Living in the Past: The Lakers, Nostalgia, and Staying Relevant
2022 has been the year of Laker’s TV programming. A sign of the franchise's need to be in the spotlight, especially at a time when the team's future direction is so unclear
I did something this week that I have now done three times in the last 6 months: I sat down and watched a TV show about the Los Angeles Lakers. I did this for the third time because this was the third different series that has come out since March. And even though the stories are essentially the same, I can’t help but be interested as a fan of the NBA. But I recently thought to myself, why now? Why have there been two documentaries (“They Call Me Magic”, “Legacy”) and one scripted series (“Winning Time”) produced and released in one year? My theory is that the Lakers are realizing that their brand may be in somewhat of a decline and there is a need to stay relevant, especially if you are a team in Hollywood. These programs keep the team relevant, even if it is rooted in nostalgia. Let’s look at these programs and how they highlight three key figures of the Laker's success over the last 40 years: Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, and Jeanie Buss.
Winning Time: The Rise of Jerry Buss and the Laker Brand
Winning Time has been my favorite of all the Lakers shows, but it is also the one that has been criticized the most by the people that are portrayed in it. The show’s first season chronicles the 1980 season that saw the Lakers defeat the Philadelphia 76ers for a championship in Magic Johnson’s rookie season. This story is told through the lens of Dr. Jerry Buss as he navigated through the process of buying the Lakers and turning them into the iconic franchise that we know today.
The show does a great job of painting a picture of Buss, as a man that takes risks and is infatuated with the lifestyle of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. This is a story of how a series of calculated risks and how that can pay off spectacularly. We see a man that is going through a whirlwind of events in his life, while still maintaining the aura of a completely put-together wealthy businessman.
The goal of this series is to remind the world of where the Lakers came from. To remind everyone that the Buss family came in and turned the Lakers from a team that could never win in the big moments to a championship-winning juggernaut of Showtime. This is the positioning of Dr. Buss as a great owner in the NBA, how he was able to relate to Magic and how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar felt like himself again. If nothing else, this show serves as a reminder that the Lakers were once a moribund franchise until the Buss came in and made them the glitzy team that everyone needed to see. It is a reminder that under Dr. Buss the Lakers became iconic.
They Call Me Magic: A Reminder of Greatness
Where Winning Time established the greatness of Jerry Buss, They Call Me Magic on Apple TV+ cements the excellence of his star player Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The Showtime Lakers defined the 1980s and their leader was the point guard from Michigan State. Yet as time has gone on, history has somewhat underplayed Magic’s greatness. This documentary has served as a rebuttal of that trend.
Most of Magic’s playing career sounded like something from a fairytale. He excelled in high school basketball, won a national championship in college, was the first pick in the NBA Draft, and led his team to a championship in his rookie season. Along with Larry Bird, he defined an entire decade of basketball and saved the NBA from irrelevance. For many years, it was understood that Magic was the greatest Laker of all time. This was until the late Kobe Bryant came to LA and won 5 championships to take that crown from Magic. And despite this greatness, many disregard him in conversations about the greatest NBA players ever opting to mention LeBron James and Michael Jordan instead. Magic is largely left out of these conversations.
In his post-career life, Magic has become a tremendously successful entrepreneur. In an era where players are building empires through their connections and business ventures, Magic was one of the first to do it. Where players are talking about ownership now, Magic and Michael Jordan were some of the first former athletes to make that a reality. This documentary reinforces this in its later episodes. Making sure that the viewer knows that when it comes to player brand building, Magic was one of the first and the best to do it. While many people have applauded all the great work that LeBron James has done throughout his illustrious career, this documentary serves to remind people that Magic made an impact as well.
They Call Me Magic is as much a biographical piece about the player as it is an endorsement of the Laker's family-like culture to those that it perceives as “one of them”. There is a deification of homegrown Lakers, which is somewhat ironic considering that the team has long been a free agent landing spot, especially for big men. But players like Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant just have a different aura and mystique with the franchise. This documentary showcased all of these values with Magic Johnson, showing how the brand and power of the Lakers name can elevate a player to heights that other markets and teams simply could not. This was a story of how being a Laker can make you a success story.
