HBO confirmed that Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty has been canceled after two seasons. The news was a surprise and came just moments after the network aired the season 2 finale on September 17. Hecht is the creator of the series along with Max Borenstein.
My wife burst into tears.
I didn’t have that on my “Winning Time Cancellation” bingo card. I mean, I knew that after nearly a decade of doubts and fears and ups and downs, my HBO series would come to a shattering end. But then my phone lit up with condolence texts. My mother left a tearful voicemail. My dad’s email included a link to an article announcing the cancellation: “In case you haven’t heard…” What if I hadn’t heard it? And I had to explain to my stepchildren what the word “cancelled” means in the TV universe (“No, we don’t have to move”).
But as Courtney buried her head in my shoulder and sobbed, it wasn’t until Courtney saw the epilogue that the reality hit – that’s when I fully felt the magnitude of that moment.
The show was over.
But here’s the weird thing: everyone seems sadder about it than I am. It is strange. Confusing. I have battled depression. I know how to make spirals. I identify with Jerry West more than anyone else on the show because that’s what the voice in my head often sounds like. Rant. Screaming. Hurts.
So why not go there now?
Let’s take a trip back to the spring of 2014, when I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I’ve had some success writing about it in recent years Ice Age Films. It was a hit. It gave me a career. It made me aware of Raya. But it wasn’t the kind of material I loved – films like them Boogie nights or Goodfellas. And the industry looked at me like, “You’re going to be writing talking animal movies for the rest of your life.” I didn’t fight to get out of that box. I accepted writing assignments. Great paydays that gave me a grown-up life. But it was mostly material that was never actually manufactured. I sank to almost nothing as an asset – shuffling from gig to gig, facing the possibility that I would never do anything truly great in my life. It wasn’t a job that my twelve-year-old self would have respected. And somehow that low point became a launching pad. Because in this dark time of self-hatred, two thoughts came to mind:
First: “Stop working on things you like. Only do things you love.” Because when I like something, it’s something like what Jerry Maguire described as a “soul-stealing, pride-swallowing siege,” and I don’t think I’m doing a great job. But if I Love Something, it doesn’t feel like work and I have enough energy to fight through all the nonsense it takes to get something on the screen.
Second, “Stop doing what you think other people want to see and do the show.” You “I’d love to watch.”
As fate would have it, later that afternoon I heard that Jeff Pearlman was coming out with a book about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers. When BookSoup opened the next morning, I waited outside for a copy show time: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers dynasty. And on Easter Sunday 2014, I showed up at Jeff’s house in New Rochelle, NY armed with a tomato, a block of baker’s chocolate, and a bottle of non-alcoholic wine (Mom taught me never to show up empty-handed). Luckily (for me), Jeff had picked out a few books and – after repeated disappointment – was even more cynical about Hollywood than the average New York journalist might be. He (unwisely) gave me the book option… for free! I left happy! Dizzy! Euphoric. He later told me that as soon as I left home he turned to his wife Catherine and said, “Nothing will ever happen with this.”
But things happened. Immediately. I worked with Overbrook, a production company founded by Will Smith and his partner James Lassiter, which I really loved. They turned to Magic Johnson. The next thing I knew, I was in a meeting with my childhood idol and he said, “Yeah, I want to do this with you guys this way.” So I jumped into it straight away and did it for the next six months spent developing a take. I lived and died with everything to do with the 1980s Lakers. And then we got to work pitching the show!
Day one of pitching…
Magic backed down. I never heard from him directly, but I was told it was about money.
Now, with one phone call, I lost my favorite athlete and actor (as a producer) and was back to square one. I was…decimated. And as I tried to push that boulder further and further up, it seemed to me that every person or company I sent the book to and had my whole heart for it had some Hollywood excuse to pass (“You’ll Never Be Able to Cast Magic and Kareem” was my favorite).
Until I called Kevin Messick, the veteran producer behind it Succession And Big Short. Years before, Kevin and I had a very exciting project (think the largest all-animal punk band in the world). Commitments with farm animals) explode in a spectacular way. And now the reason for our first meeting became clear – he was working with Adam McKay, who I thought was the perfect filmmaker for this project. A few months later, Jeff and I were standing on Adam’s porch, waiting to meet with arguably the hottest filmmaker in Hollywood. (Jeff had to google “Adam McKay” while we waited. He had never heard of him.)
Fast forward to Oscar night 2022: We’re broadcasting against the Oscars. Around the time a woman hit Jerry Buss in our episode, the internet exploded with news about Overbrook. And I thought about how different this whole trip would have been if I had gotten my own way.
For me this is the story of Winning time.
My worst nightmares became dreams come true. The show itself is about the highest highs and the lowest lows. It’s funny how my life reflected these peaks and valleys throughout this entire experience. The most frustrating years of trying to get this show off the ground were right when I met and fell in love with my now-wife, Courtney. Fun sidebar: McKay led the tech scout in developing my proposal. Courtney is a huge (and inexplicable) Ross Dress for Less fan. So our assistant decorated the bed base and now Courtney can forever hold up her ring and say, “I got it at Ross.” After the thrill of filming the pilot and getting the first season picked up by HBO (a monumental life moment for me), the world was then hit by the pandemic and filming had to wait. But somehow these struggles were offset by the joys of my wedding. Courtney and I got married on our rooftop in a Zoom wedding, and on the monitor, over my bride’s shoulder, was Max Borenstein and the rest of our writing team.
And that brings me to Max….
In 2016, Jason Shuman introduced me to Max over breakfast in Culver City. Max and I are both only children. We were brought together in a shotgun marriage. And now I can say that I really have a brother. Max and Rodney Barnes (executive producer) took me into the world of prestige drama. I thought after working in features I knew what I was doing. I did not do it. Suddenly I was in the room with two heavyweights and striking above my class. I hated it. But they forced me to become a better writer than I thought I was. I am full of appreciation.
We filmed the show with masks on while COVID was still raging. It was released in a strike. Nothing about it was easy. At first I hated the titleWinning time. We all did. Still, I came to believe that it embodied the show. After all, that’s what our characters are looking for (in Great guest by Fashion). Someday, out there in the future, this will heal us, fulfill us, and make us whole. The truth is, “Winning Time,” if you are ever lucky enough to find it, is illusory and fleeting. Once it does, it’s gone. That championship trophy is just another thing you have. After about five minutes it’s over and you need more. Another ring. A dynasty. It goes on and on.
The history of Winning timeFor me, the journey is not the result. I was allowed to enter the Forum floor with Max and Jeff and it was like I was diving into my wildest childhood dream. Now I live a life beyond that.
So how sad could I really be on finale night? Somehow I found a woman who cares more about my disappointments than about me! And how can I not believe that somehow it will work out even better than I imagined? Whether it’s this show, another era, or a project that I would have missed if we had a different season.
I know there are a lot of people who want me to say “fuck HBO.” And there are a lot of them in my house. But I love the people we worked with. Francesca Orsi is not only one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, but also the kind of leader that every writer dreams of and that all artists need. HBO paid a lot of money and gave us a lot of freedom to make our dream show. It’s just not the right show for their platform right now.
But it’s exactly the show I want to see.
I giggle when it doesn’t show up in the For Me section on the Max home screen because it’s my favorite show. I love all of it. Except maybe the last few minutes.
Because it’s the show that changed my life. It’s the show – which gives me nothing but joy even after it ends.