After two seasons, HBO has canceled “Winning Time,” a sports drama that chronicled the L.A. Lakers’ Showtime era of the 1980s.
The show ran its Season 2 finale Sunday evening, and that episode will serve as its last, an HBO spokesperson confirmed to The Times on Monday, declining to comment further on the reasons for its cancellation.
However, Kevin Messick, an executive producer on the series, referred to a dip in ratings during the show’s second season, as well as the actors’ inability to promote the show amid the ongoing strikes by members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, according to Vulture, which spoke with Messick and was first to report the show’s end on Sunday evening.
Messick, who also executive produced “Succession,” told Vulture that HBO had suggested the showrunners film an alternate ending in January, before the strikes started, in the event of an early exit.
The Season 2 finale (Warning: Spoilers ahead) was supposed to show Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) sulking in defeat against the Boston Celtics after the 1984 NBA Finals. Instead, the backup ending was shown, with owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) talking with his daughter, Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), about one day taking over the team, as well as a montage of the real-life characters and what they went on to do in their careers.
“Not the ending that we had in mind,” show co-creator Max Borenstein tweeted Sunday evening. “But nothing but gratitude and love.”
“9.5 years. We made the show of my dreams,” co-creator Jim Hecht said in a separate tweet. “That wasn’t the ending we hoped for but very grateful to everyone who watched and @jeffpearlman for trusting me with his genius book.”
The show’s oncoming demise had been teased by Pearlman, whose book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” the series was based on. Over the last several months, Pearlman was vocal about struggling ratings and encouraged viewers to tune into the show on Sunday evenings on HBO.
“I’m telling you — the future of ‘Winning Time’ hangs in the balance,” Pearlman tweeted in mid-August. “We need viewers. The strikes are crippling. Please help spread the word. Season 2 is amazing. But … HBO is big on [numbers].”
He later added in a separate tweet that he was “worried there won’t be a season three,” and said he wanted the show to survive for the sake of “a cast of amazing young actors who live this.”
And behind the scenes, HBO had also been transparent with its showrunners, Messick told Vulture. He said the channel was clear that given the show’s expensive budget, “we always knew that the ratings would have to achieve a certain level for it to make sense.”
The first season, which ran alongside NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament in 2022, did well, but the ratings were down nearly 50% for the second season, which debuted Aug. 6. Shortly after, Messick said HBO Chief Executive Casey Bloys told him the writing was on the wall for the series.
“Casey had called me a couple of weeks into season two, as a friend, and just said, ‘It’s not looking good,’” Messick said. “So it wasn’t a surprise for the final decision based on how it was performing.”
When asked whether running the show during the strikes had played a factor in the ratings dip, Messick said, “One hundred percent,” mentioning its “big ensemble cast,” which includes Oscar winners Sally Field as Jessie Buss and Adrien Brody as Pat Riley.
“We have a lot of assets to help promote the show, and we weren’t able to employ any of them,” he added. “Yeah, that was definitely a frustration for us.”
The show had also been mired in controversy for its dramatization of Lakers legends, with former NBA player and Lakers executive Jerry West demanding a retraction in April 2022. West’s attorney called the show “a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family.” Lakers hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also blasted the show on his Substack blog, calling it “deliberately dishonest” and “drearily dull.”