Legacy: The Jeanie Buss Prophecy
In the first two shows, there is some mention of Jeanie Buss, one of Jerry’s daughters. In both shows, the story of the first time that Magic Johnson went to the Buss home is told where Jeanie learns of his intentions to play for his hometown Pistons at the end of his rookie contract. But in Winning Time, she is portrayed as a young girl with potential that is often overlooked by her powerful father in favor of her older brothers. In They Call Me Magic, she is mentioned passively as having a good relationship with Magic Johnson. But in Legacy, there is a clear intention to show her legitimacy as a team owner. A need to show that she will not live in her father’s shadow, no matter how insurmountable it may seem.
In the first couple of episodes of this show, there is the story of Jeanie running the Los Angeles Strings of the TeamTennis league. There is an emphasis on the fact that Jerry Buss saw something in his daughter that would lead to great things, his ultimate legacy as an owner of a team. There might be a slight reframing of Jeanie as an owner going on here because her tenure as owner of the Lakers has not been without its fair share of speed bumps.
After Jerry Buss passed away in 2013, he left the ownership of the team in the family giving his six children equal shares. But with this understanding, he would name Jeanie as the principal governor of the team, and she would act as the team's representative at NBA governor's meetings. But there was instant turmoil, as a power struggle ensued between Jeanie and her brother Jim. This eventually led to Jim resigning in 2017 and Jeanie taking full control of the team. But she was taking over a struggling team that was struggling to find itself after the retirement of Kobe Bryant. As the team toiled under her watch for a couple of years, she finally landed her big fish in LeBron James, which led to a championship in 2020.
But like seemingly all teams with LeBron James on them, there is always a sense of tension that bubbles. The arrival of Russell Westbrook last year seemed to be a LeBron move, and it has blown up in the team's face. This has caused many to wonder if the Lakers are heading anywhere and if the team is simply just another poorly run franchise. This documentary is shaping up to be a reminder that Jeanie Buss is a good owner in this league and one that should not be doubted because of some bad years of poor roster construction.
The Current State of the Lakers
The Laker's plan on the surface felt like a good one. They had done the difficult task and lured LeBron James to LA. But they needed to find him a running mate, preferably someone younger than him that could take on a load of being the superstar as LeBron aged. They thought they had found the solution in Anthony Davis. The team sacrificed its entire young core to bring in Davis in hopes that he would be the anchor for the franchise for the next decade.
What has happened is that the notoriously brittle Davis has dealt with multiple injuries and has missed quite a bit of time since arriving in LA. As LeBron gets older and will play fewer games in the season, the Lakers find themselves wondering what the future will hold. Davis does not appear to be able to be relied upon, and the rest of the roster is made up of mercenaries hoping to win a championship behind LeBron James.
The Lakers missed the playoffs this past season, which is unacceptable for a team that has championship aspirations every season and especially one that has LeBron James on its roster. But as Davis’ durability continues to be a question mark, the Lakers will continue to fade into obscurity particularly if the Clippers make a deep run in the playoffs this coming season. The Lakers have been accepted as a bit of a mess and accused of ruining the final years of LeBron James’ prime. In that respect, the Lakers brand has never been lower than it is right now.
The Need For Glamour
The Lakers are never going to be a blue-collar-style team. Ever since Jerry Buss took over the team in 1979, the team has leaned into Hollywood and star power. It is a market that only respects winning and stars. So slow rebuilds do not happen here, and mediocrity is simply not acceptable. As a result of this, the Lakers feel a need to remain relevant, to be the story. So what is the solution when the product on the court is so lackluster and there is no exciting free agent to get excited over? It appears the answer is to double down on the past.
And that is exactly what these television series are all about. They are in a sense, Laker's propaganda to remind people what a great franchise this team has been over the years. There are mentions of Jerry West’s greatness, the blow-by-blow account of the Magic Johnson era, and eventually the magnificent chaos of the Kobe and Shaq years. These programs aim to keep the Laker's greatness in their minds, even if the current iteration of the team is anything but great.
The Lakers find themselves in a spot where they are unsure of what the future holds. So these recountings of a greater time in the past enforce that they helped to save the NBA with a dynamic owner, a breathtaking player with a million-dollar smile, and the idea that a family business can thrive in the billionaire empire club that is the NBA. We may have all lost sight of that lately, and the Lakers are keen to make sure that we do not forget it anytime soon. In some ways, this feels like a rock and roll band from the 1970s put together a greatest hits tour as one final push to stay relevant. The Lakers are that band now, and we have no idea if their next album will be any good at all, which is unfamiliar territory for the league's most storied franchise.
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