Winning Time Creator Max Borenstein On The Chemistry Between Tracy Letts And Jason Segel [Interview]

Training camp has commenced in the latest episode of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty." Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) is ready to party in Palm Springs, just as his finances take another hard hit. As for the new coach, Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), he is ready to go to work. There is no time to waste, which is how he sees the "Showtime" offense. It's a fast game plan that changes the Lakers and, as series' creator Max Borenstein points out, the NBA forever.

And yet, McKinney doesn't always get credit for it.

The most recent episode of the HBO series, titled "Who The F*** is Jack McKinney?", shines a light on the modest basketball genius. For the first time in the series, we see McKinney and his assistant coach, Paul Westhead (played by Jason Segel), in action and calling the shots. We had a wide-ranging conversation with Borenstein recently which we'll continue to share more of as the series continues, but for now, here's what he had to say about the fourth episode of the HBO series.

'He was the guy who was the 16th player on the bench'

A lot of sports fans have expectations of who these people are, how they act, everything, but for portraying Jack McKinney, how much freedom did you have portraying him? How close did you want to get to the real guy?

What's very interesting is Jack McKinney — we know so much about everything else. We know everything about Pat Riley in the public eye, Magic Johnson, all these characters are so iconic. Jack McKinney's a guy who, because of the way his story unfolds, is largely forgotten. There aren't a lot of videos out there, just footage of him. His personality was more subdued in general, in terms of how he didn't grow to become a Hollywood celebrity. So it was an interesting challenge because on the one hand, because we had more freedom. People wouldn't be holding us to the standard of, "I know what I think he looks and sounds like."

On the other hand, we maybe had more responsibility, because I look at it as an opportunity to show the world who this guy was, and the fact that he invented the Showtime offense, which is, I would argue, the offense that set the template for the modern NBA. And in that way, what I think to some extent, our version of Jack McKinney, like it or not, will become the one that many people end up knowing. So we took great pains to try to create a character that seemed true to what we know about the man. 

McKinney and Westhead have such a strong, unquestioning bond. What made you think Segel and Letts were just right to portray that relationship? 

Man, he and Jason Segel, the two of them as people are such a beautiful pair, and they became so close over the course of shooting. They're both hysterical, obviously, and a great joy to hang out with between takes, but it was cool to watch these guys who are playing two characters who are so deeply connected. They developed this real, legitimate, personal friendship and connection, which, as you'll see in the next episode, it doesn't go so well. The emotion they bring to it is amazing.

From your research, why do you think those two coaches connected so well? They're different in many ways.

Well, I think McKinney was Paul's mentor. I think McKinney, he's straightforward but he has a very honest belief in himself. Not arrogance, but he believes in the system and he knows that it can work, he just doesn't know if it will. And Paul Westhead is not a visionary. McKinney is a visionary. Westhead is not a visionary. Westhead is a student. He was a student of Shakespeare, and he was a student of Jack McKinney's. He was the guy who was the 16th player on the bench when McKinney was the coach in college at St. Joe's. He allowed Westhead to stay on the team almost as a mascot and a towel boy, and he was assistant coach.

So the relationship was older brother, younger brother, and Westhead never dreamed of being a coach himself. He was Jack's assistant. That was his joy. He then coached in college and got a taste for it, but he was never the genius coach. Jack McKinney was a genius. The Westhead in our show, when he has an opportunity to grow more, he starts to think, "Well, maybe I can be more than just Jack's assistant."

Sometimes the relationship you've forged with a person, especially when there's a hierarchy, it's very hard to shake that for either party. For Westhead, he's always going to feel around Jack like his younger brother, and for Jack, he's always going to feel around Paul as if Paul is carrying his water and being his loyal student, pupil. But the moment that the student tries to become the master, sparks fly.

'In McKinney, there's a simplicity'

Paul once credited Jack for "Showtime," but Jack's response was basically, "No, I just gave them a few ideas." Is that why he's maybe not gotten more credit in NBA history, that modesty?

I think for him, it wasn't about the flash. It wasn't about ego, and it wasn't about hubris. Westhead is a man who had hubris. He's a Shakespeare scholar and he's a very Shakespearean character. In McKinney, there's a simplicity. He's about this vision. He's not about promoting himself.

[Spoilers for history in the next two paragraphs.]

Actually, it's almost impossible to imagine how it would've worked if he had stayed as the coach of the Lakers, because he wasn't suited to that other side of it, the side that ultimately we all know Pat Riley would be the perfect fit for, right? The guy who could be that idol on the sidelines.

One of these arcs, obviously, is the journey of who's going to become a head coach, and it takes this winding circuitous road throughout this season. It's not something that's at all obvious, but in the end, knowing where it ultimately goes in the history, it seems as if of course it had to be Pat Riley. But as we see in the show, the Pat Riley that begins isn't the Pat Riley who ultimately becomes Pat Riley.

[Spoilers for history over.]

Jack Nicholson, that easily could've turned into Madame Tussauds, but that guy is so good as him.

He's good, isn't he?

How'd you find the right guy for Jack Nicholson?

It was hard, honestly. We were like, "How about Jack's son?" We were considering different things. Our casting director, Melissa Kostenbauder, put a bunch of people before me and ultimately this guy Max [Williams] is terrific. Especially with our hair and makeup team, and then in those costumes, he just pops. To me, it's just a kick because you're right, it's not a caricature, but it fits the bill. You're like, "Oh, it's Jack."

Plus, Nicholson is a bit of a character already.

Exactly. Jack Nicholson, he's his own wonderful character.

"Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" is now airing on HBO.