Less than a day after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar blasted HBO’s “Winning Time” series for “crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” one of the most frequently defended targets on those characterizations, Jerry West, is demanding an apology and retraction from the network.
In a memo obtained by Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, West’s lawyers laid out a litany of issues they took with the show’s characterization of West:
“The portrayal of NBA icon and LA Lakers legend Jerry West in ‘Winning Time’ is fiction pretending to be fact — a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family,” said Skip Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess, LLP law firm in Los Angeles and attorney for West. “Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
“Jerry West was an integral part of the Lakers and NBA’s success. It is a travesty that HBO has knowingly demeaned him for shock value and the pursuit of ratings. As an act of common decency, HBO and the producers owe Jerry a public apology and at the very least should retract their baseless and defamatory portrayal of him.”
Things have been building towards this for a while. In addition to Abdul-Jabbar accusing the show of turning West, who has been open about his lifelong mental health struggles, “into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at,” former Lakers trainer Garry Vitti told Bill Oram of The Athletic that he walked off of a cameo role in the show over what he called “a total mischaracterization” of West, while former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Oram that “the guy in the show playing Jerry and the Jerry I worked with for 14 years is not the same guy.”
Former NBA agent and current Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem called the series’ portrayal of West “cruel, dishonest and staggeringly insensitive” in an editorial for The Hollywood Reporter. West’s son, Pistons pro scout Ryan West, shared an excerpt of the latter post on Instagram, writing that “it’s amazing that a ‘dramatization’ gives [the show] the right to diminish, defame, deceive, and completely character assassinate my family.”
In addition to Abdul-Jabbar and Kupchak, Shelburne reports that the letter from West’s lawyers also has statements from former Lakers players like Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, and former team employees like Claire Rothman, Charlene Kenney and Bob Steiner.
Notably, Shelburne also writes that “West’s lawyers say that HBO’s disclaimer that the series is a ‘dramatization’ does not insulate the network from liability.” And while they are only asking for a retraction and apology right now, the language in the letter suggests they may not stop there.
In the United States, public figures have a higher bar to clear to sue for libel, needing to prove “actual malice” rather than simply negligence. West’s lawyers use the word “malice” directly in the letter obtained by Shelburne, and used the show’s deviations from the book the series is based on — “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” — as an example of why they believe that is the case here (emphasis mine):
West’s lawyers say he is due a retraction, apology and damages from HBO and the show’s producers because “rather than follow the book, the show goes out of its way to denigrate Jerry West despite his accomplishments as an executive. It shows Jerry launching into expletive-filled tirades about the decision to draft Magic, implying that Jerry had personal animus against Magic. Worse, the show implies that Jerry tried to sabotage the drafting of Magic Johnson. This never happened. All Jerry did was point out that Sidney Moncrief was a prolific scorer and that the Lakers should consider him. It was not Jerry’s decision who to draft. It was the owner (Jack Kent Cooke) who made the call.
“So instead of seeing the true Jerry West-a brilliant GM who was the architect of one of the great NBA dynasties-anyone who watched the show would be left with the false impression that West is incompetent, that he didn’t want Magic Johnson. This is a fabrication. You depict Jerry as a clueless bumpkin-wearing a fishing hat to practice, which also never happened- rather than a dedicated and capable GM.
“You omit any reference to Jerry being one of the most accomplished and well-regarded NBA executives in history. Instead, you degrade him by exaggerating his urging the Lakers not to draft Magic Johnson. Contrary to the show, the book leaves readers with the true impression of Jerry as a brilliant and thoughtful GM. Your extreme departure from the book shows malice in your false portrayal.”
As of the time of this posting, HBO had not responded to requests for comment from either ESPN or The Los Angeles Times.
This developing story may be updated with more information. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.