Hulu’s Lakers documentary goes from Jerry Buss to Jeanie
The legendary coach, known for his slicked-back hair and high-end suits, addressed his team in May 1990 hoping to stage a second-round comeback against the Phoenix Suns. Desperate to connect during a film session in a hotel ballroom, Riley slapped a mirror for emphasis and continued his monologue despite blood dripping from his hand. Shortly thereafter, the Lakers were eliminated and his nine-year run officiating “Showtime” was over.
“I lost it in the playoffs,” Riley admitted in Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers, an upcoming Hulu documentary. “I could feel the walls closing in. I could feel it and I fought it. i could feel [the players] move away from me. I don’t think I have any doubts that I’ve changed. It was like war. I couldn’t get on my knees and say that mea culpa thing. I had to persevere. Eventually it came down to me calling plays for Magic Johnson. I think maybe he was the only guy in my corner.”
Though Riley isn’t the brightest star in a Lakers galaxy that includes Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, he’s perhaps the most compelling and honest character on “Legacy,” a 10- part film series premiering August 15.
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The comprehensive documentary follows the Lakers from 1979, when Jerry Buss bought the team, through 2020, when Buss’ daughter Jeanie became the first owner to win an NBA championship. Legacy features interviews with 75 people, including Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal, as well as the Buss children, who are still licking their wounds following the death of Jerry Buss in 2013 following a court battle over control of the franchise.
Legacy was conceived by Jeanie Buss to provide a definitive account of Jerry Buss’ seminal tenure and introduce the Showtime greats to a younger generation of fans. Jeanie Buss’ devotion to her father is evident throughout, and the series achieves its primary goal of celebrating the patriarch’s larger-than-life personality and many contributions to the NBA, including exclusive courtside seats and the Laker Girls dance team.
Of course, Lakers nostalgia is a crowded field: Earlier this year, HBO released Winning Time, a dramatized series based on Jeff Pearlman’s book about the “Showtime” era, and Apple TV Plus produced “They Call Me Magic.” , a four-part documentary about Johnson. Legacy is by far the most ambitious and expansive of these projects, but its first installment shares many of the same plot points as Winning Time, while its 1991 retelling of Johnson’s HIV diagnosis is surpassed by They Call Me Magic. ”
“I think it’s important to hear from the people who actually live the stories,” Jeanie Buss said in a phone interview. “We all know what the results were on the pitch and how many championships [Jerry Buss] won. But the things that go on behind the scenes make it a human story. I think people will be surprised how difficult this business is. They have the heights of winning, but sometimes winning takes its toll. We encouraged the people interviewed to share their truth – the good and the bad.”
Legacy unfolds in chronological order, mixing contemporaneous television shows, rare archive footage and topical interviews to relive the cover years and sessional drama. There are some real gems: Johnson laughs at his unlucky coaching career; O’Neal traces his respect for Phil Jackson to their first meeting at the coach’s Montana cabin; and a teenager Bryant gives a speech to his high school English class.
“[Bryant] is the best young player we’ve ever coached here,” says Lakers manager Jerry West in a captivating audio from 1996. “I don’t often make predictions about size, but I think he’s going to be great.”
Director Antoine Fuqua regularly brings in multiple narrators to tell richer and more rewarding stories. After the Lakers won the title in 1987, Riley explained that he immediately guaranteed a title replay in 1988 because his previous teams weren’t focused enough to go back-to-back. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar and his teammates groan that Riley’s guarantee raised expectations and kept them from savoring their triumph.
When it comes to Jeanie Buss’ short-lived marriage to volleyball star Steve Timmons in the early 1990s, she explains how the couple’s move to Europe affected her career, while her brother Jim is happy to mock Timmons’ straight hair. The viewer can sense the sibling rivalry in Jim’s interviews, and his involvement is a credit to the project, as Jeanie wrested control of the franchise from him and her brother Johnny in 2017.
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“Everyone has a family and everyone can relate to families, which sometimes have complicated issues that they have to go through,” Jeanie Buss said. “I did things the way my father asked me to. Maybe it wasn’t how my siblings thought it was supposed to go. But the court clearly interpreted the trust my father left, and that’s behind us now. We’re coming together as a family.”
Despite Jerry Buss’ playboy reputation, Johnson’s notorious parties, and Los Angeles’ unmistakable connection between celebrity and sex, “Legacy” barely ventures into racy material. And while Michael Jordan’s documentary The Last Dance relied heavily on reckoning, trash talk and personality clashes, Legacy is less interested in sensationalism.
“We wanted to be firmly attached to the story of Dr. Buss, his family and his team,” Fuqua said. “I don’t particularly believe in a lot of extra drama that’s unrelated to the story. That will not do.”
This philosophical approach led to some flat stretches in the series, but also allowed Riley’s obsessive basketball spirit to shine. Riley expresses regret for how hard he’s pushed the Lakers at times, such as when Byron Scott was lost to a hamstring injury just before the 1989 Finals. The Hall of Fame coach also admits that “Showtime” fame has transformed his personality and boosted his ego, as he berates himself for promoting his 1988 book mid-season.
Riley, now a Miami Heat manager, is a crucial link between the NBA’s present and past, and a much less visible and vocal one than Johnson and O’Neal. His wisdom and single-minded personality help “Legacy” paint a complete portrait of Jerry Buss, a real estate mogul who was willing to take serious financial risks to oust the Boston Celtics as the league’s premier franchisee.
Just as Riley was forced to manage the pressure to keep winning in 1990, Jeanie Buss seems consumed by the challenge of keeping the family business on track. Notably, the Lakers made the playoffs in 32 of Jerry Buss’ 34 seasons as owner and then missed the playoffs in the first six seasons after his death.
To fix the ship, Jeanie Buss brought out Johnson, whose close friendship with Jerry Buss was key to the “Showtime” era. Johnson, in turn, signed James, who delivered the 2020 title, a feat that comes full circle four decades after Jerry Buss and Johnson won their first championship.
In an interview shortly after the 1980 final, an overjoyed Jerry Buss described the win as a “highlight”. [of] so intense” that it took “two or two and a half months before you can ever be normal again.” But after 40 years, 11 championships and a long family power struggle, that childlike joy has given way to a much more knowledgeable and cautious perspective in his successor.
“After the win in 2020, the sky seemed a little bluer every day,” said Jeanie Buss. “It was a lot of fun. But then, like in the NBA, reality sets in. Now you have a big goal on your back because you’re the champion.”