Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Ruthlessly Dunks on ‘Winning Time,’ Adam McKay

NBA legend, philanthropist, and low-key author/critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dished out some harsh words for HBO’s new series about the Showtime Lakers, Winning Time, saying it violates the key rule of writing: Don’t be boring.

Abdul-Jabbar is, of course, a major figure in Winning Time, played by Solomon Hughes; but the actual Abdul-Jabbar stresses that his critique of the show has little to do with how he’s portrayed. “I’ve battled leukemia, heart surgery, cancer, fire, and racism — a negative portrayal of me on a TV show has no effect on me personally,” he wrote on his Substack. 

What Abdul-Jabbar does take issue with is the way he thinks Winning Time takes a legitimately compelling story — the rise and dominance of the L.A. Lakers against the turbulent backdrop of the Eighties — and reduces its characters to “crude stick-figure representations.” With such one-note characters, the plot “becomes frenetic melodrama,” Abdul-Jabbar argues, “sensationalized invented moments to excite the senses but reveal nothing deeper.”

In one of his most ruthless barbs, Abdul-Jabbar writes: “How was the plot constructed? If you gathered the biggest gossip-mongers from the Real Housewives franchise and they collected all the rumors they heard about each other from Twitter and then played Telephone with each other you’d have the stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster that is this show. I was shocked that for all the talent and budget, the result was so lacking in substance and humor.”

There are also some sharp words for Winning Time producer and episode one director, Adam McKay. Although he notes he was a fan of The Big Short and Vice, Abdul-Jabbar quips that Winning Time “suffers from some of the same shallowness and lazy writing” as McKay’s recent climate-change satire, Don’t Look Up. 

In his post, Abdul-Jabbar also addressed some of the historical inaccuracies of Winning Time but pointed out he has no problem with historical fiction diverging from the historical record if it serves the story and the author’s search for a deeper truth (along with dabbling in historical fiction himself, he notes that one of his favorite shows right now is the extremely inaccurate Catherine the Great dramedy, The Great). But on Winning Time, Abdul-Jabbar argues, the facts are replaced with “flimsy cardboard fictions that don’t go deeper and offer no revealing insights.” He highlights the way the show downplays the hard work of Jeanie Buss, daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and reduces Jerry West’s struggles with mental health into a “Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at.” 

And as for the “Kareem of It All,” Abdul-Jabbar notes that while he doesn’t personally care about his portrayal in the show as a “Pompous Prick,” he clearly took one part of his portrayal personally enough to really twist the knife. Singling out a scene in the show where he tells a child actor on the set of Airplane! to “Fuck off,” Abdul-Jabbar notes that this never happened, and serves as a “shorthand” for his “perceived aloofness during that time, even though I have often spoken about my intense, almost debilitating shyness.”

The real victim of this scene, he continues, isn’t him, but his charity, the Skyhook Foundation. Abdul-Jabbar said he worries that people might watch Winning Time, think he’s verbally abusive to children, and then withhold their support. 

“That means fewer kids will be able to partake in the program,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “So Adam McKay is giving those kids a great big ‘F—k off!’ that lasts a lot longer than the easy laugh he got out of a dishonest joke.”