Winning Time Creator Max Borenstein On Accuracy Vs. Drama, Larry Bird, And More [Interview]

The seventh episode of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" continues to depict one of the all-time great rivalries between Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). Both athletes played against each other in college, but their games in the NBA, of course, remain legendary. A major game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics is the focus of episode 7, "Invisible Man." 

The stakes are high for the all-star players, untested coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), uncertain new assistant coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), and the fiscally drowning owner, Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly). They all go to the Garden in Boston expecting the worst, hoping for the best. For non-sports fans, a matchup between Boston and Los Angeles in this series is almost akin to something like "The Battle of the Bastards" from "Game of Thrones." 

Recently, series creator Max Borenstein told us about crafting the latest episode of the recently renewed HBO show. 

"We had guys from Boston who recreated it with love and care"

Larry Bird walks into the show dipping, which is a hilarious sight. How'd you want to capture but also have fun with that rivalry?

Bird has a larger than life persona, certainly in the eyes of Magic Johnson. We're playing up the fun of it, of their contrast. He's a guy who's on the outside just such a stark contrast to Magic, and yet what we'll come to discover as the show goes on and their relationship develops, there are really two people no more alike. They kind of become the yin and yang. The one cannot exist without the other.

How much work went into recreating Boston's arena?

I mean, it's the Garden, we had every aspect of it. Our incredible production team just rebuilt and researched painstakingly, and the VFX guys brought it all to life. On the day of shooting, it was one thing, incredible in its own right. And then to see it take that much more shape as all of the effects get laid in, it's like bringing an ancient ruin to life. It's that meticulous.

But the fun of it, honestly, is that people remember. A lot of us remember, a lot of people who worked on the show remember the era. We had guys from Boston who recreated it with love and care, and then Lakers fans who recreated it with something other than love and care, but definitely reverence.

For the actual game itself, how close do you actually try to get to certain shots, moves, or standout moments from the game?

When we show basketball on the show, the goal is not to try to replicate the YouTube footage just for its own sake. We want it to be as authentic as possible, but we're using it to tell these dramatic moments. The actors, really, worked tirelessly not just to be able to play ball convincingly, but actually to be able to play ball in the style of that era, which is a very different style.

Our basketball coordinator, Idan Ravin, and all of the guys, worked long and hard. We'd be on set, I'd be behind the monitors, and we were painstaking about where we'd go, "Oh, wait, Jamaal Wilkes just took a jumper, but it's not that really, really specific over-the-head jumper." He would go and he'd get the form exactly right. It's the kind of thing that for a fan, those are important things. I like to think that for the people who aren't even fans, those are intangibles that add up and make it all feel authentic.

"Everything that Auerbach thinks of Buss, on some level, it's true"

The rivalry between Dr. Jerry Buss and Red Auerbach continues. Dramatically, what interested you about those two clashing?

Well, both of them are such iconic figures and so different. Both are so admirable. Everything that Auerbach thinks of Buss, on some level, it's true. And the same goes for how Buss feels about Auerbach. Auerbach does become the first to come out and say, "He's a miserable son of a bitch and he doesn't care because he wants to win." Buss has gone through his life as a bon vivant and a hedonist.

When they first meet one another, Auerbach just absolutely underestimates Buss. For good reason, because he's seen guys like Buss who made a lot of money in real estate or finance come into the league, thinking that they could use the same business techniques and make some money, have some fun. It's just a toy. Where for him, it's his life. He's a competitor.

What he finds in Buss is that underneath the veneer of that charm and that hedonism is a competitor every bit as fierce and devoted, and as filled with a need to win as Auerbach himself. Honestly, that is the thing that I think unites this entire cross-section of characters, all the men and the women who were responsible for creating this transformative moment.

From Jerry West to Magic Johnson, from Buss to Auerbach to Bird, to Claire Rothman, to Jeanie — every one of these characters, as different as they are in background and personality, they're all driven and they all have inside them the same thing that West does, as this basketball player, this need to win. This need to make a mark. Whether or not that hole will ever get filled is a question that remains to be answered.

Even though Red is his adversary, it's respectful. You don't portray him as a straight-up villain. He opened doors for a lot of athletes, like Bill Russell.

Exactly. I mean, that's the thing. These are no villains, right? He's not a villain, but he is a villain in our show insofar as he's the opponent. He's an extraordinarily admirable guy. One of our great editors who did episodes 4, 8 and 10, Max [Koepke], is from Boston, and he and I would go at each other constantly over lunch. But yeah, actually it's funny, that scene, just as a little aside, [in the episode they first met] when Buss is walking in and tips the piano player, asks him for a song, that's [Beastie Boys co-founder and musician] Mike D at the piano.

No kidding?

Yeah. In the same scene my wife has a cameo. Jonah Hill directed the episode, though, and asked Mike D to come down. It was awesome.

"Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" is currently airing on HBO and available on HBO Max.