Quincy Isaiah On Filling Magic Johnson's Shoes In Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty [Interview]

Whenever we see a film about an artist, that performance is picked apart. How much do they look like the figure in question? How much do they sound like them? The questioning never stops about these daunting roles, which often requires actors to recapture a singular greatness. It's no small feat to pull that off, as Quincy Isaiah does as Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. in HBO's "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty," the new drama series from Adam McKay and Max Borenstein.

Isaiah, who makes his television debut as the star of this show, disappears in a role that's awfully hard to disappear into, especially since Magic remains a beloved and popular figure today far beyond the world of sports. In the first season of "Winning Time," the actor portrays Magic leaving Michigan State and starting his spectacular rookie season at Los Angeles Lakers. Magic dominated the court with glee, and Isaiah sells that infectious energy. Recently, the "Winning Time" star told us about how he played Magic during game time.

'Once he got to the league, it just got elevated'

I imagine it's daunting playing Magic, just to convincingly get his game and techniques down. In terms of how he played the game, what was important to get right?

Yeah, so I would like to hope that because he is one of the best basketball players of all time — not just point guard, one of the best basketball players of all time — that people don't expect me to do everything exactly like him. But my biggest thing was really just capturing the spirit of how he played, that carefreeness and that looseness and that joy that he brought to the game, and just really focusing on that.

Naturally, I'm an athlete and I love basketball. Some things did come more naturally to me, like passing. I love to pass the ball. I like to think that those feel more Quincy to me than the dribbling and the shooting. Those came afterwards. Because me, as a basketball player, I'm just defense. I do the hustle plays. I rebound. That's the way I kind of play.

I like to pass already. So just focusing on the things that he was really great at that I don't naturally do as well. That was a big thing for me, too.

Were there certain games you were studying?

His first game and obviously the Finals game. There are a lot of full games on YouTube, so any game that I was really able to find, I just tried to just watch it. I didn't jump too far ahead, because this season we only covered the '79-'80 season. I didn't want to try and do too much. Oh, his college games, I was able to watch those multiple times, and really just focus on who he was and what he brought to the game and what he brought that was different from the other people that were around him and really trying to pick out what made him Magic. What made people go, "Ooh and ahh," and really trying to figure that out and hone in on those types of things.

Did you also revisit [Johnson's failed talk show] "The Magic Hour"?

[Laughs] Yeah, I did. I did.

What stood out?

Yeah, Magic is a billionaire or close to a billionaire and he's a great businessman, and he's an even better basketball player. And so, I'm going to leave it at that.

[Laughs] What were the main differences you noticed between his college and pro days?

It's funny, watching the college games and then watching his rookie season, it almost felt like he felt freer on the court. Maybe it was the system that they were playing and maybe the talent around him was just so much better that he was able to do more flashier passes. It didn't seem like he did that many flashy passes in college, and it felt like he was more in the system.

Once he got to the league, it just got elevated. You're playing with Kareem, one of the greatest players of all time. So, it's only naturally going to bump your game up to be [on that level]. Maybe that's what it was. But it seemed like he got exponentially better from college to the pros, even just in that rookie season.

The first season of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" is in progress on HBO.