Winning Time

One on One with ‘Winning Time’ Stars John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty takes viewers on a stylized journey through one of the most important times in the team’s legacy; the beginning of the 1980s. Known as the “Showtime Era,” this moment in NBA history changed the league immensely, revitalizing public interest in basketball, and introducing the world to the Lakers dynamo squad of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Norm Nixon. These star players ball alongside the rest of the packed Lakers team, coached by Jerry West, and led by Jerry Buss. 

As you might have guessed, Buss was a pretty big deal. Besides the Lakers, he also owned the LA Kings hockey team, the LA Sparks WNBA team, and several other sports teams in a handful of organizations. In terms of his Lakers history, Buss led the team to several championship titles, his knack for choosing star players and molding the Lakers into the league’s first “celebrity team” becoming the reference point for the state of the NBA to this very day. But unless you’re pretty comfortably versed in the language of basketball, there’s a decent chance you haven’t heard of him. He is in, in many ways, an underdog. 

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, and Jason Clarke. Winning Time. HBO Media.

I’ll save the life story for the series, debuting March 6 on HBO and HBO Max, but there is a level of irony that comes with the casting of one Mr. John Christopher Reilly. 

Reilly, an artist in the purest sense of the word, is extremely dedicated to his craft. Receiving the call that he’d been cast, with just over a week before production began, he quickly put on his acting cap and got to researching the former Lakers proprietor. His upbringing, his purchase of the team, and his most pivotal business relationships.

“People were underestimating Jerry his whole life,” Reilly said over Zoom recently. “He was this poor kid with a single mom from Wyoming. He grew up in the Depression, and then somehow he got into college. He was a math whiz, somehow ended up becoming a doctor of chemistry. He started teaching at USC and all of a sudden he became a super successful real estate tycoon, and then he owned the Lakers! He became king of LA in that first year when he could barely keep the lights on at the stadium, and he won the effing championship.”

Much like Buss, Reilly is an underdog who despite a long and groundbreaking career in the business has had to deal with four catastrophic words his entire life.

“Oh yeah! That guy!”

Four words, some of the simplest in the English language. Frequently said with an air of revelation and surprise, and commonly associated with the uncertain familiarity one faces when met with the realization that you know someone, but you aren’t sure how. In the case of John C. Reilly, of Hollywoodland, USA, this is a common occurrence. An occurrence on the near-Mandelian level. That’s “Mandelian,” the made-up word (patent pending) to reference the “Mandela Effect,” the very real concern that we may just be living in an alternate reality where some cruel higher power thought it comical to remove Curious George’s tail. I’m getting away from the point. 

The point is, if I were to say “Hey, that new John C. Reilly project is coming out soon,” nine out of ten dentists would probably tell me they have no idea who or what I’m talking about. The tenth might know, and all of them would recommend I floss more often. But if I were to show them a clip of the veteran actor, or pull out a pocket-sized photo from my wallet (the existence of which is greatly exaggerated), they might go… “Oh yeah! That guy!” 

Obviously, John C. Reilly is a little more well-known among the dental community than I’m letting on here, but after nearly four decades in the business, John C. Reilly is still a name that bears a pause for thought, despite frequent award-winning performances alongside his constant cinema companion, Will Ferrell. 

Ferrell and Reilly have been working together for years. Often collaborating with director and third BFF Adam McKay, on projects such as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. Will and John were the Batman and Robin of the comedy duo world. They’ve been through the good, the bad, and the Holmes and Watson of Hollywood together. Tackling projects that otherwise might have fallen under the radar without such a powerful comedy couple at the forefront.

But despite a great team surrounding him, a serious knack for surprising on screen, and more than a handful of huge projects under his belt, there are still some today that don’t realize that “The guy from Step Brothers” has had more than 40 projects since then. Most of which, as I said, have been massive. From Wreck-It Ralph to The Lobster, to Stan & Ollie. Those aren’t even his pre-Step Brothers roles, most of which (besides Walk Hard) are often overlooked or undervalued in comparison to the Adam McKay comedy. 

For no discernible reason, Hollywood seems content and persistent in its efforts to mark Reilly as the “funny man sidekick” of the buddy comedy genre. Despite this, the actor has yet to falter in his own efforts to prove to himself and the world that he is so much more. 

Once again collaborating with Adam McKay, Reilly transforms himself into sports industry hopeful and infamous owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jerry Buss. As I mentioned before, the two men share a common underdog status that hasn’t ceased their success, only made it that much more surprising that just now, in 2022, they both might become household names. 

