Winning Time: How To Adapt a True-Life Story

Winning Time: How To Adapt a True-Life Story

This week, we’re going to be looking at Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, and how to adapt a true story into a TV show or feature film. We’ll be building on our conversation from my podcast about TV Bible writing, to help you understand how to translate some of those concepts into the structure of your TV Series. And most importantly, we’ll be learning how to develop your TV series structure around the hook that is most important to you. 

There are a million places online where you can read about exactly what is true and what is not true in the adaptation of Winning Time. In fact, there are sites that break down every episode into truth and fiction. So we are not going to focus our inquiry there.

Instead, we’re going to be looking at how you, as a writer, take this giant beast of a true-life story, with all this plot, and squeeze it down into a form that you can actually structure and sell. 

A lot of writers make the mistake when adapting a true-life story like Winning Time into a TV show or feature film, of believing that the hook of their adaptation exists in the true-life story itself. 

A pitch from one of these well-meaning writers often sounds a little bit like this. 

“It’s this incredible story that’s never been told! It takes place over multiple years. It’s got the most amazing characters, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jerry Buss, it’s got political stuff like HIV, Islam, it’s got basketball, drug addiction… so much awesome stuff, the story practically tells itself!” 

But the truth is, the story does not tell itself. And while the frenetic pace and structure of Winning Time might make it seem like it just threw all this stuff together, underneath all that is a really simple take on the material: a strong drumbeat that tells these two very talented writers and their writing team exactly what to focus on, exactly what the real story is, and what is just extraneous plot and noise. 

The biggest problem in adapting a true-life story into a TV show or feature film is that there is just so much noise. 

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And where does that noise come from? It comes from the very process of writing a show like Winning Time. You see, as part of that process, you are going to do a ton of research. In fact, if you’re really doing your job, you’re going to turn yourself into an expert on the Lakers. You are going to know every little micro detail about what happened during the period of time that you’re trying to capture in your TV show or in your feature film. 

And the result of all that research, if you don’t have a really strong central premise, a really strong structure to hang that all on, is you can get distracted by all those details you’ve discovered, and lose track of the forest for the trees. 

 

When you discover an incredible true-life story to adapt, it’s easy to imagine that you are the first person to ever think of telling this story as a TV show or movie. Chances are, you’re wrong. 

Chances are, there are dozens of people who are pitching the exact same idea you are pitching. There are just so many people pitching show ideas and movie ideas every single day. 

In fact, if you’ve targeted the right producer, there’s a good chance that they have already heard this exact project pitched many times before! They’ve been looking to tell this story, and they’ve maybe heard 10 different takes on this material over the years. They’ve just never found the one that made them want to move forward. 

 

This is the most important thing when it comes to adapting a true-life story into a screenplay or pilot, finding the hook that makes your take on the material unique, and that holds all that material together in a way that allows both you, and the producer, to filter out all that noise.

The hook doesn’t lie in the story. The hook lies in you. 

The hook lies in what attracted you to the story. What is the piece of this story that most resonates for you.

Imagine the true-life story as a giant pie. You cannot eat the whole pie in screenplay format. Not even in a series. Not even in 10 episodes. Not even in multiple seasons. The most you can eat is a nice slice that represents the rest of the pie. 

And even if you’re building a show like Winning Time, that’s going to run for multiple seasons, that first season, that first slice of pie, still has to feel like a complete meal. You need to feel like you went on that journey that was satisfying for you, and also to open the door to want that nice next slice of pie next season. 

This is what we’re really trying to build when we write a series based on a true-life story. We’re trying to figure out how is my slice of pie different than the slice of pie that everybody else is cutting out when they look at this story

 

There’s an interesting approach in the structure of Winning Time and the way it first presents the obvious slice of pie and then veers away from it. 

In the first sequence we are watching Magic Johnson being snuck out of what seems to be a hospital or clinic of some kind. And the man in the car next to him breaks down in tears. And if we know much about Magic’s story, we’re probably making the assumption that this is the moment that he found out that he was HIV positive. 

