Peorian Oliver Mack recalls rookie season with ‘Winning Time’ Lakers
Longtime Peoria resident Oliver Mack knows a bit about the true story that served as the basis for the recent HBO sports drama, “Winning Time.”
The series depicts the emergence of the Los Angeles Lakers as a basketball dynasty in the 1980s, with superstar teammates Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a fast-paced style dubbed “Showtime.”
While the 10-episode first season that wrapped up last month has earned critical acclaim, it's also drawn some scrutiny for its creative liberties. Abdul-Jabbar has called the fictionalized account “deliberately dishonest” and general manager Jerry West said he may pursue legal action over his portrayal.
Johnson and Mack were both rookies on the 1979-80 Lakers team featured on “Winning Time.” While Magic was the hyped No. 1 overall pick out of Michigan State, Mack was a second-round choice from East Carolina.
“I was nervous. I was just 22 years old (and) didn't know what to expect,” said Mack, who has lived in the Peoria area for nearly 40 years. “But it was fantastic in the sense that I get to see Magic Johnson up close and person. Then the veteran Kareem was there, who was my childhood idol. It was a fantastic time, just being able to view all of what was happening.”
“We had no idea; we knew Magic was good, but we didn't know how good at the time he was going to be a rookie. Just a fantastic time getting to know all the guys on the team and working with them and playing with them, and also for myself proving that I belong in the NBA.”
Originally from New York, Mack came to Peoria because his wife was from the area; they were married in St. Louis while he was completing his degree at Lindenwood College. He got a social services position at the Youth Farm when they moved here in 1993, and later served as director of truancy prevention for the Peoria County Regional Office of Education.
With an ensemble cast featuring John C. Reilly as team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, “Winning Time” is based on a 2014 best-selling book by sports writer Jeff Pearlman. Mack said while he hasn’t watched the show at all, he has heard plenty about it from others.
“From everyone is saying to me, it seems like it's kind of fictional,” said Mack. “I can just say from firsthand knowledge that, like I said, most players are just doing their own thing after games. You have a couple guys that were hanging together, but I kind of just had my friends and we went out to dinner and we did our own thing. So, I think it'd be really hard to get a true grasp of what's happening unless you talk to each individual Laker and find out exactly how it was.”
Mack said he has many fond memories of his brief time with the Lakers, especially from the preseason.
“During training camp, everyone's together,” he said. “You eat together, you kind of hang out together after the games and those kinds of things after practice. So that was kind of good; you got to really know people up close and personal, unlike the regular season. Once the season starts, everyone goes home to do their thing and you’re pretty much on your own.”
Buss was in his first year as the Lakers’ owner, having acquired a controlling stake in the franchise from Jack Kent Cooke.
“From everything that Kareem and the others have told me who had been there, Jack Kent Cooke was pretty much just an owner in name only, where Jerry Buss was almost like a fan,” said Mack. “He would be with you on the road trips. He would come to every single game, he would invite players to his house. Just a fantastic man to be around.
“I think he was receptive to everything that was going on; I'm not going to say it was his idea. I think the idea of Magic Johnson being the focal point of this particular offense and his skill set that he brought to the table, I think that was the reason why it became “Showtime” and a run-and-gun style of basketball.”
After West stepped down as the head coach before the season, Jack McKinney was tabbed as his replacement. Mack said it was McKinney who developed the offense built around Johnson. But after McKinney was severely injured in a bicycle accident early in the season, Paul Westhead took over.
“Jack McKinney was a real good coach; he liked me as a player,” said Mack. “I actually was getting some playing time when he was there, so that was a good thing. He really liked me and thought well of me. Then once Jack got hurt and Westhead took over, I didn't see very much time anymore. He kind of shrunk the rotation to like seven guys: Michael Cooper and Don Ford coming off the bench, and then the regular five (starters).
“That was more difficult, but still exciting, still good. I got to know Pat Riley because Pat Riley came out of the radio booth to become the assistant coach, so you got to know him a little bit better. So it was a good time. I personally liked Jack McKinney because he was the one that worked with me in training camp and said, ‘Oliver, I think you can do this, that and the other,’ and then he was not there anymore.”
With his playing time diminished, Mack wound up getting traded to Chicago before the end of his first season, and had to change from his preferred jersey number to one that would become legendary a few years later.
“It's been a trivia question for a long time,” he said of having the Bulls’ No. 23 before Michael Jordan. “I can (say) when I first went to Chicago, I was trying to get No. 25 — that's what I wore with the Lakers. For some reason — I know Chet Walker had had that number — it wasn't available. I don't know if they retired it, but just wasn't available. So I just chose 23, unbeknownst to me that it was going to be one of the most popular numbers in the history of the game.”
Mack’s NBA career consisted of just 128 total games, and it isn’t his time with Los Angeles or Chicago that most often comes to his mind.
“Interestingly enough, it probably was my time with the Dallas Mavericks only because that's really where I got to showcase my talents,” he said. “I started for the Dallas Mavericks in 1980-81, the very first year Dallas came into the NBA. So when I look back on my NBA career, as short-lived as it was, that was the time that was the special, when I think I proved to myself that I belong and I can do some really good things. That was kind of neat to be in the inaugural season with the Dallas Mavericks.”