gaze on that demographic turned more serious, his thirteen-year partnership with Ferrell began to fray, leading to a business split in 2019 and, with Reilly's casting in the Lakers drama, a dissolution of their relationship, too. "I should have called him, and I didn't," McKay told Vanity Fair in 2021. "So it ended not well."
That wasn't the only casting choice to cause headaches. Three-quarters of the cast was set, McKay says, before they found their Magic Johnson. The team saw dozens of actors, all of whom were fine — right height, could hoop convincingly — but didn't have the twinkle needed to play the iconic baller.
Then a self-tape came in from a kid named Quincy Isaiah. "It was one of those great Hollywood moments when you're like, 'Who the hell is this?' He walked in the room and we couldn't believe it. We're like, 'Please let him be able to act.' He's a natural. He just fell from the sky. It's one of the most incredible things."
Equally tricky: finding someone to play Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the pensive center who stands seven feet, two inches tall. The casting gods gifted the producers with Solomon Hughes, an instructor at Duke University and former assistant director of a doctoral program at Stanford who designed courses on the intersections of race and college athletics. He was a star rebounder at UC Berkeley, second on the school's all-time career field-goal list as of 2013.
"It's one of the great casting finds ever," McKay says. "He's a brilliant, wonderful individual, who's as thoughtful and as complex as Kareem in different ways. And he just slid right into the role."
Even in his own home, laid back in a big comfy chair, McKay — with his booming voice and hearty laugh — is imposing (he reclines sometimes to steady his essential tremor, which causes his head and neck to shake involuntarily). Just as striking is his lack of defensiveness when talking about himself or his perceived shortcomings. He takes his passions, particularly social justice and climate change, far more seriously than he takes himself, downplaying his own contributions in favor of praising others.
Same goes when pressed on his increasingly recognizable filmic style. What should we call it — McKaysian? McKayan? He chuckles. "I'll let you do that. It's more of a response to this time we live in, when we're seeing [images] from cell phones and TV shows... when we're being hit from 1,000 directions with information, looks and feelings."
Borenstein, who is also executive producer–cocreator, says McKay's style inspired his approach to the series. "The liberty that Adam takes in his films became a liberating force. I was able to look at the material and think, 'What's the most fun way to tell the story without any constraints or any preconceived notion?' That's the number-one thing that defines his style: freedom. You don't have rules about how to tell the story — you tell it in the most appropriate way. Is that humor, is that entertainment, is that tragedy? You mix it all up and find the right balance, like a symphony."
McKay empowers him, Borenstein says, not just as a writer but as a leader, too. "It's a gentle way that keeps [the process] fun, light, artistic and creative, because he gives people the freedom to explore."
Jeremy Strong, best known as Kendall Roy on Succession, agrees. "He creates an environment where people are not afraid to take risks. There is no self-seriousness. He is the most grounded, easy person, but obviously the smartest person in the room." At the root of McKay's trust, Strong says, is an awareness that the creative team is working not in service of McKay, but the story. "He knows I care that the subject is bigger than us. He cares about more than, 'What's the opening weekend?' He gives a fuck, you know?"
McKay's passion for message and substance is one of the values that's bound him with Kevin Messick, his producing partner and now a partner at Hyperobject, for more than a decade. Not all of Hyperobject's upcoming projects — a limited series about Jeffrey Epstein, a series based on the 2020 Oscar winner Parasite, the underdog-vs.-Walmart series Kings of America and many more shows, features, docs and podcasts — have what the kids call a woke sensibility, but they all strive to reflect contemporary events.
"He gets mad about things that are happening in the real world," says Messick, also an executive producer on Winning Time. "And that fuels the movies and TV shows he's interested in."
And that's where the anger and the ego stop. The most stressed he's ever seen McKay was during production of Don't Look Up, in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. Even so, he says, "It never got to him. He was the leader. He sent out these inspirational emails to the cast and crew every week about keeping your eyes on the prize." Can Messick remember the last thing that got his friend really upset? "Yeah. The fucking climate."
Two oft-repeated stories from McKay's days as a young comic offer further insight. There was the time in the early '90s when he announced he'd commit suicide as part of a UCB skit and then freaked out onlookers by hurling a dummy dressed as himself off a roof. There was also the time he and friends staged a fake protest that resulted in his pals getting arrested.
Doubtless, McKay — now fifty-three and a father of two — would not indulge in such tomfoolery now. But that rebellious spirit, the one that makes him a spiritual devotee of rap and iconoclasts like Gil Scott-Heron, has been channeled and focused. That kid would be proud of what he's doing now, he believes. "I think you always want to shake people, get them to reexamine, and to shock, entertain and delight. I hope that's the spirit of what I've been doing."
Like the rest of us, he's heard the wakeup calls about our country and our world, so urgent yet so paralyzing. With Winning Time, McKay has found a different way to grab viewers' attention — via a glamorous moment in pop-culture history. Meanwhile, he's pointing out parallels between then and now and perhaps leading us to ask, Wait, how did we get here?
"It's a pretty epic story, what [the Lakers] did for our culture, the change they created in sports," McKay says. "It's an incredible period in American history that we don't look at enough: the massive cultural, political, media change that was going on, the rise of the Republican revolution. All of that, and it's also a blast."
In addition to Adam McKay, Rodney Barnes, Max Borenstein and Kevin Messick, the executive producers of Winning Time are Jason Shuman, Scott Stephens and Jim Hecht, who is also cocreator (with Borenstein) and story cowriter.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2022, under the title, "Game Changers."