And what’s interesting about that is it’s a really obvious slice of pie. That a really obvious way to tell this story, right? We’re going to tell the story of one of the great icons of basketball, being one of the first public figures to publicly come out as HIV positive, and the effects of that on his life. 

But interestingly, that is not where the series chooses to live. 

In fact, even by the 10th episode, the season finale, we still have not come back to that initial frame. In fact, that frame only exists to put pressure on the place where the series is actually focused, but drum rolling where all this fun is actually going to lead.

This is a really smart call by the writers.

 

When you’re pitching a true-life story adaptation, you have to assume if it’s an obvious take you’re pitching, you are probably not going to make the sale.

If it’s a super obvious take, if it’s the take that literally anyone telling this story would immediately think of, the chances are you’re not going to sell it, because the chances are the right producers have already heard that take a dozen times! And for whatever reason, it was not enough to move them. 

Instead, you’re going to have to find something underneath, something more dramatic, something more exciting, something that is more compelling for you. 

Oftentimes, that begins with research. So it’s important to understand the balance of research and writing. 

By the time you’re done with your screenplay, you are going to be one of the world’s authorities on whatever topic you’re writing about. You need to be, in order to have that kind of authenticity in your writing. 

But early, the important thing is not to know every detail. The important thing is to know what matters, what surprises you, what’s the simple thing that you want to focus on, that other people trying to tell the story, have not focused on. 

 

The writers of Winning Time made some really exciting decisions about where they were going to focus, and where they were not going to focus, as they adapted this true-life story into a show.

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The first of which is: we’re not going to see a lot of basketball. 

There’s a really obvious take on this series where it’s all about basketball. After all, it’s literally about the rise of the Lakers dynasty! Why not just pack it chock full of super exciting sports sequences, until every episode feels like that final fight in Rocky.

But the writers make a choice to avoid that obvious approach. After all, we’ve already seen those kinds of shows. Lots of them. That’s not where the story lives for them. Rather, the story lives in the characters. 

When do we see basketball, we see basketball to understand Karim Adbul Jabar’s journey from the guy sleepwalking through his last couple years on the court for money to the guy who really wants it again. We see basketball to understand Magic Johnson’s journey from being the wunderkind in college, to the feeling outmatched as a rookie in the NFL.

We see basketball to understand Magic Johnson’s relationship with Dr. J. and how his idealization of his childhood hero allows Dr. J to get into his head and take advantage of him on the court. 

In other words, we see basketball in order to illuminate character, not the other way around. 

 

Like most successful TV shows, Winning Time is built around character. In fact, it’s built around three really strong characters going on a shared journey. 

The first is Jerry Buss. 

The second is Magic Johnson. 

And the third is Kareem Abdul Jabbar. 

We’re going to watch the way these three characters change, and the ways they affect each other, the ways they take each other on a journey that transforms them, their franchise, and the entire NBA forever. That’s what we’re really building here. 

Underneath all the complicated storytelling, we’re really watching the story of three dudes. Two outsiders with a dream. And one who’s representative of the Old Guard, the very, very best in the world who’s lost his dream. 

We’re watching three dudes pursue a really simple dream. 

Jerry Buss’ dream is to take not only the struggling Lakers franchise, but also the entire NBA, and transform it into what he believes it can become– even though nobody else sees it. Even though he doesn’t have any of the skills, the background, the experience to suggest that he should be able to do this, even though he is risking every single dollar he has, spending money that he does not have in the bank, bluffing his way to success among a bunch of much more experienced owners who are a much more rich and powerful than he is. 

The second character is Magic Johnson, the guy who was the best of the best in college, trying to make it as a star in a league where everyone is focused on Larry Bird, where everyone wants to talk about the white kid. A guy that just can’t get the respect due to him, because he wears a big smile every day in a world where you’re supposed to be tough. And a guy whose need to conquer women, much like Jerry’s, is potentially going to be his undoing, not only in his basketball career, but also in his life. 

Two guys with a dream, both outsiders. The first, Jerry Buss, with none of the talent, none of the skill, not enough money, no background, only a crazy dream to transform the Lakers and the entire NBA into what he believes it can actually be. 

