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'Legacy' offers a blander history of the LA Lakers 'Showtime' era

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss poses with the NBA Championship trophy after Game 6 of the NBA Finals on May 16, 1980 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Rich Pilling
NBAE via Getty Images
Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss poses with the NBA Championship trophy after Game 6 of the NBA Finals on May 16, 1980 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It's tough to escape the feeling that Hulu's docuseries Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers, is the answer to a bunch of questions asked in an entirely different venue.

That's due, at least in part, to the seismic impact earlier this year of HBO's scripted series hit Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which dramatizes some of the same events featured in Hulu's Legacy — charting the emergence of the Lakers as a championship basketball team and pop culture powerhouse during the "Showtime" era of the 1980s.

Though HBO's series drew viewers and attention, it also sparked a lot of criticism — as everyone from former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to former coach Jerry West complained about the unflattering license taken by the producers in depicting their lives.

In particular, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss came off in HBO's show as a hard-partying doofus, played by star John C. Reilly as a womanizing glad-hander who parlayed a real estate fortune into an unlikely purchase of an NBA team, back when the league was less glamorous and the team wasn't winning championships.

Jeanie Buss, an executive producer on "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers."
Jesse Rambis / HULU
Jeanie Buss, an executive producer on "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers."

Legacy features lots of excerpts from interviews with Buss, who died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer. Instead of Reilly's disorganized impulsivity, the real-life Buss comes across as a savvy, driven businessman with a doctorate in chemistry and a facility with numbers — whose love for sports and a good time led him to reinvent the Lakers, and by extension the NBA.

Similarly, West is shown in interviews conducted for the docuseries earnestly admitting he was tough on the Lakers' players as a coach — offering a much more low-key demeanor than the volatile, trophy-throwing portrayal by Australian actor Jason Clarke in HBO's series. And Abdul-Jabbar, who often came across as distant and a bit of a jerk on Winning Time, is measured and insightful while answering questions in interviews for Legacy.

A docuseries produced by the Lakers organization

Jeanie Buss, Jerry Buss's daughter and the current Lakers CEO, is an executive producer on Legacy alongside director Antoine Fuqua, whose credits include scripted films like Training Day and the Equalizer films. So it's no surprise that the docuseries features interviews with most every notable figure from the team's history who is still alive, including players like Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Boston Celtics superstar Larry Bird. Interviewees also include former coach Pat Riley, celebrity fans like actor Rob Lowe and musician Flea and all six of Jerry Buss' children, who were working at various positions in the Lakers organization when he died.

It's also no surprise that the docuseries sometimes tiptoes around unflattering controversies, excepting the drama surrounding the Buss family and the children's jockeying for jobs inside his empire. So Legacy doesn't explore Johnson's womanizing – a subject covered extensively in HBO's Winning Time — or offer any insight on how he contracted the HIV virus, which led to his first retirement from basketball.

Still, the segment of Legacy at the end of the fourth episode detailing how Johnson told the team that he had the virus — at a time when such diagnoses were considered a virtual death sentence — is moving. Johnson said he broke down crying with Jerry Buss, who had become a father figure to him, the day they held the press conference to announce his departure from the team in 1991.

"I've only seen my dad cry twice," said Jeanie Buss, who herself cried during her interview recalling when they retired Johnson's jersey after his first departure. "Once when his mother, my grandmother, passed away. And that day."

Moments that move beyond sports trivia

Legacy soars when it tells the kinds of stories that would interest more than hardcore Lakers fans. Riley admits how he let fame and acclaim as the Lakers' coach go to his head. Jeanie Buss details how her father's reputation as a playboy who dated a string of young girlfriends helped torpedo his efforts to buy the Dallas Cowboys football team. Player Byron Scott, raised in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles, talked about coping with his mother going into rehab for drug addiction during his time on the team.

And there's lots of detail on how Jerry Buss developed the business of basketball, raising ticket prices in prestigious seats to boost revenue, developing the Laker Girls dance squad to add sex appeal to halftime shows while developing a cadre of celebrity fans to turn home games into star-studded events. Paired with the team's fast-paced playing style, Jerry Buss' innovations created an exciting presentation that justified the "Showtime" nickname.

Still Legacy tells its story in the style of most sports documentaries, especially in its early episodes, mixing archival interviews and game footage with contemporary talks filmed specifically for the project. And the decision to make conflict between the Buss siblings a major thread running through the docuseries sometimes results in a lot of time spent telling viewers about people they may not know or care much about.

In the end, Legacy offers some unique insights and emotional stories while exploring how the Buss family turned the risky purchase of a basketball team into a $5 billion empire. It's also a pretty solid retort to some of the excesses in HBO's series.

But given the control the family exerted over the project, you can't help wondering what else got left on the cutting room floor. And how much better this docuseries might be if they had left that stuff in.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.