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I Want the New HBO Lakers Series to Just Be About Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in ‘Airplane!’

Sorry, the best moment in the ‘Winning Time’ trailer is the two seconds it shows of the acclaimed center playing Roger Murdock

Trailers are meant to get us excited about some upcoming project, usually showing us important plot points or funny moments that will leave us hungry for more. On Thursday, HBO unveiled a teaser (as well as some images) for its series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. NBA fans will already know what to expect: It’ll be a look at how the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers became the powerhouse of the 1980s, building an elite team that combined superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) with dogged coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody). Sporting a nostalgic, stylish throwback look that suggests American Hustle mixed with the dad-energy sports obsessiveness of The Last Dance, the series (based on Jeff Pearlman’s book) will probably be a very watchable hit.

But none of that interested me in HBO’s announcement. The real excitement occurs at 1:24 mark of the teaser. It goes by so quickly you may miss it.

As one of the promotional stills HBO made available confirmed, apparently Winning Time is going to at least devote some time to Abdul-Jabbar’s appearance in the 1980 comedy classic Airplane! I really don’t care about the rest of the series — I wish the whole thing was just about him making Airplane!

To be fair, there’s plenty of reason to be legitimately excited about Winning Time. Beyond the cast members I’ve already mentioned, the series also stars John C. Reilly, Jason Clarke, Rob Morgan, Sally Field, Gaby Hoffmann and Jason Segel. Plus, Pearlman’s book, Showtime, was celebrated for its tell-all luridness, detailing the participants’ off-the-court misadventures with sex and drugs. There’s a lot of potential here for the series to be a shameless salute to the glorious excesses of the 1980s and the basketball team that best emulated that ethos. 

But considering I deeply disliked Adam McKay’s last two films — he serves as Winning Time’s co-creator and directed the pilot — I find myself tempering my expectations. Plus, it’s hard to forget that his rift with longtime collaborator Will Ferrell occurred over this series when McKay cast Reilly to play Lakers owner Jerry Buss, which Ferrell had hoped to take on himself. It’s certainly possible Winning Time will be little more than gaudy costumes and goofy hair. 

But that super-brief clip of Kareem in Airplane! looks so much like the real thing that it’s stunning. Here’s the original:

In terms of jokes per minute, Airplane! may be the finest comedy ever made. It’s certainly not sophisticated — and, now at 41 years old, it’s certainly got its share of cringe-y bits — but its inspired commitment to utter stupidity remains delightful. And part of that commitment involved casting Abdul-Jabbar, who’d been part of the Lakers for a few seasons after guiding the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship. It’s not like the talented center hadn’t done any acting before — in fact, he’d even gotten to fight Bruce Lee in 1972’s Game of Death

But as co-pilot ​​Roger Murdock, the whole joke is that adorable tyke Joey (Ross Harris) isn’t fooled for a second — he knows that guy flying the plane is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he’s gonna let the big fella know what his dad thinks of him. Initially, the part was written for Pete Rose, but because the film was shot over the summer, during the midst of the baseball season, writer-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker turned to Abdul-Jabbar, who was in his offseason. 

Not that Abdul-Jabbar made it easy on them. Years later, Jerry recalled the negotiating process to land the player:

“When we offered the role [of Murdock] to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think we offered him $30,000, and then the agent asked for $35,000 because that’s how much this rug cost that Kareem wanted to buy. It was an oriental rug — an art piece, not one to walk on, I don’t think — so our initial reaction was, ‘That’s got to be the best line we’ve ever heard from an agent.’ It was like, ‘Boy, this guy’s really creative!’ But then a couple of weeks later, there’s an article in Time with a picture of Kareem standing in front of the oriental rug that he’d bought for $35,000 after we’d paid him.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s not exactly an acting natural, but he’s very charming as Joey keeps giving him more shit about his defensive lapses and how he doesn’t try as hard during the regular season. (Watching him finally snap at the kid is never not hilarious, no matter how many times you’ve seen the clip.) Asked to explain why his small cameo remains so beloved, Abdul-Jabbar once replied, “I think the fact that I was so out of character. I was always supposed to be this uptight guy who didn’t like to engage with people, and here I am playing somebody who has a secret life as an airline pilot. You see me in the film in my basketball uniform. The Lakers had a great year that year, and it all seemed to fall into place.”

Indeed, when Airplane! opened in July 1980, it was only a couple months after Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers had defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win the NBA Finals, with his rookie teammate Magic Johnson earning the MVP trophy after filling in at center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar during the clinching game. That was the beginning of the Lakers’ run of titles in the 1980s.

Lots of sports legends end up proving to be horrible people, tarnishing everything they accomplished up to that point. (Take Pete Rose, for example.) But Abdul-Jabbar has been a stellar human being, even when the press treated him poorly for, say, refusing to participate in the 1968 Olympics because of his objections to the country’s racist tendencies. This century, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks from extremists, Abdul-Jabbar, a devout Muslim, has always spoken out about his faith and condemned the attacks, a stance that couldn’t have been easy for someone so private. Abdul-Jabbar is also that rare non-film person who can write intelligently about culture, slamming Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of his friend Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and offering one of the few nuanced critiques of La La Land’s depiction of jazz and race during that contentious Oscar season. The man’s a role model for how to conduct oneself in the public eye.

Of course, none of that really matters when you’re watching him be silly in Airplane!, but while other elements of the film have aged badly, Roger Murdock blessedly has not. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is this agreeably dorky presence in the movie — he’s not deadpan hilarious like Robert Hays or Leslie Nielsen, yet he’s an incredibly good sport, which is what makes the performance work so well. Winning Time is probably only going to spend a minute or two on Airplane!, but I bet it’ll be among my favorite moments of the series. Hell, if McKay wanted to scrap the rest of the script and just make the whole thing about Kareem in Airplane!, I wouldn’t complain.