The prospect of a second season of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty was exciting for several reasons. Fans would get to see the show’s takes on other major moments in NBA history following the L.A. club’s 1980 NBA Finals win. Of course, there are also the evolving character dynamics, which include the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Celtics phenom Larry Bird. Fans only received hints of that animosity during Season 1, but it’s now truly about to kick into high gear. On that note, one of the show’s director’s compared the feud to Lord of the Rings and, now, I can’t unsee it.
Winning Time’s latest episode, “The Second Coming,” serves as something of an origin story for Larry Bird. It also helps to establish his feelings towards Magic Johnson, who bested him during the 1979 NCAA tournament’s championship game. The installment was directed by Todd Banhazl, who provided some insight into his take on the brewing tension within the show. A point he made that most would probably agree with is the notion that an all-out (basketball) war seems to be on the horizon. What some may not have expected, though, was for him to compare the drama with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga in a key way:
I think this whole season is building up towards this battle, right? It’s like this Lord of the Rings thing where we’re building both storylines until they collide. Episode three, for me, is like our supervillain’s backstory, but at the same time, it’s also about humanizing him completely. I think by the time you get to later in the season, the hope and the goal is that you really understand both characters and you actually care about both of them too.
When you think about it, that reasoning actually makes sense. The Lord of the Rings saga focuses mostly on the journey of Frodo Baggins and his exploits alongside the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring. However, the books (and film trilogy) also spend a considerable amount of time fleshing out antagonists Saruman and Sauron. As the director mentioned to THR, that’s the exact approach that the latest Winning Time episode takes with Sean Patrick Small’s Larry Bird. Of course, I don’t think the fictionalized version of the Indiana native is anywhere as nefarious as an evil wizard. On a side note, this isn’t the first time someone from the show has made a LOTR reference, as Jason Segel used it to describe Paul Westhead’s Season 2 arc.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s rivalry is legendary and, during the heart of the ‘80s, it arguably helped boost the NBA back to prominence. At the time, games were shown on tape delay but, thanks to the buzz surrounding the pair, interest in the game of basketball was renewed. Like so many fans, Todd Banhazi has a lot of reverence for the rivals-turned-friends, and he went on to share some keen thoughts about the dichotomy that exists between them:
There’s no Magic without Bird and there’s no Bird without Magic. They start off like mortal enemies, but really, they need each other, and they push each other to become better. The rivalry between the two dynasties is the rivalry between the two of them, and we all know that they actually become friends and that’s what’s so beautiful; they’re actually two sides of the same character.
That complex bond is set to be further explored during this season, which has been likened to Star Wars flick The Empire Strikes Back. So far, the series has done an effective job of tackling Bird and Magic. That’s part of the reason why I’d love to see the producers get to tackle Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s era at some point. Of course, if that’s to happen, viewers will have to keep watching Winning Time. The Magic/Bird drama is certainly worthy of people’s attention – even if you’re simply a Lord of the Rings fan and not a sports aficionado.
New episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO as part of the 2023 TV schedule and can simultaneously be streamed using a Max subscription. Coincidentally, you’ll also find all three Lord of the Rings movies on that very streaming service.