Hulu's Los Angeles Lakers Project Adds to the Discouraging Trend of Self-Produced Sports Documentaries

·5 min read
Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, an executive producer on an upcoming Lakers documentary, attends a basketball game between the Lakers and the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on November 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Credit - Allen Berezovsky—Getty Images

Jerry Buss, the late owner of the Los Angles Lakers, was probably best known for two things: building the Lakers into a 1980s basketball dynasty, and his reputation as a Tinseltown playboy. The new 10-part Hulu documentary on the franchise, Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers, offers plenty about the former, and not quite enough on the latter. This isn’t too surprising, considering Jeanie Buss—Jerry’s daughter, and controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers—is an executive producer of the series.

In the film, Earvin “Magic” Johnson notes, “When we went to the Playboy mansion, we would sit back, and he would [be] studying. ‘Which one do I want?’ And then it was the chase to get her, right? And he would always end up with the one he wanted.” We learn that Buss kept a book with pictures of all his dates.

The viewer would love to know more about how Jeanie Buss, who succeeded her father in running the Lakers and in 2020 became the first female owner to win an NBA championship, reckoned with her father’s flirtatious ways. The film does go there, sort of. “He enjoyed the company of attractive women,” says Jeanie Buss in the series. “I think a lot of women fell in love with him. But as time went on, then there’d be a new girl, and then another new girl.”

We’re left with former Today Show anchor Jane Pauley, in archival footage from the early 1980s, to register formal disapproval. “I don’t necessarily appreciate the collectibles in his gallery of beauty,” she tells co-anchor Tom Brokaw. But then, seconds later, the documentary moves on, to the 1980 Western Conference Finals.

Give due credit to Jeanie Buss and Co. for even putting Pauley’s comment in the final cut. But Legacy is the latest entry in a somewhat discouraging sub-genre of entertainment: the sports documentary, produced by the subjects themselves. On Aug. 11, ESPN showed the final episode of The Captain, a documentary about Derek Jeter produced by his agent and the former shortstop’s Players Tribune media platform, which similarly delves into touchy subjects—his feud with Alex Rodriguez, his appearances in the tabloids—just enough to avoid complete whitewashing, but would still be better served, for the audience, in the hands of independent observers. The popularity of The Last Dance, the 2020 documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, seemed to spawn copycats. Jordan’s business partners were executive producers on that film. After The Last Dance, we saw Tom Brady’s Man In the Arena, which was backed by Brady’s own production company, The Captain and now, Legacy, which started streaming on Aug. 15.

The Lakers franchise, in particular, is sensitive to its version of the truth. The marketing of the series as “The True Story” of the Lakers feels like a direct salvo to Winning Time, the HBO series that debuted in March, starring John C. Riley as Jerry Buss and based on the book, Showtime, by journalist Jeff Pearlman. Winning Time made no pretense that it would be taking dramatic liberties. But that didn’t stop some people associated with the Lakers from flipping out about the series. Laker great Jerry West, unhappy with his portrayal in the series as a bit of a madman, threatened to sue. His lawyer sent a note to HBO calling it a “deliberately false characterization.” (HBO responded: “Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such. However, the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing, and HBO stands resolutely behind our talented creators and cast who have brought a dramatization of this epic chapter in basketball history to the screen.”)

“There is only one immutable sin in writing: Don’t Be Boring!” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a piece lambasting the show. “Winning Time commits that sin over and over.”

Winning Time has its excesses. The comparisons between great basketball and sex, for example, grow tired. But with all due respect to the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, the show’s not boring. Established actors like Reilly, as well as Adrien Brody as Lakers coach Pat Riley, and Sally Field as Buss’ mother, Jessie, gave bravado performances. Quincy Isiah, as Magic, and Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were exciting rookies. The series was renewed for another season and is sure to depict some of the events covered in Legacy—like Magic Johnson demanding that Buss choose between him and coach Paul Westhead at the outset of the 1981-1982 season—in a more intriguing fashion.

Facts can fall short of fiction, when in the wrong hands. Legacy has its moments. Magic’s 1981-1982 ultimatum resonates now, as it presaged the era of player empowerment: just look at Kevin Durant demanding his trade from the Brooklyn Nets. Jeanie Buss shares that she was sexually harassed at an NBA owners’ meeting. This revelation surprises ever her siblings. We also meet the real Claire Rothman, who was a sports business pioneer unknown to most casual fans before Gaby Hoffman played her in Winning Time. As general manager of the Forum, she became a trusted lieutenant to Jerry Buss, and ran the day-to-day business. In Legacy, she offers keen insight on Buss family dynamics.

At its heart, Legacy feels like a business story. The first six episodes available to media also did a nice job introducing viewers to all the Buss children—Johnny, Jim, Jeanie, Janie, Joey, and Jesse—and teases an exploration of familial infighting that saw Jeanie emerge victorious as caretaker of the family firm after Jerry Buss died in 2013. Who knows, Legacy could end up as another Succession. If the producers don’t curtail the truth.