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Photo Credit: Warrick Page / HBO

Acting Up: Quincy Isaiah


The Snapshot:

Quincy Isaiah plays basketball legend, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, as he takes L.A. and the NBA by storm in the stylish new series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. (The 10-episode series premiered on March 6. New episodes drop every Sunday on HBO Max.)

 

The Performance:

As a lifelong Lakers fan at wits’ end with the mounting losses from the current NBA season, you can imagine my jubilation when Winning Time finally premiered about the 1980’s “Showtime” era Lakers. A period drama about the decade they once dominated, its colorful owner and star player held great appeal – a slam dunk in a season full of turnovers and missed opportunity.

I’m old enough – and I suppose, fortunate enough – to have been at many of the games in the 1979-1991 period covered in Winning Time. But I knew only a little about the behind-the-scenes dramas that took place during the 1979-1980 season portrayed in the first couple of episodes.

That’s when we first meet the kid from East Lansing who just led Michigan St. to a National Championship – Earvin “Magic” Johnson – who’s played by Isaiah with astonishing familiarity, from his mannerisms to vocal inflection to his million-dollar smile. The series’ start point is actually the moment Magic finds out he’s HIV positive in 1991, which for those who remember it, felt like a death sentence at the time. It resulted in Magic’s immediate retirement and served as a reality-check bookend to a decade that Magic spent largely redefining the sport of basketball.

It’s clear early on that Isaiah is down for the task of playing Magic, not just as an athlete but as an actor as we see dramatized versions of his Michigan family life, where his blue-blooded father (Rob Morgan) and religious mother (LisaGay Hamilton) refuse to call him “Magic” due to its devilish connotations. But as Magic puts in one of many scenes where he breaks the fourth wall:

“Devil can’t hoop like me, though.”

Isaiah’s athleticism and basketball ability do not go unnoticed in the series and are on display in several scenes early on – such as when a vindictive Magic puts his future wife Cookie Keely’s boyfriend onto the pavement during a full-court pickup game. And because it’s Magic, the scene comes complete with a healthy dose of smack talk pouring out of his famous goateed mouth.

But it’s in the scenes with Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), who ultimately became a father figure to Magic, where this series earns its purple-and-gold stripes. It’s through their bond and basketball innovation that the Lakers became a top draw for Hollywood celebrities, a global brand and basketball powerhouse that won five World Championships over the course of Magic’s 12 seasons. (Not counting Magic’s brief return in ‘95 when the league was more accepting of HIV.)

The machinations of how they did it – and how it was all orchestrated by Buss and the Lakers team, players and staff – is the fun of watching Winning Time. Even if creative liberties were taken to tell the story per the series’ upfront disclaimer, I’m hoping for only the best during its run. I’m only two epsiodes in, but I’m hungry for the win thanks to Isaiah’s portrayal of Magic.

It might be all we have to cheer for this season.

 

The Career:

As for Isaiah landing the role of Magic, it wasn’t exactly a slam dunk.

Imagine having no acting credits on IMDB and then finding out that you have interest to play Magic Johnson in maybe the most highly anticipated sports series since ESPN’s The Last Dance.

That was the situation for the 26-year-old Isaiah, a Michigan native who according to this piece in The Hollywood Reporter about how the series came together, landed the role after a prolonged search for someone who could embody Magic’s charisma, athleticism and yes… that smile.

It was a national search and Isaiah, who reportedly got an agent from posting his stuff to an online platform according to this Newsweek piece, came in blind. That is, he submitted a tape one day from Torrance that got show creator Max Borenstein and Adam McKay’s attention.

Prior to that, McKay called it “the hardest casting task” of his career knowing they couldn’t do the series “with a subpar Magic Johnson.” Luckily, McKay with the help of Francine Maisler who’d cast many of his movies, found Isaiah from what was a large group of candidates.

The rest is history.

Watching Isaiah, you quickly realize the 6’3” actor and former D3 college football player clearly has athletic ability. After graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 2017, Isaiah moved to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing his acting career, but it was slow going, booking only a small role in a short film. Things got so rocky for Isaiah, in fact, that he reportedly considered dropping acting altogether and joining the military, according to this story.

Then Magic arrived. Once McKay was convinced they’d found their guy, Isaiah was cast and the basketball training started with former Lakers glue guy Rick Fox and NBA ‘Hoops Whisperer’ Idan Ravin. Isaiah also did a deep dive into all things Magic: music, game footage, books, et al.

It’s still early for the series, but he seems to have gotten him down as much as anyone could. We’ll see where it goes from here. The series, his career, his portrayal of an NBA legend.

But one thing is for sure, it’s all off to a promising start. 

 
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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.