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Jerry West says his portrayal in HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ is ‘false and defamatory’

Jerry West, as portrayed by Jason Clarke in a scene from HBO’s “Winning Time.” (AP)
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NBA legend Jerry West is demanding that the creators of the HBO series “Winning Time” retract what his attorney describes as a “false and defamatory portrayal” of the Hall of Famer in the show, whose first season depicts the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In a letter to HBO and “Winning Time” producers Adam McKay and Kevin Messick that was dated Tuesday, West’s attorney Skip Miller accuses them of perpetrating “an egregious wrong on a good and decent man” and said they have “harmed him in the process.” Miller says the show inaccurately portrays West as an incompetent Lakers executive with alcohol and anger issues and provides testimonials from numerous people who rebut the portrayal of West in the show.

Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic,” the letter reads. “The Jerry West in Winning Time bears no resemblance to the real man. The real Jerry West prided himself on treating people with dignity and respect. Winning Time is a baseless and malicious assault on Jerry West’s character. You reduced the legacy of an 83-year-old legend and role model to that of a vulgar and unprofessional bully — the polar opposite of the real man.”

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The seventh of 10 “Winning Time” episodes premiered Sunday, and HBO has renewed the show for a second season. Jason Clarke portrays West, who at the start of the series is the Lakers’ coach after his lauded 14-season stint as a player for the team. West steps down as coach early in the series after disagreeing with the team’s decision to select Magic Johnson with the first pick of the 1979 draft, though he remains with the team as a scout.

Miller says West never disapproved of the decision to draft Johnson over Sidney Moncrief, which the show contends was the player West wanted to draft.

“It shows Jerry launching into expletive-filled tirades about the decision to draft Magic, implying that Jerry had personal animus against Magic. Worse, the show implies that Jerry tried to sabotage the drafting of Magic Johnson. This never happened,” the letter says. “All Jerry did was point out that Sidney Moncrief was a prolific scorer and that the Lakers should consider him. It was not Jerry’s decision who to draft. It was the owner [Jack Kent Cooke] who made the call.”

The show also depicts West breaking a golf club over his knee and throwing his NBA MVP trophy through his office window, and it insinuates that he drank alcohol while at work.

“These events never happened,” the letter says.

“Winning Time” includes a disclaimer that the show is a dramatization, but Miller says that doesn’t “insulate you from liability.”

The letter asks that HBO and the show’s creators retract the portrayal of West in the show and says they owe “Mr. West an apology for your hurtful misrepresentation of his work and legacy, plus damages for the harm you caused to his well-earned and stellar reputation.” It also suggests further legal action could be forthcoming.

To bolster his claim, Miller includes court documents from a $5 million defamation lawsuit filed by Nona Gaprindashvili, the first woman to be named a chess grandmaster, against Netflix over her portrayal in the series “The Queen’s Gambit.” Gaprindashvili contends that a line from the show — a character states that she had “never faced men” — is not only “grossly sexist and belittling” but also factually incorrect, as she had played against 59 male competitors by 1968, the year the show is set.

Netflix asked the court to dismiss Gaprindashvili’s lawsuit, arguing that the show was fiction and that the First Amendment protects the artistic license of the show’s creators. But in January, a U.S. district judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed, saying works of fiction are not immune from defamation lawsuits.

Still, any lawsuit filed by West could face an uphill battle. In 2017, actress Olivia de Havilland sued FX over her portrayal in the miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” contending that the show painted her in a false light by making her out to be a hypocrite and a gossip. A California appeals judge eventually tossed out de Havilland’s lawsuit after finding “Feud” to be protected speech and contending that her lawsuit had little probability of success based on the merits of her claim.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected de Havilland’s petition to review the dismissal of her lawsuit.