EL SEGUNDO – For a franchise as saturated with stars and media coverage as the Los Angeles Lakers, it is difficult to imagine a great number of stones left unturned.
“Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers,” the latest offering of a number of Lakers-centric projects, unveiling new information might be beside the point. Director Antoine Fuqua got just a few minutes into the press day for the upcoming Hulu docu-series – staged at the team’s practice facility with a dozen former players – when he said the quiet part out loud.
“You have to remember, there’s a lot of misinformation out there as well,” he said, prompting more than a few chuckles. “There’s TV shows and other things out there that are not correct.”
It is tempting to view Legacy as the team’s attempt to straighten the record. Many of the principals encourage the idea. The recent shadow hanging over this release has been the dramatized HBO series Winning Time – a series that emphasizes the more lurid excesses of the early Showtime Lakers era and has been mostly shunned by its subjects.
Those former players who even admit to watching it (many claim they never will) say that HBO cheapened their story, and at times even got it wrong. Said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example: “There’s always some stuff out there that’s not accurate, or way off course. And this gives me an opportunity to have my say, and be accurate, and hopefully people who watch this film understand it’s the real deal.”
But what Legacy might be, more accurately, is a counterbalance. It doesn’t so much push against other accounts as accentuate other sides of the story. As opposed to casted actors, Legacy prides itself on its first-person interviews of more than 75 key figures in the franchise’s history. Said Fuqua: “If someone disagreed, then they said it on film.”
The origins of Legacy predate its competing narratives. Executive producer Kevin Mann said Jeanie Buss approached him seven years ago, impressed with his work on the 2008 LeBron James-centered documentary More Than a Game. She wanted to introduce her father, who died in 2013, to a younger generation of fans.
Mann draws the distinction that the documentary is not financed by the Lakers, but their cooperation on a project was enticing. The filmmakers imagined, at one point, a documentary focused on the parallels between Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson. But the more research they did, the wider the scope got.
It might seem surprising that the filmmakers got interviews with figures like former team president Jim Buss on his family squabbles that led to his ouster, or Jerry West whose frosty relationship with the franchise has been going on two decades. But it was a point of pride for the filmmakers that they tried to get everyone to talk.
“You let the doc kind of tell you what it’s gonna be,” said Mann. “And as it grew, it just grew and grew and grew.“
That, of course, spans other eras including the Shaq-and-Kobe threepeat, and Bryant’s success later in the decade. But the filmmakers were also suddenly confronted by the history happening around them: James’ arrival in 2018; Bryant’s shocking death in 2020; the franchise’s 17th championship in the NBA bubble.
It was difficult, the filmmakers acknowledge, to try to get people to talk about Bryant on camera. Even today, it’s a raw wound for many of the Lakers’ top figures.
“You just have to be very delicate about it and human about it, and understanding you may not get that conversation on that day,” he said. “You have to wait. You may not ever get it.”
The sprawl of the documentary is tied to earth by the chronicle of the Buss family, starting with Jerry Buss’ entry into the NBA fray in 1979. In early episodes, he’s colored by all his flash and his foibles: Grainy, intimate footage of family vacations are interspersed with tales of his distance from his kids for much of their childhoods, and the film doesn’t exactly counter some of Winning Time’s characterizations of Buss as a gleeful playboy with much younger models on his arm at all times.
But there is a strong push by the filmmakers and family alike to show the side of Buss that made him such a charismatic figure and one still beloved a decade after his death. Abdul-Jabbar described how much closer he felt to Buss than all the team owners he had known before; former employees describe his warmth and confidence.
An anecdote that Mann hated to leave on the cutting room floor: Buss once called veteran team executive (now president of business operations) Tim Harris to leave tickets for “my guy at Southwest.” What Harris assumed was an airline executive actually turned out to be a baggage handler whom Buss had befriended in Burbank.
Legacy leans into a Mark Cuban quote in the documentary trailer about the Lakers’ story mirroring another HBO show: Succession. The start of the documentary drums up the drama by sitting each of the Buss children down on set, and Fuqua called Jerry Buss and his vision for the franchise, and his desire to hand off his life’s passion to his children as “the bloodline” of the entire series.
“If the Lakers aren’t doing well, the Buss family is not doing well,” Mann said. “And it’s not a cheap business to run. So being able to document the success of the Lakers up and down, and also the success of the Buss family was really fascinating.”
Particularly for the players of the Showtime era covered in Winning Time, there is a renewed fervor for telling their story in their own voices. Norm Nixon was in the unusual position of being depicted on screen by his own son, DeVaughn Nixon, on HBO – and he has some notes. While partying at the Forum Club was definitely a part of the NBA scene in the ’80s, Nixon claims that the Lakers’ team bus of his era was likely to be silent, because players like himself and Abdul-Jabbar had their noses in books. Added Robert Horry (who obviously played in a later era), with a laugh: “Phil (Jackson) would give us books to read.”
While players don’t deny that partying is a part of being a Laker, they also underline their sacrifices – long hours in the gym, discipline before big games, being away from their families – as being what actually led to the winning that defined the dynasty. James Worthy said he has been moved by strangers who approach him with tales of how the Showtime Lakers made their family bond, or inspired them.
“Living in Hollywood, I understand satire. I get it,” Worthy said. “But I think when something is so critical and needs to be told properly. … I think if you push back on the nonsense and get to the real stuff, that was a decade that changed people’s lives.”
The last episode of Legacy will wrap with the team’s 2020 championship led by James, but naturally the franchise’s recent stumbles may make the documentary feel like dwelling on glory days. No one is more keenly aware of how short the team fell of its annual championship goals than Buss, who has said she was sorely disappointed by the 2021-22 season.
But even though the Lakers’ near future is murky, and there were parts of the series that were particularly painful for Buss to look back on, she derives optimism from the franchise’s story – even the ugliest and saddest moments. And perhaps that nostalgia is a kind of fuel for the team’s governor as she tries to steer them back on top.
“To now look at that and think about what we overcame, and we’re still here, and the resiliency that sports gives us – the idea that there’s gonna be a next season,” Buss said. “We’re gonna get back together again, even after a loss of a season and not making the playoffs, there’s gonna be another season. And I think that’s what’s so beautiful about sports: There’s gonna be another season to tell, another opportunity to celebrate and hopefully get number 18.”
Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers will be released Aug. 15 on Hulu.