SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for “Memento Mori,” the April 10 episode of “Buying Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty“, which is now streaming on HBO Max.
The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to turn a new page on Episode 6 of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) are proving to be a formidable offensive duo, owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) has launched his basketball mecca at an Inglewood forum revamped and the team is even stringing a few wins as it heads into the 1980s. Oh, and head coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) suffered a near-fatal biking accident, putting himself into a coma and leaving the team without a leader on the pitch.
Suddenly, assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) finds himself in the hot seat, invited to take the helm of an organization that has just taken its first steps towards respectability. A former English teacher who joined the Lakers as a confidant and friend of McKinney, Westhead now faces his players alone for the first time and rewinds his words to the age of Shakespeare.
“There’s nothing Jack McKinney would want more than a win,” Westhead begins before quoting the tragedy from “Macbeth.” “Sorrow that does not speak whispers to the overworked heart and asks it to break.”
Looking back on the stage, Segel sympathizes with Westhead’s dead-end verbosity, confessing to his own similar habit: “I like to pontificate.”
“It’s so funny. It happened the other day,” says Segel Variety. “I did a seven minute explanation of how you can’t stare at a pan while you’re trying to heat it up. Because it will never reach temperature in a satisfying way. Anyway, I talked and talked and the guy was like ‘A guarded pot never boils.’ Yeah, it would have.
But Segel wasn’t just the talented performer, writer and speaker he proved over a career spanning more than two decades. Years ago, before “How I Met Your Mother” and “Freaks and Geeks”, Segel was a basketball player, and a very good player. In a conversation with VarietySegel recalls his own enthusiasm and prowess as a ballplayer in high school, how he ultimately had to choose between acting and athletics, and what it was like working with John C. Reilly and “Winning Time” executive producer Adam McKay after years of running around in the same comedy circles.
Do you follow the NBA? Do you have a team?
I do it. I’m a huge Lakers fan and follow them pretty religiously. This year has therefore been particularly difficult.
They were officially eliminated from the playoffs a few nights ago.
Yeah, it hasn’t been pretty. Not to do as a cheeky segue, but it was quite interesting to watch the Shakespearean drama unfold, that’s what “Winning Time” is all about! This season was much more about power dynamics than basketball.
I spoke with Solomon Hughes last week, who plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the show.
What a great guy, huh?
He is! He shared a lot about his career as a ball player. But then I dove on you and found out you play basketball too.
I did it. I had a few state championships. In fact, I oddly played against Solomon in high school. We were on rival teams. It’s pretty crazy how the world works.
What was your relationship with basketball at that age?
That was literally everything for me. My first foray into basketball was building a relationship with my brother. We would go out and play on the weekends and play pickup and play hoop across the street. I ended up being pretty good at it off of the drive to get to know my brother. During this kind of pivotal time in high school, I was playing basketball full time and secretly shaming. After practice, I’d like to sneak in and play small pieces. It all came to a head when I was discovered in a high school play by a studio casting director. So I had to make a choice between basketball and comedy. They wanted a full-time commitment. They were like, ‘Are you really ready to give it a shot?’ And so I went. I took my shot.
I also read that you won a dunk contest.
Yes, the truth is that I finished second. It was a national dunk contest. Both Kevin Freeman and Tim Thomas were in it. I was in Florida on one of those tours – we were ranked top 20 in the country. I had the element of surprise on my side, but I also had the element of theatrics on my side. I dunked my jersey over my head and really sold what I couldn’t see. I stumbled like Frankenstein.
Tracy Letts told me that he only joined “Winning Time” after seeing the pilot. Is it the same story with you? What elements of the project intrigued you?
They sent me the pilot and the first six scripts. They intentionally made sure to send me enough scripts for me to see what was going to happen with Paul Westhead. Honestly, I was sold when I watched the pilot, because I really felt like it was to basketball what “Boogie Nights” is to porn. It’s not about the subject, but it’s really about the people and the complex power dynamics. They described it to me as wanting to create Shakespearean arcs, especially around my character who was once a scholar of Shakespeare. We talked about this idea of someone who always believed he was destined to be the court jester learning to step into his manhood and lead men. These days, I only take something that I think understands why I would be a good guy to play this role.
Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes didn’t have access to Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to prepare for their roles. Paul Westhead isn’t as much of a public figure as those two. Did you contact him during your research for your performance?
Well most of my research was the book [“Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”] and then Westhead himself has a book. We had a very pleasant brief exchange on social networks. From there, I felt it was really important, while being respectful, to stop worrying about who was going to be happy with the performance choices outside of the show’s creators.
You have a long history with comedy, but I don’t think you’ve collaborated with Adam McKay or John C. Reilly before.
Yeah, I haven’t. That’s right. It’s the first time I’ve worked with both. We kind of lived in the same circles for a long, long time, but we never ended up working together.
Were you excited to work creatively with these people you met?
Yeah! I think at some point the only way to improve is to work with people who are the best at what they do. It’s like why so many people want to be traded to play with Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. And I’m impressed not only by Adam McKay and John C. Reilly, but also by Adrien Brody, Tracy Letts, Jason Clarke, Sally Field, Gaby Hoffmann. I was suddenly surrounded by people I knew I was going to learn from. It’s probably a trivial thing people say, but it was actually a conscious decision I made after ‘How I Met Your Mother’ ended. It had been a very comfortable decade, where I knew exactly how to do what I did every day. And I was doing a ton of romantic comedies, which at one point I just knew how to do. After that, when I had this blank canvas in front of me, I made a conscious decision to only work on projects and with people I felt I had to improve with to do well.
On the other hand, several of the actors playing Lakers players on the show are newcomers. I imagine you looked a bit like a veteran to them.
I am well aware that I have reached a certain age. At some point between takes, the Lakers players said to me, “Mr. Segel, do you have any advice for us young people? And I was like, “What just happened?” The greatest joy of the whole process is watching Quincy kill a scene and improve with each episode. And to watch Solomon, slowly at first, then very quickly, figure out his own process and kill his part. It’s the coolest thing to watch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.