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Victory in Motion: Larry Bird and the Celtics’ Villain Unveiled


Key Takeaways:

  • The third episode of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” explores the aftermath of the Lakers’ loss in the 1981 NBA playoffs.
  • The episode delves into the backstory of Larry Bird, a young man who became a Lakers killer, and his relationship with Celtics general manager Red Auerbach.
  • Actors Sean Patrick Small and Michael Chiklis discuss their characters and the dynamics between them.
  • The episode showcases Bird’s journey from Indiana to and explores the motivations behind his legendary career.
  • The portrayal of Red Auerbach highlights his fatherly instincts and care for his players.


SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses the Episode 3 of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” Season 2, now streaming on Max.

After being unceremoniously bounced in the first round of the 1981 NBA playoffs, the spirits of the Los Angeles Lakers sink even further in the cold open of this week’s “Winning Time.” Unable to defend the championship, the team can only seethe in their living rooms as they watch the dreaded Boston Celtics take gold. But the indignity doesn’t stop there. The newly crowned champs don’t just snag the title from the Lakers; they practically hijack the HBO series for an episode.

While the Los Angeles licks its wounds, a series of flashbacks interrupt the aftermath, stretching the frame to widescreen and sending viewers to 1970s Indiana, telling the story of a young man named Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) who went up to Boston to become a Lakers killer. Compared to the seediness and glamour that’s been the bread and butter of “Winning Time,” these tangents possess a more modest, focused tone that matches Bird’s undaunted constitution.

After the suicide of his father upends Bird’s life, an assistant coach at Indiana State University discovers the young player’s talents and implores him to return to the game: “Nobody gets to be as great as you are at this thing unless they love it. Why are you acting like you don’t?”

A final flashback reveals how Celtics general manager Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) ultimately convinced Bird to go pro. The organization’s mastermind had taken a risk by drafting Bird as a junior, setting aside an unprecedented rookie to bring him to Boston a year later. Though Bird plays hard-to-get at first, Auerbach cuts the small-talk and speaks directly to the young player’s core principles: “You don’t love winning so much as you hate to lose. You’re a Celtic.” A dynasty is born.

Speaking together with Variety before the strike, Small and Chiklis discussed bringing Larry Bird’s to the screen — and why the Celtics maybe aren’t such bad guys.

Small: I think Michael might have something to say about that. Michael, do you want to comment?

Chiklis: That’s an interesting characterization. Usually when someone’s rooting for either the or the Lakers, I think to myself, “Oh, so you go to ‘Star Wars’ and shout ‘Go Darth’? Those folks represent the evil empire to me. There are heroes on both sides.

Small: We’re figuring that out in these interviews. That’s the whole thing. Everyone’s coming in swinging at us.

Chiklis: I haven’t figured out shit! Boston is better!

Small: I was definitely able to bring that into the episode. The series that I had written was from his senior year of high school to being a senior in college, so the flashbacks I could definitely go into and have fun with. Bird coming back from Indiana — he’s a little more youthful, a little more pep in his step. He’s not the hard-nosed dude that we know on the Celtics. Being able to peel those layers back, and then show why those layers of hardness were added to the character, it all came together in such a profound fashion, because of the script that I wrote and the writing on that episode.

Chiklis: That’s pretty common, particularly among great coaches and their players, that there is a paternal, fatherly instinct. You form a bond and a love for your players. It’s not just about what you want out of them, and what you want for yourself: It’s very much about seeing them become the best that they can be. If you look at Auerbach’s record, you don’t reach that kind of without having incredible instincts about psychology, but also by really deeply caring, in a way that is palpable and completely transparent.

Small: That was a fun scene to play. It’s a standoff in the beginning. There’s a respect that Bird already had for Red, but it elevated his respect for him, which then opened up this empathy that he saw from Red. Red wants Bird to flourish. He wants him to be the best person he can be. Bird sees that as the opportunity to have this figure that he can confide in, which you see down the line in the series as well.

Chiklis: OK, good. I was looking for a compliment!

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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