The second, Magic Johnson, who has all the talent in the world, all the pedigree in the world, but maybe the wrong skin color, maybe the wrong attitude with his constant smiles and easygoing nature, and maybe a slowly shattering confidence in himself as he tries to make the transition to the big leagues. 

You got these two fish out of water. 

And then, at the center of it all, you got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man who once had a dream, but who lost it. A man who has achieved the pinnacle of success– he is the best basketball player in the world– but somehow lost the dream in the process. He is playing for the last couple of years trying not to try, trying not to care, fed up with basketball and doing it for the money. And he’s still the best in the world!

We’re going to watch these three characters affect and shape each other over an entire season. We’re going to watch the power of an unlikely dream to transform not only Jerry and Magic, but also everybody around them, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the other members of the team, to the coaches, to the NBA itself. 

At the center of all the complexity of this adaptation is a really simple story about two guys with a dream. Two outsiders with a dream. Two guys who maybe don’t have any right to believe that their dream can come true.

It’s simply a story about what happens when you go for that dream, no matter what. And despite all the smoke and mirrors of the style in which the show is edited and shot, the reason it actually works is that there’s a simple engine that the writers are relying on, to land the idea of that theme, filter out the noise from the essential, and know what to focus on episode after episode.

It’s essentially this: Just think of the 10 plagues.

Just cull through all that research to find every horrible thing that could ever happen to a dude trying to create a basketball franchise or a super talented player trying to make his way in the NBA, or an old veteran rediscovering his faith.

So you’re going to have these two guys with a dream and a guy who’s lost his dream. And in order to test all three of those guys, you are going to come up with the 10 plagues that are going to hit them over 10 episodes. And almost always, those plagues are going to revolve around the coach– because it’s the problem of the coach that’s going to force these three guys together and force them all to change.

So now you know, out of all the crazy things that happened in the true story, which you need to focus on as you build your episodes and take these characters on their journey.

(spoilers ahead)

Here are the crazy plot points that we’re pulling out of history.

A coach quits just when you need him the most because he just simply can’t take the idea that he might lose.

You finally get the next coach of your dreams, and his best friend ends up murdered by the mafia. And so you lose him too. 

You bring in another coach who seems to be a mad genius. But Kareem Abdul Jabbar won’t buy into what he’s selling, and that means the rest of the team won’t either.

With Magic’s help, you finally get Kareem and the rest of the team to buy-in, and that mad genius has a bicycle accident. And the next thing you know, he’s brain-damaged. 

So now your team’s going to get taken over by his understudy, his assistant coach who may just be the man behind the mad genius, who’s afraid to confront the team or even stand up for himself.

And by the time the new assistant coach, Pat Riley, has finally pulled that courage out of his friend and the of them have pulled the team together and they’re actually winning, it turns out the original mad genius is going to try to elbow his way back in, right before the playoffs, even though his brain isn’t technically, well, working. 

So you keep hitting this team with plagues. You keep finding those moments where everything goes wrong.

 

And then you start to weave your other plagues around that central spine of the series– that giant coaching problem that drives each episode.

You’ve got your money plagues: the big bank loan that nobody knows about, that’s about to come due, putting pressure on Jerry Buss to hold onto his convictions and double down on his crazy dream against the greatest threat possible.

You’ve got the addiction plague, the story of Spencer Haywood, the power forward who you desperately need to win, who doesn’t believe in the assistant coach, who ends up getting benched, who comes off the bench to save the team, who develops a drug addiction that seems like it’s going to take them all down, and who ultimately ends up kicked off the team, not by the coach, but by his team and his friend and confidant, Kareem Abdul Jabar, just as they’re going into the championships.

You’ve got the injury plague, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally realizing he wants to win– only to fracture his leg, play on the fracture and be out for the rest of the series. 

What the writers are doing is building the whole series around a simple theme: the power of a crazy dream to change the world. And then test that theme with a series of unimaginable plagues that threaten to bring that dream down to reality. 

 

Every adaptation begins with a Take. Your Take is gonna be related to two things. Theme and Character.

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Finding your theme begins with asking a simple question: what is most resonant for you?

