Since the Magic Johnson era, the Los Angeles Lakers have been inseparable from Hollywood. So it’s only fitting that HBO’s new series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which airs March 6andhas assembled a top roster that includes executive producer Adam McKay and a cast that includes John C. Reilly (Jerry Buss), Sally Field (Jessie Buss), Adrien Brody (Pat Riley), Tracy Letts (Jack McKinney), Jason Segal (Paul Westhead), Jason Clarke (Jerry West), Wood Harris (Spencer Haywood), Gaby Hoffman (Claire Rothman) and Michael Chiklis (Red Auerbach).
But the heavily stylized and wildly entertaining adaptation of Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Showtime” – like the Lakers themselves – can’t go as far as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can take them. These two are represented by unknowns, Quincy Isaiah, who plays Johnson, and Solomon Hughes, who debuts as an idol of Abdul-Jabbar. (He devoured Abdul-Jabbar’s autobiography when he was growing up.)
But while Hughes is a rookie actor at 43, he’s the only one of the main characters with legit basketball chops, starting with his days as atar at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance. (His team was burned down by Jason Segal’s high school team — which also included future NBA players Jason and Jarron Collins — but Hughes says Segal didn’t remember playing him.Of course, I said, “We were just one of many teams you bulldozed,” Hughes recalled, telling his teammate.)
Hughes was then a starting center at the University of California, Berkeley and played professionally in second-tier leagues like the USBL and the Mexico Pro League. He even joined the Harlem Globetrotters.
Yet Hughes, who discovered the auditions from a college teammate, “hadn’t played ball in a long time and was grateful that basketball wasn’t part of the auditions.”
It was the other half of his background that made Hughes particularly adept at capturing the seriousness and intellectual intensity of Abdul-Jabbar. Hughes, whose father once chaired the sociology department at Cal State Fullerton, is a more legitimate holder of the doctoral title than Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who appears on the show as one of the Lakers’ main rivals. After earning a master’s degree at Berkeley, Hughes earned a doctorate in higher education from the University of Georgia.
Hughes served as Deputy Director of the Enhancing Diversity in Graduation Education (EDGE) Doctoral Fellowship Program at Stanford and most recently was a guest lecturer at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.
Hughes recently spoke via video about rooting for the Lakers, studying Abdul-Jabbar’s personal history and, of course, the Lakers legend’s famous skyhook. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Growing up in the area, were you a Lakers fan and dreamed of playing for them?
I was a spoiled Southern California brat who grew up knowing nothing but the excellence of the Lakers. I dreamed of playing for them. I had a tryout with the Kings and a pre-draft tryout with the Lakers. I did miserably, but at the very least I entered the establishment.
The reality is that I loved basketball; I didn’t like how the show captured the intensity of people who deeply love this game. When my hoop dreams ended three or four years out of college, I just turned to education. I knew this was the space I wanted to work in.
Q. There aren’t many players with your experience – not just playing basketball at those levels but earning a doctorate. and work in higher education on issues of diversity and equity. How did he help you in this role?
It was helpful coming from a background where the focus is on digging into issues that are important to our society, especially issues of race; it looked like a nice on-ramp to build a portrait of this great man.
Q. Did you meet Abdul-Jabbar?
I tried to contact his people but they weren’t interested, and that’s fine with me. I can only imagine what it would be like to have someone representing you – there are now billboards for the show all over town and I can only imagine what they would think as they passed by before.
Q. You had read his autobiography “Giant Steps” and were a fan of his, but what other research did you do?
He’s a fascinating person and it was fun to dig into the research. I grew up as a fan, but it was great to go deeper – to read the things he wrote about himself and people wrote about him and the ecosystems that grew him : Harlem, Los Angeles, Milwaukee.
I ate as much as I could. I read Jeff Pearlman’s book. And I really enjoyed living in the era of Youtube, watching interview clips. And I watched the HBO documentary, “A Minority of One,” about him. When you listen you hear that he is soft and reserved, but I don’t think an impression does him justice. I was just trying to capture his essence.
He has contributed so much on so many fronts. I think people will enjoy the fullness of the show and how it captures the different sides of Kareem, of who he is as a person
Q. Did you use the skyhook in college? Was it easy to rediscover him for the show?
I used it in college. It was nowhere near as graceful as Kareem’s, but I had some success with it – I led the conference in field goal percentage basically shooting that, going over the top. ‘right shoulder.
Preparing for the series, I didn’t allow myself any days off — every day I had the reps working on the skyhook. And because of the COVID hiatus after we shot the pilot, I had plenty of time to do as many rehearsals as possible. I filmed and took photos of my snaps, comparing them to Kareem’s highlights online.
Q. The series uses very short action clips. How much basketball have you filmed?
Many. Capital LOTS. We spent a day on a sequence. We were very sore bodies at the end.
There were very specific things they wanted us to do. They wanted us to capture the essence of player movement. We had people come in to help craft the basketball to fit the story.
The other thing was that the background players and the people who did some of the basketball stunts were absolutely fabulous. And when they got on the pitch, that was the game – the level of competition skyrocketed and that brought a wonderful amount of authenticity.
Q. You played someone who was smart and thoughtful but also often angry and distant. The other actors portrayed players teasing, tugging and bonding in the locker room. For your acting debut, did you try the method approach and stay away or hang out with them?
I did not isolate myself. It’s like this famous quote [reportedly said by Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman], “That’s why it’s called playing.” We had so much fun together. I’m goofy and just as involved in teasing as everyone else until they say the cameras are rolling.
Q. Are you going back to teaching or do you plan to pursue other acting roles?
I’m still technically a visiting professor at Duke, where I taught a course last spring on sports and inequality. But I will definitely pursue more action. I got the bug. It’s a wonderful job.
I’ve taught high school and college, but when I think of the impact a good TV show, movie, or theater performance has had on my life, it’s neck and neck with what I learned in traditional learning spaces. Playing is like reaching a classroom of millions.