Like its main character Jerry Buss, winning time is not a show that is concerned with subtlety. So when “Invisible Man” opens with Dr. Jerry Buss talking (directly to camera, of course) about Monopoly as a metaphor for life, you as a viewer hope he would subvert that old TV trope where a board game and its player replace a global message. It doesn’t, which is unfortunate given the drama of Episode 7: Magic’s first professional game with Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and broadcaster-turned-assistant coach Pat Riley unofficially taking the reins of baffled coach Paul Westhead. Maybe that’s the reason for the cold open: if someone talks to you, it’s rude to fall asleep.
Six weeks after Jack McKinney’s bicycle accident led to assistant coach Paul Westhead taking over the team, everything went off the rails. The team is still in 1st place, but Westhead finds new ways to look weak and totally out of his element in front of the men he’s supposed to be leading. And after Buss visits McKinney in hospital – the coach’s physical recovery is in the relearning stage of tying shoes – the owner updates his injured general on what’s going on in Inglewood. The front office, led by Jerry West, wants to replace McKinney with former Laker great Elgin Baylor. Buss doesn’t want that to happen, but they both agree the season is lost if Westhead continues to coach. When the owner leaves, McKinney calls Westhead and tells him that if the team doesn’t play on its next three-game road trip, it doesn’t matter how quickly he gets out of the hospital.
A panicked Westhead immediately asks color commentator Pat Riley to join him on the bench as an assistant coach. Riley is hesitant despite the combination of fiery passion and cool poise for head coaching that will one day earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. If Riley leaves the broadcast booth, will he still have a seat on the bench when McKinney returns? Westhead, lying out of his mouth, assures her that he will. Riley can’t resist, especially since the alternative is muted by Chick Hearn for three hours each night. But as the Lakers board the plane for Indiana to face the lowly Pacers, who shows up unexpectedly besides Jerry West? Westhead plays dumb, claiming West is there to scout free agents if the Lakers crash and burn on their road trip. But Riley knows immediately that he’s been taken in by his new boss.
So leave the Lakers for Indiana, where sportswriters in Larry Bird’s home state can’t help but ask Magic about his highly anticipated rematch against Bird (Magic beat him to the NCAA Championship ). For once, Magic loses its temper and is only stopped from saying more incendiary quotes when Kareem steps forward to stop the presses. Clearly hampered by outside distractions, Magic and the Lakers blast each other in what should have been a gimme victory. After the game, Spencer Haywood is so frustrated that he speaks openly to reporters about his unfair bench. Westhead hears the comments and admits to Riley that the benching was due to a misunderstanding that got out of control. But when Riley gives him several sage advice – apologize to Haywood, treat his players like grown men and not like students – Westhead ignores him, perpetuating his image of weakness among his troops.
Next stop on the road trip: Detroit, about an hour and a half from Lansing, the hometown of Magic. After a brief scene where a TV reporter tells us what’s going through Cookie’s head (this show refuses to believe its viewers can understand anything buried under a light layer of subtext), we enter the lobby of a five-star Detroit hotel where Cookie and a friend see the Magic Show in all its glory. The magic runs through the mass of autograph seekers and groupies to kiss Cookie. But they are interrupted by Dr. Thomas Day, who reminds Magic that Cookie will have to wait until she meets Buick. As Magic leaves, a groupie reminds Cookie for the umpteenth time in seven episodes that Magic likes to have sex with women who aren’t Cookie.
The game against Detroit, a last-place team, ends the same disastrously. As Riley tries to keep Westhead’s hopes high with a Christmas dinner of Chinese food, beer, and strategizing for the Celtics game, the team heads to Magic for some home cooking. There, Norm Nixon warns his young teammates that Boston is extremely hostile, sometimes even supernaturally, to black athletes. Across the room, Kareem sits down with the eldest Earvin Johnson to ask if his son has always been this happy. Earvin Sr. jokes that the doctor didn’t slap a newborn Magic to stop him crying, but rather to stop him smiling. As the two bond over their bewilderment at Magic’s seemingly insensitive to the hardships of a black man’s life in America, the subject of their conversation is disappointment to discover that Cookie has skipped her family’s Christmas dinner.
Back in the coaches hotel room, Riley shaves off his mustache and explains to Westhead how unruly he gets at the Boston Garden when the Lakers are in town. But Westhead is either too drunk or indifferent to care. When Riley’s former teammate, Elgin Baylor, accidentally calls him instead of Jerry West, he finally realizes what’s going on: Baylor is supposed to replace Westhead as soon as possible, which means Riley will soon be back on his feet. beach days. When Riley angrily confronts Westhead about his lie, Westhead tries to soften him up by praising Riley as his coach. Fed up with being Westhead’s “nanny”, Riley drags him into the shower and douses him with cold water, trying to make him realize that both of their professional careers are at stake. With Riley smoothing his wet hair in the mirror, The origin story of GQ style icon and Hall of Fame coach/executive Pat Riley has begun.
After a brief scene where Cookie and Magic express their love while another woman hides in her bathroom, the show wisely moves on to a more interesting relationship: Magic and Larry. Larry Bird may look silly white, but not only is the man a ball, but he’s one of the all-time gossips with a chip on his shoulder, like Magic l quickly learns ahead of their joint press conference. While Larry only gives reporters one-word answers and spitting his dip, Magic is his usual charismatic. That confidence carries over into the pre-game locker room, where Magic rejects Westhead’s game plan to overtake Team Bird.
As the team soon finds out, they really need to double team Larry Legend. The Celtics take a halftime lead, helped by rowdy fans and referees who are apparently on Boston’s payroll. But after Riley pushes him to send out Spencer Haywood, the Lakers get some much-needed buckets and toughness. Haywood’s hard foul on Bird causes the Celtics star to throw a ball at him, sparking a fight and giving Haywood (but somehow not Bird) a technical foul. After a pissed off Riley yells at the referee and gets his own technical foul, Westhead finally sees his chance to show his strength. But he hesitates, so Riley gets behind the wheel to control his own destiny. He insults the ref’s wife and gets thrown out for a 2nd T, earning the respect of his players and giving them a boost for the final quarter run. Which they do, as Michael Cooper hits a winning prayer to give the Lakers a one-point win. Among the hushed crowd are two unexpected smiling faces. One is Kareem, who has played more than his fair share of backyard games. The other is Celtics general manager Red Auerbach, looking toward the nosebleed seats he so generously gifted Jerry Buss. Auerbach isn’t smiling because the hated Lakers beat him in a regular season game. That’s because after a decade of waiting, he finally has a solid opportunity to smash the Lakers again in the NBA Finals.
• Bill Russell’s shitty story is true. Although he won 11 Boston titles as a player and coach for the Celtics, Russell’s move to a white neighborhood led to Bostonians breaking into his home, spray-painting the word N on its walls and to defecate in bed.
• The Lakers’ six-week “slippage” of 1979-80 after the McKinney accident was not only heavily exaggerated in this episode, but also largely fictionalized. Between Paul Westhead taking over as interim coach and the Celtics game, the Lakers went 20-8 and had just one losing streak. They also didn’t play the Pacers and Pistons just before the Celtics, and they didn’t play on Christmas Day either. Finally, the Lakers went 4-0 against the Pistons and Pacers that season.
• Breaking the episode’s fourth wall explanatory revelation: After Chick Hearn insults Pat Riley for leaving the broadcast booth, Pat turns to the camera and sarcastically says, “I’m going to miss him.” Credit winning time for the respect of his public only enough for Pat not to follow up with “By the way, that was sarcasm.”