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'Winning Time' portrays the rise of the L.A. Lakers. Its subjects call it defamatory

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Biopics are a staple of entertainment - the royal family, Elizabeth Holmes, Tammy Faye Bakker, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. HBO's new series about the 1980s LA Lakers, "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty," has gotten direct criticism from some of the people it portrays, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Jerry West. The champion player became the team's coach, later its general manager. They say the series is not only just not true, but defamatory. Here's a scene in which Jerry West tells new owner Jerry Buss he doesn't want to sign Magic Johnson because he says his own career proves that being a star player doesn't mean you can lead a team to a championship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKERS DYNASTY")

JOHN C REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) And Johnson's a star.

JASON CLARKE: (As Jerry West) So was I, a [expletive] star. Do you know what - you want to know what it got me? It got me [expletive]. It got me this, a [expletive] movie project. Here it is. Oh-ho-ho - Jerry [expletive] West, MVP, the most valuable [expletive] loser award - winning and [expletive] losing.

REILLY: (As Jerry Buss) Hey, listen. I used to drink a lot of bourbon. I switched to vodka. You can smell it less. Just a tip.

SIMON: Jason Clarke as - oh, my word - Jerry West. John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss. Eric Deggans joins us.

Boy, that sounds like our editorial meetings, doesn't it, Eric?

(LAUGHTER)

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If only they were that exciting.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's right. Jerry West, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have objected. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a wonderfully pointed piece in which he says it could hurt his charitable work for children. How so?

DEGGANS: Well, the show depicts him filming the movie "Airplane." And he was working with a child actor there. And it shows that when the cameras weren't filming and the child asked him for an autograph, he told him to F off.

SIMON: Oh, my.

DEGGANS: (Laughter) And Kareem, of course, said that he didn't do that. And, you know, when I watched it, it struck me because, you know, Kareem is known for his religious values. And it just seemed kind of at odds with his sort of rigid moral approach that he would curse at a child.

SIMON: And Jerry West, who's been very open about mental and other challenges in recent years, says in his letter to HBO that the series portrays him as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic. Is he just forgetting what he once was?

DEGGANS: Well, not according to a lot of people who knew him at the time. He's received some backup. There's a lot of people out there saying that this portrayal isn't fair. Now, one of the things I will note - I have watched every episode of the first season. It's been picked up for a second season by HBO. And the portrayals of these men soften and get more complex as the episodes unfold. And I think people were reacting to the first few episodes, which are very sort of jarring and shocking, and they try to sort of almost grab the viewer and really get them involved in the story. As it goes on, West is portrayed more sympathetically.

SIMON: HBO says, look, it's not a documentary. But, of course, real people are involved. And you and I can only guess about how hurtful it must be to see yourself portrayed that way on screen.

DEGGANS: Yeah. Well, we're talking about two different things here. You know, one of the things we're talking about is the fact that people tend to watch these shows that are based on real events, and they come away feeling like they've learned something about the event from watching the limited series. So people are going to watch this, and they're going to think these people acted like this in - during the time that was portrayed. And as much as HBO wants to say that this is fictionalization - you know, people are going to do that. But there's also kind of a legal standard.

And, you know, getting to the point where you can prove that their image was distorted enough that a public figure can say this was defamatory - I think that's going to be really difficult. And, you know, HBO actually released a statement that it gave to The Hollywood Reporter, where it said, quote, "HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized for dramatic purposes. 'Winning Time' is not a documentary and has not been presented as such."

SIMON: I feel moved to ask a certain question. I mean, I've sometimes interviewed public figures over the years, have seen themselves portrayed in some kind of miniseries. And I remember one man - who was a former government official - who said, you know, they came over to my house. They talked to me. They tried to get my accent. They tried to get the way I dressed. They even asked me to take out old clothes. They got all of that right. What they didn't get right was what actually happened.

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Right. Well, what's that saying? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I think when you watch "Winning Time," especially, what you see is that the things that they did that the participants say, you know, didn't happen are things that were done to accentuate and accelerate and intensify the story. The problem is that people are going to watch all of this, and they're going to assume all of this stuff happened. And, you know, if I was Jerry West and they showed me taking my MVP trophy...

SIMON: Yeah.

DEGGANS: ...And throwing it through a window and breaking it, and you didn't do it, you know, that would make me upset.

SIMON: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans - however, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEGGANS: That's right. You don't have to worry about me throwing any awards through a window.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, good.

DEGGANS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.