Winning Time Creator Max Borenstein On Unraveling The 'Pieces' Of Abdul-Jabbar In Episode 5 [Interview]

The latest episode of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" brings viewers closer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as depicted by Solomon Hughes. For the first few episodes of the series, we get everyone's impression of the star athlete, not to mention great writer, but we don't get time with him up close and personal. That changes with episode 5, "Pieces of a Man," which shows Abdul-Jabar's past and present in the series. We learn more about his faith, his conversion to Sunni Islam, and how he sees himself in the world. 

"Pieces of a Man" is one of the most intimate hours of HBO's "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty," which once again, shows how fathers play a role in these players' lives. Recently, we talked to the series creator, Max Borenstein, about that running theme and the show's portrayal of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others. 

"Pay our immense respect to him as a towering figure."

Solomon's work is quite special in this episode.

Wait until you see episode 9. He just keeps getting better and better as the season goes on. Unbelievable.

When you are telling Kareem's stories, obviously he's such a prolific writer, so how much of his writing did you look to for guidance? 

Well, one of the beautiful things about this story is that, because so many of the characters lived in the public eye, there is a wealth of material where they've told their story in their own words. No one more eloquently than Kareem, in a number of different books, interviews, documentaries. And so obviously, all that stuff becomes a resource. We're doing our best to pay our immense respect to him as a towering figure, not only as a basketball player, but as an activist, as an intellectual, as an artist and an appreciator of jazz and all these things. He's such a multifaceted character.

The thing that was the most challenging in trying to find an actor to portray Kareem, because it was hard enough to try to fit the bill of someone who would resemble Kareem, resemble a seven footer, or know how to play basketball at a high level, all of those things were incredibly difficult to find, as you can imagine. But the hardest part, and the box that really we couldn't tick until we finally managed to find Solomon, was someone who had that gravitas.

And then we heard, I'll never forget, we get a call from the casting director who says, "So there's this guy, he's got a doctorate in education policy and he teaches at Stanford, but he was a Harlem Globetrotter, and he's never acted." The fact that he's never acted, I mean, can you imagine what it would be like to be tapped on the shoulder as a successful academic and someone says, "Hey, would you be interested in starting an HBO show?" And you're like, "Yeah, let me try it." He and he learned how to act and he's learned how to access emotions in a way that is extraordinary. I think you can see it in episode 5, and you can see him grow throughout the season. He's really amazing.

I don't think a lot of people would've guessed he hadn't acted before.

It's a testament to his abilities.

Say for Kareem or even Pat Riley or Magic, did you have much access or any conversations with them about the show?

Everyone has told their story in their own words. Our goal, really, more than telling any individual's story, is to capture the era and tell this epic that's really an ensemble and a cross-section of different characters, and as much about them too as it is about the city in the '80s. We felt like it was better to try to tell a balanced story than to lean heavily on any individual.

Fathers continue to play a strong role in this show. You see it with Jerry West, Pat Riley, and now in this new episode, with Kareem.

I mean, honestly, what I love most about the show is stuff like that. Is the fact that it's able to be wildly fun and irreverent in all of those things that I think hopefully people are now expecting, seeing the trailers and so forth, but there's also this humanity and this depth that I think is in all the great TV that I love. That's really what keeps you coming back.

"It is warts and all."

The show gives the warts and all of many of these figures, like Dr. Buss (John C. Reilly). As fun as the show is, did you not want to shy away from their rougher edges?

Well, I think it's one of the things that that attracted me. I would say the thing that attracted me, I'm a basketball fan. I come from LA, I grew up in the Valley, which means I was just far enough away from the glitz and the glamor to have a little bit of that painful urge inside, feeling kind of left out, but just in proximity, that I think Buss had inside of him when he came here from Wyoming. For me, what's so exciting about the story of the Showtime here at Lakers as a format for a drama on TV is that it's a window into that transformative era.

And in that way, how can you tell a story about this cultural moment in America and this American ethic, which is how I see it, how can you tell that without showing the various facets of America at that time? And that includes themes about gender, about race, about celebrity and fame and class. And it's the high and the low, and it's fun stuff and it is warts and all. In terms of how we're looking at these characters, we have immense respect and admiration for everything they've accomplished. At the same time, it's incumbent everyone has their highs and their lows. All human beings do, we all do. And so, I think portraying that with as much honesty as possible actually creates more investment.

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