In the case of Winning Time, the writers are compelled by the idea of dreams– unlikely dreams– and the power, the capacity of a dream to transform not only the dreamer, but also everybody around them. Even those who have lost their dreams. 

Out of that, you start to form your cast. Who is the most important character? What aspect of the theme do they represent? And then what are the other aspects of the theme? And who are the characters who represent those aspects? 

We’ve talked about Magic, and we’ve talked about Kareem, we’ve talked about Spencer Haywood now as well, a guy who, like Jerry has some alcohol and drug dependency issues. But who, unlike Jerry, is being taken down by them, who’s unable to maintain his own dream in the face of his addiction. 

And we can keep going:

Jerry West, the coach who had the dream of winning championships, but is so haunted by only having won one, that he can’t even enjoy the success of victory. He can’t even do the career that he loves, because his fear of failing is so strong.

Jeanie Buss, the extraordinarily talented daughter of Jerry, the woman who, much like Magic, actually has all the skill and talent, but has the wrong gender. Which raises the question: is Jerry going to be able to see her talent so that she can live her own dream (and potentially save the franchise)?

Pat Riley, the guy who doesn’t even dare to dream, who in the first season doesn’t even know what his journey is going to be! Who thinks his likely destination is to end up a sportscaster. Like Jeanie, a gifted person whose talent isn’t recognized even as he moves from sportscaster to assistant coach and starts to win. 

You can see that the different characters all start to become different elements of the theme. And these characters all start to put pressure on each other. They start to affect each other.

In this way, you’re building out your cast in order to land the theme and the area of focus that you want to explore.

We talked about Dr. J before. It isn’t about his dunking ability that we’re focused on here. It’s about his ability to get in Magic Johnson’s head and make him doubt if he deserves the dream that he has. 

We have Larry Bird, the exact opposite of Magic Johnson, but a guy with the same dream, but a different skin color, and a different attitude, whose poor behavior is celebrated by the press, even as all of Magic Johnson’s beauty is underappreciated. 

 

Every character is a reflection of the theme. And once you start to understand your theme, once you start to understand your focus, you know what to build around, and what to ignore in your research, and in your structure.


Even the title grows from the theme. Notice it’s not the rise and fall of the Lakers Dynasty, it’s the rise. It’s about the dream and the power of dreams to transform people. 

Once you know what it’s about, it’s easy to realize it’s really not about the basketball– you can let all that research and all those ideas about what should happen in those games go. It’s only about basketball in relation to the dream.

When you’re doing an adaptation you want to focus on is what is your truth? Start with your research. Start by reading everything, understanding everything, learning as much as you can about the subject, becoming an expert, but then asking yourself, what is most fascinating about this to me? 

Find what your theme is, what is that thing you really want to say?  Not the whole story, the slice of pie that tastes the most delicious to you because it bounces up against the themes that matter to you. 

Who are the characters that you’re going to focus on that are going to tell that story? And how do they put pressure on each other in relation to the theme? 

What are the things that you’re going to focus on? And what are the things that you are going to leave out as you explore that theme? What kinds of things happen in each episode? And what are the things that are going to feel like noise that are going to dilute that simplicity– that may be true but are not essential to the piece of the story that you want to tell. 

 

Now what’s really interesting when you start to do this is you start to realize that adaptation is actually a lot like revision. 

As we talk about in more depth in my Write Your Screenplay Class and in Write Your TV Series Class, our early drafts are almost always so big and unwieldy, they’re much like a true-life story. Beautiful and complicated and filled with noise. They haven’t boiled everything down to the essence yet. 

And in fact, our job when we’re adapting a true story is exactly the same as our job when we are adapting a rough draft of our own script. 

We are looking for the theme. We are looking for the essence. We are looking for the thing that is the hook for us. 

We are looking past the plot to the primary relationships, the characters and the choices that they make in relation to the theme that take them on a journey that make the plot of the story actually matter.

 

If you’re enjoying our this Write Your Screenplay Podcast episode, like, follow and leave us a review on Apple

And if you want to study with me then check out Thursday Night Writes. It is free! Every Thursday night at writeyourscreenplay.com/thursday/.  

*Edited for length and clarity

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