HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty episode 5 puts the focus on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Los Angeles Lakers' season begins, and here's what it gets right and wrong about the true story. As the sports drama series reaches the halfway point of season 1, the spotlight is starting to grow beyond Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), and Jerry West (Jason Clarke). This comes after Winning Time episode 4 helped introduce Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) as the Los Angeles Lakers began training camp.
Winning Time episode 5 pushes the story forward to the start of the 1979 NBA season as the focus turns to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and a greater exploration of his religion, leadership style, and views on being a Black professional athlete. It is through this lens that the power struggle between Kareem and Magic Johnson/Jack McKinney for the identity of the team takes shape. The star Lakers big man balks at McKinney's up-tempo style and the energetic performative personality of the team's talented rookie. Kareem's attitude begins to change after he comes to certain realizations about his life and current relationship with Islam's god, Allah.
At the same time that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers get ready for their first on-court performance, Jerry West helps orchestrate a trade for Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris), who is respected by Kareem but comes with his own baggage. Meanwhile, Jerry Buss is worried about the look of his NBA franchise. He continues to shell out money to make improvements, including pushing for sexier dancers to be the first Laker Girls. Winning Time episode 5 does all of this as it builds towards another big turning point for the franchise caused by coach Jack McKinney's accident. All of this plays off the true story that inspired the 2022 HBO show, and Winning Time gets some facts right and other parts wrong in telling this story.
When Did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Change His Name?
The NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was originally born with the name Lewis Alcindor Jr. Winning Time episode 5 shows him choosing his new Arabic name in 1968 as part of a gathering of other Muslims in Harlem. This is where he first professes his name to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meaning "the noble one, servant of the Almighty." However, Lewis Alcindor Jr. didn't legally change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in real life until 1971. This was after he won his first NBA Championship with the Milwaukee Bucks. Winning Time episode 5 moves this event up three years strangely, as even Kareem wrote in a 2015 personal essay (which can be read here) that he didn't convert to Islam until 1971.
Did Kareem Think About Retiring In 1979?
It is unclear if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar contemplated retirement ahead of the 1979 season as Winning Time episode 5 briefly discusses. It is true that he was entering the final year of the five-year contract he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers after being traded there. His retirement thoughts tie well into the inner-conflict Kareem has in Winning Time episode 5 about his celebrity status and religion. Instead of retiring in 1979, though, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went on to play another 10 years for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Spencer Haywood's Real-Life Lawsuit With The NBA
Part of Winning Time episode 5 also shines a light on the newest Los Angeles Lakers player, Spencer Haywood, and how he changed the NBA landscape through a lawsuit. The episode gives a brief explanation that he helped pave the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and others to go straight from high school to the NBA, but it was quite complicated. Haywood decided to go pro after his sophomore season at the University of Detroit, but the NBA's eligibility rules of needing four years after high school made that impossible. He ultimately signed with the Seattle SuperSonics anyway, resulting in an anti-trust suit against the NBA that went to the Supreme Court. Spencer Haywood won the lawsuit, forcing the NBA to change its rules.
Did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Fight Bruce Lee?
There is also a mention in Winning Time episode 5 that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fought Bruce Lee, and this did happen in real life too. Kareem had a cameo in Bruce Lee's Game of Death due to them forming a strong friendship over the years. This was before Bruce Lee's untimely death in 1973, which resulted in Game of Death not being finished until many years later. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's extended fight scene with the legendary martial artist is included in the final product.
Was Kobe Bryant At The Lakers' 1979 Season Opener?
One surprising moment included in Winning Time episode 5 is another callout to Kobe Bryant as a baby. During the Los Angeles Lakers' season opener against the San Diego Clippers, the broadcasters call out that he was in the crowd. There is no confirmation that Kobe Bryant was in attendance for Magic Johnson's NBA debut, but it would make sense. Kobe's father, Joe 'Jellybean' Bryant was a member of the Clippers at the time and played in the game.
Did Spencer Haywood Circumcise Himself?
Potentially the most shocking accurate fact included in Winning Time episode 5 pertains to Spencer Haywood and the rumor that he circumcised himself as a young man. His new Lakers teammates gossip about the rumor after he is traded there and begin placing bets on whether or not it really happened. Haywood sets the record straight in Winning Time saying he "did the deed" with a rock and razor himself as a child. It still seems like a fact too strange to be real, but it very much is the truth. Spencer Haywood confirmed Winning Time's true story that he circumcised himself in his 1992 autobiography Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery after his brother told him self-circumcision was the only way to avoid becoming insane.
Is Beer Normally In NBA Locker Rooms?
Winning Time episode 5 might also leave some viewers wondering if NBA players typically drank beer in the locker rooms after games and whether or not it was allowed. Jack McKinney and Paul Westhead drink a few beers after Westhead finds a six-pack left in the visitor's locker room. This was incredibly common back then, as many NBA players would often drink beer before and after games during the regular season, and sometimes even during halftime. This included everyone from veterans, role players, and rookies like Larry Bird. Beer in NBA locker rooms is less common nowadays, but it would've been common for players for both teams to be drinking in the locker room shortly after the game was done.
Winning Time Changes Paula Abdul's Laker Girls Origin
The first iteration of the Laker Girls form during Winning Time episode 5 and that meant introducing Paula Abdul as the group's star performer and choreographer. The show gives her an easier path to making the team and choreographing their routines, as Jeanie Buss makes her the first Laker Girl and choreographer after visiting her cheerleader practice at Van Nuys High School. It makes Abdul's path to joining the team seem quite easy, but it was anything but in real life. She's said that she was rejected after her first audition and rejected again during a second audition where she used a fake name. Instead of leaving after her second rejection, Paula Abdul went directly into another group and was then selected to be a Lakers Girl. It took nearly a year with the team for her to become head choreographer.
How Jack McKinney's Accident Happened In Real-Life
The very end of Winning Time episode 5 turns its attention toward Jack McKinney and the bicycle accident that changed his life. The series is very close to the true story to tell this section of the episode. McKinney leaves his house for a bike ride as he goes to meet Paul Westhead for a tennis game on his day off. It plays with audience expectations as he nearly crashes into a car with a distracted driver, but the rest of the reenactment is spot on. When McKinney is approaching a stop sign, he begins to brake and the gears on his bike lock-up. This brings the bike to an immediate stop, as Winning Time shows the new Los Angeles Lakers coach flying over the handlebars. It results in him suffering nearly fatal head injuries that end his coaching career.
New episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty release every Sunday on HBO/HBO Max at 9pm EST.