Winning Time: How accurate was Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead’s clash?

INGLEWOOD, CA - CIRCA 1979: Head coach Paul Westhead of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on with players on the bench during an NBA basketball game circa 1979 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Westhead coached for the Lakers from 1979-81. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
INGLEWOOD, CA - CIRCA 1979: Head coach Paul Westhead of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on with players on the bench during an NBA basketball game circa 1979 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Westhead coached for the Lakers from 1979-81. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

The 1981-1982 season was quite the experience for Los Angeles Lakers star point guard Magic Johnson as he felt tension amongst his teammates and head coach. In June 1981, Johnson agreed to a 25-year $25 million dollar contract which at the time was the longest and richest deal in sports history.

Former Lakers owner Jerry Buss stated, “Magic is a bright kid and I plan to make him my protege, teach him the business aspect of sports.” According to Johnson, his new deal created issues within the locker room, though, as he shared that his teammates thought he was part of management.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Norm Nixon were two teammates that expressed concern regarding Johnson’s role with the team and they disliked the relationship he had with Dr Buss. Rumors also circulated that Abdul-Jabbar wanted to be traded to the New York Knicks. In addition to this, the relationship between Johnson and head coach Paul Westhead had been dysfunctional since the start of training camp and officially reached its breaking point on a November night in Utah.

The latest episode of the HBO show ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’ documented this breaking point and the tumultuous relationship between Magic and Westhead. With ‘Winning Time’ being a show that is made to entertain, some younger Lakers fans may question the validity of what really happened.

How accurate was ‘Winning Time’ in painting the dysfunction between Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead on the Lakers?

Johnson’s teammate Michael Cooper spoke to Jeff Pearlman (the author of the book Showtime, which is the source material for the hit HBO show) about the things he noticed between Johnson and Westhead. Cooper made it clear just how bad the relationship was between the point guard and his head coach.

"“Magic really came to hate Paul […] I mean, he really hated him. Magic’s the type of guy, when he gets on the bus he says hello to everybody-’Hey, what’s up? How you doing? What’s going down?’ Now he would get on the bus, walk straight to his seat and just sit there. He wouldn’t even look at Westhead-not even for a second. Magic would walk right past him, like he wasn’t even there.”“In practice, usually Magic would be on the top of the key, asking for the ball, and he’d be bobbing back and forth, all energy. Now he would just stand straight and still. And I said, “This sh*t is not looking good. And Westhead would talk, giving instructions like coaches do, and Magic wouldn’t look at him. Westhead would tell him what he wants, and Magic would say, cold as ice, ‘So you want me to go over there and do that?’ And he did exactly as he was told. But usually Magic would dribble and bounce and respond with energy. But with Westhead had a coach trying to get his star’s attention, and his star basically saying, ‘F*ck you. I don’t believe in a thing you’re doing.”"

“The system” was the name of the offense coach Westhead implemented and was a disaster for numerous reasons. First, the Lakers had a photoshoot in reality and on the show for Sports Illustrated magazine and the way Westhead was portrayed didn’t sit well with the locker room.

Pearlman documented just how the photoshoot impacted the team in the book, which definitely drove a wedge between Westhead and his players:

"“My concept was a classroom, and the coach is the teacher and the players are the students,” [the photographer] said… As the Laker players reported to the College of the Desert for the start of camp, they were more united than ever in their disdain for Westhead… Nixon and Johnson detested the picture (which wound up appearing inside the magazine -not on the cover), in that it made Westhead (dressed as a schoolmaster) look smarter and more competent than he actually was. He had been described as a Shakespearean scholar at least a hundred times since taking over the team-and it became really annoying. “That photograph was an awful idea,” said one Laker official who requested anonymity. “It reinforced the negative feelings about Paul, and made some guys even angrier than they had been. It was a huge -and I mean huge-error in judgment.”"

Also, the new installment of the offense didn’t align with the team’s style of play, especially Johnson’s. It appeared to cause even more damage to the friendship between he and assistant coach Pat Riley. As seen in the show, Riley did in fact start wearing a neck brace due to him being stressed about the direction of the team.

While all this is accurate thus far, the show depicting Magic as almost leaving the arena after his heated confrontation with Westhead was a big overblown.

After the game, a lecture in the equipment room was had followed by a shocking statement from Johnson in the locker room. Johnson stated to reporters that “he was playing hard but wasn’t having fun and wanted to be traded.”

Magic Johnson nearly walking out of the arena may have been dramatized but everything else was accurate. Episode 5 of this series will air on Sunday, September 3rd exclusively on Max.

Next. 22 players the Lakers gave up on too early. dark