One of the most important relationships in Buss’ career, his time above the Lakers team with Earvin “Magic” Johnson as the face. 

“They really came from different places, said Reilly. “Jerry comes from Wyoming, and Magic comes from Michigan, but they had a similar ‘unlikely path,’ let’s say.” 

Magic, who needs no introduction, is an MVP and a legend on the court. Without him, there is no Michael Jordan, no Shaq, no Kobe. Winning Time starts at a time when there was just Earvin Johnson, showing us exactly how the Magic started in the first place. Actor Quincy Isaiah dons the role of Magic, literally stepping into the (massive) shoes of the former Lakers point guard and transforming him into the game’s unlikely hero.

Much like his role, Quincy is a relatively new face with nothing but pure potential in his future. Potential that reflects the rapid rise of his on-screen counterpart, thanks in part to his unlimited talent and his trust in scene partner Reilly. That trust itself a reflection of the bond Dr. Buss and Magic Johnson had when the latter lit the court aflame with his signature style of play. The actor also got to finally fulfill his basketball fantasy in a way.

Quincy Isaiah. Winning Time. HBO Media.

“First thing I ever wanted to do was play basketball,” Isaiah revealed. “I wanted to be in the NBA, like growing up. And then my mom was like ‘You got to go to school. You got to pick something realistic,’ so I chose to be an actor [laughs]. But the person that I looked up to was Shaq, who was a Laker. So naturally, I was just like, oh, okay, I’m a Lakers fan, right? But, you know, as you get older, you realize like, my dad was a diehard Pistons fan. I knew right away, okay, maybe I’m not really a Lakers fan. But I liked certain players. That’s a long way of saying that I didn’t really know just how great of a franchise the Lakers were until I looked back at [the history].”

Basketball history is a big part of the series, especially considering we’re on the heels of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary celebration during All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. The Lakers’ role in that history being brought to life wasn’t lost on the star.

“Once I booked this role, started digging into how they lost almost every year to the Celtics. And then all of a sudden, it became a rivalry,” said Isaiah. “And then the Lakers kind of took over from there. So just seeing how the NBA changed power was really dope to see and to see that Magic and Dr. Buss were instrumental in that shift of power. It was like, eye-opening, because it’s just dope to see something like that. And yeah, I mean, obviously, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Norm [Nixon] you know, the list goes on, they helped too, but it was like, on the court, it was these people that helped shape the NBA and the world, you know? [They] gave way to Michael Jordan, and LeBron and Kobe. What else can you say?”

Reilly also reflected on history Magic Johnson made on and off the court.

“You think about [Magic] coming from East Lansing ended up becoming one of the most successful businessmen in American history as an African American, all the stuff that’s just putting aside what Magic did on the court,” Reilly recalls. “What he did in the business world and the way he empowered his communities in LA, that’s huge. So, even though, yes, they come from different places, they were both newcomers to LA, who said, ‘Watch me now!’ Like you think you run this town? You think Hollywood runs this town? Well, guess what, there’s a new king and he’s got, he’s got the best player in basketball. It’s just amazing what these two guys accomplished. And I think that, you know, I can’t speak for either man. But I think that had a lot to do with why they became as close as they did.” 

Matching Reilly/Buss’ underdog nature, but with not nearly as much experience, Isaiah still holds his own against the troupe of familiar faces that appear throughout the series. These two men, the face of Winning Time. Actors. Artists. Perpetual underdogs with a never-ending hunger for success. Brought together by a passion for acting and basketball, and joined in their connected experience encapsulating the lives, careers, and very spirits of their roles. 

“They both felt like outsiders in this world, even though Jerry was there first,” revealed Reilly. “He felt like, you know, ‘I wasn’t born into this, I came here and made it just like, you’re gonna make it kid. And if I can do it, you can do it too.’ Pretty inspiring stuff.” 

“They both kept evolving, and in their evolution, actually inspired people that otherwise would have looked at their way as unconventional and outside the box, it kind of became the norm,” Isaiah added. “Now you see a lot of 6’9″ point guards, now you see a lot of owners very much trying to bring this spectacle to the game, make it entertaining you know? They both were very similar in a way that they were able to navigate the world and carve out a niche for themselves.”

The inspirational tale of two underdogs, the cards always stacked against them, never short of courage and perseverance in their endeavor to make it to the top, is already happening before our very eyes. The next chapter for Reilly and Isaiah, these two unlikely success stories, Winning Time premieres March 6 on HBO Max.