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‘They Call Me Magic’ adds necessary context to ‘Winning Time’… and vice versa

Two new series about the Los Angeles Lakers point guard balance each other out

When I heard that Magic Johnson would be producing a four-part documentary series about his life and NBA career titled They Call Me Magic, I wanted to roll my eyes. The last thing we need is another ego-driven chapter in the decadeslong competition between Johnson and Michael Jordan, whose The Last Dance was an epic 10-episode advancement of the latter’s legacy.

Then, when news that HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Adam McKay’s fictionalized reimagining of the Showtime Lakers’ rise to glory, would be released, I rolled my eyes over Johnson’s documentary again. It felt like a public relations scramble to offset the HBO depiction of the Hall of Famer as an unrepentant womanizer.

But after watching both Winning Time and They Call Me Magic, the latter feels like a necessary palate cleanser that offsets the HBO drama’s obsession with scandal and reminds us that Johnson is a Black icon — even if the real story is somewhere in between McKay’s show and the Johnson-produced series.

Half of Winning Time’s first season, which aired its finale last week, had already appeared by the time They Call Me Magic hit Apple TV+. That means fans spent weeks watching a one-dimensional portrayal of Johnson as a small-town kid who wound up in Los Angeles obsessed with having sex with as many women as possible. While no one would deny Johnson spent plenty of time with plenty of women, Winning Time fails to offer a three-dimensional portrayal of the all-time great point guard or any other character in the show, for that matter (as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted in his review).

Overall, Winning Time feels needlessly mean-spirited. Besides the portrayal of Johnson as sex-crazed, Abdul-Jabbar is made to look like an emotionless curmudgeon. Yes, the show depicts Lakers legend Jerry West and late team owner Jerry Buss in similarly negative lights. But there’s something about a show run by a white man stripping two of the most prominent Black icons of our lifetimes of their redeemable qualities that makes me uneasy.

That’s why They Call Me Magic feels like a glass of sweet tea to wash down the bitterness of Winning Time. The documentary reminds us why we have loved Johnson for so many years. The real Magic, after all, is much more charismatic than the one we see on Winning Time. (This isn’t an indictment of Quincy Isaiah’s performance, but he isn’t given an opportunity to be the magnetic Magic we know.) And in the documentary, the archival footage of the young Michigan kid with a million-dollar smile jumps off the screen, as do his present-day interviews. You want to hear Johnson wax on about almost anything, especially when his competitive side comes out in discussing his former feud with Isaiah Thomas and legendary rivalry with Larry Bird.

Despite my hesitation going in, They Call Me Magic isn’t just a celebration of all things Magic Johnson. He’s candid about his on-court failures in the 1984 Finals, for example. And the documentary delves into Johnson’s messy personal life, including the many on-again-off-again engagements between him and his wife, Cookie, with Johnson taking responsibility for calling them off. Cookie Johnson is given ample time to tell her side of the story, along with her college friends, who share their perspective on the couple’s relationship. There’s also time dedicated to Johnson’s icy reaction to his son E.J. coming out as gay.

Of course, the series doesn’t dig into these topics as deeply as an independently-produced documentary would. In one scene, Johnson gets teary-eyed discussing his decision to marry his wife, but it still left me wanting. In another, Johnson laughs off a pool party where athletes left their wives at home to be with any number of LA women. And he doesn’t offer any commentary on the cringey 1992 ABC Primetime Live interview where he discussed his sexual escapades with a huge smile on his face.

In the doc, Johnson also never spends enough time explaining where his anti-gay bias came from. After all, by the time his son had come out, Johnson had already been advocating for HIV/AIDS survivors, and spent time working for and with members of the gay community. He was also at the center of speculation about his own sexuality when his HIV diagnosis was revealed. Why didn’t any of these things lead him to a better understanding of his son? Johnson is never forced to reckon with it on camera. Because this is his show and he doesn’t have to.

That’s where Winning Time finds its utility. While it would be great if the series gave us a fuller picture of Johnson, its depiction of the young, selfish star who doesn’t care about his girlfriend’s feelings but wants to be with her eventually feels like the unspoken parts in the corners of They Call Me Magic. After all, Johnson admits he didn’t invite her to an NBA Finals series until 1991 — years after they had been dating and engaged for the first time — adding credence to the scandalous and selfish depictions of Johnson in Winning Time. It also makes me wonder why the HBO series bothered to make Johnson’s relationship with her more dramatic than it actually was — one episode has him getting her best friend pregnant, though there isn’t any account of this ever happening.

While the final episode of They Call Me Magic can sometimes feel like I’m being sold a time-share to a Magic Johnson resort, it does center something Winning Time feels unwilling to do: situating Johnson as a resilient Black icon. The doc spends time illustrating Johnson’s business decisions and why he wanted to invest in Black communities, something Winning Time, which chronicles the Lakers’ 1979-1980 season, has yet to address.

In the end, the real Magic Johnson rests somewhere between Winning Time and They Call Me Magic. The irony here is that the existence of one makes the other more bearable – and necessary. 

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.