The HBO series “Winning Time” has succeeded not just because of the entertaining storylines, but also due to people like basketball guru Idan Ravin who helped turn the show’s actors into mirror images of Los Angeles Lakers legends like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” will premiere its Season 2 finale this Sunday at 9 PM ET, and while the show has received mixed reactions from some in the industry over the portrayal of certain key Los Angeles Lakers figures, there is no denying the impressive skill and technique that was put into making the cast feel like believable basketball talents.
However, helping series cast members like Quincy Isaiah, Solomon Hughes, and Sean Patrick look and move like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Larry Bird was no easy task. That is why executive producer Adam McKay turned to trainer and “basketball whisperer” Idan Ravin to help find and mold this group of actors into credible ball players.
The former lawyer has garnered an impressive reputation for years as a go-to coach and trainer for many elite NBA stars, including Lebron James and Chris Paul. However, even he admits trying to identify the right individuals to embody these unique roles, and then turn them into mirror images of legendary players from 40 years ago was an extremely difficult undertaking.
‘Winning Time’ basketball producer explains the difficult task of casting legendary players
“It’s hard. You’d think in the cities like LA and New York there are thousands of basketball players to pick from, but it’s more slim pickings than you think because the really good ones are playing somewhere,” Ravin told Sportsnaut. “And the ones that used to play, they’re physically not capable of doing 16-hour days. Then, I’m not looking for the Instagram player or the street baller because I need someone who is more selfless and won’t self-promote on social media.”
“You might have four million followers on Instagram but if I need you to sit on the bench for 14 hours are you willing to do that?” he said. “I couldn’t have the modern-day athlete, because they are too jacked. During that period, no one had big biceps, shoulders, and thighs. So the sample size kept on getting smaller, and smaller. You had to match skin tones, you had to match body types, you had to match height, there were so many things that you had to match so it felt like you were watching a period piece.”
To turn Hughes, Small, Isaiah, and the rest of the cast into the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers and their opponents, Ravin revealed that it was a multi-step process that started with turning the crew into actual basketball players. Which meant making them quicker and more agile like a high-level baller should be. Then they worked on the technical aspects of the game. Shooting, dribbling, and passing, before finally getting their minds to understand the game in a way a long-time competitor would.
“The casting was really tough because there’s so many things you have to take into consideration when you’re selecting people,” Ravin said. “Are there some guys that I picked that are not elevated basketball players? Sure, but they work. And there are some guys that I picked that were elevated players as well, but their basketball ability wasn’t the No. 1 thing I was looking for.”
Idan Ravin on honoring the legacy and talents of Los Angeles Lakers icons
By the end of the search and training, he had close to 50 actors turned athletes who could create believable basketball action on the court when the cameras rolled. But even then, while they were turned into sound players, actors like Isaiah had to do it all while making his movements feel like NBA Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson. Something Ravin took great pride in helping to replicate.
“You’re not just playing John Smith. You’re playing one of the most iconic basketball players in history,” he said. “So everything you do has to feel correct. The way you pass, the way you move, the way you run, jump, shoot, dribble, and everything has to be done while you’re delivering dialogue or communicating with the emotional beats of the story. So it’s a very complex process.”
From an on-court standpoint, Ravin and the show have received rave reviews from inside and outside the basketball world. He is proud of the work he and the cast put into honoring these legends of the past in what he considers an Empire State Building-level basketball achievement.
“I think that everyone who’s approached me has marveled at how accomplished and how authentic all the basketball looks like,” Ravin says. “I think from an insider’s standpoint I think they understand we built the Empire State Building. It’s monumental what these actors have done. It’s one thing to play a basketball player, it’s another to play those characters.
“I appreciate everyone’s opinion. I appreciate Magic’s opinion, Jerry West’s opinion, and Kareem’s opinion, but from my perspective, I try to do my best to honor them. To show reverence for them because they were people I admired growing up.”
“Winning Time” can be found on HBO and viewed on-demand via the Max streaming service.