Jerry West demands retraction, apology over ‘Winning Time’ portrayal

Former Lakers executive Jerry West demanded a retraction and an apology for what he called “a baseless and malicious assault” on his character in the HBO series “Winning Time,” in a letter sent by his legal team to the network and producer Adam McKay on Tuesday evening, which was distributed to multiple media outlets.

West’s lawyers allege that “Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic,” which “bears no resemblance to the real man,” and ask for a retraction no later than two weeks from the receipt of the letter.

“The portrayal of NBA icon and LA Lakers legend Jerry West in ‘Winning Time’ is fiction pretending to be fact – a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family,” wrote Skip Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess, LLP law firm in Los Angeles and attorney for West. “Contrary to the baseless portrayal in the HBO series, Jerry had nothing but love for and harmony with the Lakers organization, and in particular owner Dr. Jerry Buss, during an era in which he assembled one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

“Jerry West was an integral part of the Lakers and NBA’s success. It is a travesty that HBO has knowingly demeaned him for shock value and the pursuit of ratings. As an act of common decency, HBO and the producers owe Jerry a public apology and at the very least should retract their baseless and defamatory portrayal of him.”

West’s lawyers say HBO’s disclaimer, which is included with every episode, that the series is a “dramatization” does not insulate the network from liability.

As of Tuesday night, HBO had yet to publicly comment or respond to West’s letter.

The docuseries, which has been airing Sunday nights since early March on HBO, is based on author Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.” The Lakers’ organization has said little about the series publicly, but it is understood to be unpopular with many associated with the franchise.

West’s lawyers allege that the series creators acted with “legal malice” because many of the scenes depicted in the series showing West’s purported rage did not appear in Pearlman’s book and did not happen. The letter includes statements from players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, as well as Lakers employees such as Claire Rothman, Mitch Kupchak, Bob Steiner and Charlene Kenney, who worked with West during the time period covered in the show denying that they ever saw West, who is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, commit any of the rage-filled acts or drink alcohol in the office, as depicted in the show.

The letter comes on the heels of an essay by Abdul-Jabbar, who called “Winning Time” “boring” and “deliberately dishonest.”

“The characters are crude stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Hans Solo resembles Harrison Ford,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “Each character is reduced to a single bold trait as if the writers were afraid anything more complex would tax the viewers’ comprehension. Jerry Buss is Egomaniac Entrepreneur, Jerry West is Crazed Coach, Magic Johnson is Sexual Simpleton, I’m Pompous P—. They are caricatures, not characters.”

Added Abdul-Jabbar: “It’s a shame the way they treat Jerry West, who has openly discussed his struggle with mental health, especially depression. Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”

Rothman, who ran operations at the Great Western Forum for more than 20 years and is portrayed by Gabby Hoffman in the series, said, “Jerry treated me and everyone else in the Lakers organization with dignity and respect. I never saw Jerry break or throw anything in anger or rage, nor did I hear anyone ever say he did such things.”

Kupchak, who is now the Charlotte Hornets’ general manager, played for the Lakers from 1981 to ’86, then worked alongside West in the front office from ’86 to 2000. He said “during my time with the Lakers as a player and in the front office, Jerry was always professional, even-keeled and soft spoken. He was always positive and encouraging with me. I also found Jerry to be honest and sincere. I never saw or heard Jerry lose his temper with anyone. I also never saw or heard Jerry go on an angry rant or tirade nor did I ever see or hear Jerry scream or yell at anyone. That was not his personality. Jerry is soft spoken and does not like confrontation. He always keeps his composure and remains calm even when he has a disagreement with someone. Last, I’ve never heard or seen Jerry ever break or throw anything in anger.”

West’s lawyers say he is due a retraction, apology and damages from HBO and the show’s producers because “rather than follow the book, the show goes out of its way to denigrate Jerry West despite his accomplishments as an executive. It shows Jerry launching into expletive-filled tirades about the decision to draft Magic, implying that Jerry had personal animus against Magic. Worse, the show implies that Jerry tried to sabotage the drafting of Magic Johnson. This never happened. All Jerry did was point out that Sidney Moncrief was a prolific scorer and that the Lakers should consider him. It was not Jerry’s decision who to draft. It was the owner (Jack Kent Cooke) who made the call.

“So instead of seeing the true Jerry West – a brilliant GM who was the architect of one of the great NBA dynasties – anyone who watched the show would be left with the false impression that West is incompetent, that he didn’t want Magic Johnson. This is a fabrication. You depict Jerry as a clueless bumpkin-wearing a fishing hat to practice, which also never happened- rather than a dedicated and capable GM.

“You omit any reference to Jerry being one of the most accomplished and well-regarded NBA executives in history. Instead, you degrade him by exaggerating his urging the Lakers not to draft Magic Johnson. Contrary to the show, the book leaves readers with the true impression of Jerry as a brilliant and thoughtful GM. Your extreme departure from the book shows malice in your false portrayal.”

This image released by HBO shows Jason Clarke as Jerry West in a scene from “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” (HBO via AP)