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Becoming Magic Johnson: Quincy Isaiah Reflects on Season One


As the first season winds down, the actor — who almost quit acting to join the military before landing the role —


“The first week or two, it was, like, if I went to a Laker game, I would be recognized,” says Quincy Isaiah of how fast the basketball team’s followers caught on to his new HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” In the weeks since, the series premiered on HBO (the finale is Sunday and it was just renewed for a second season), the show has garnered more and more viewers both because it’s a well-done TV series and for its subject matter, the rise of the “Showtime era” Los Angeles Lakers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

The experience has solidified a revelation for Isaiah: “There are a lot of Laker fans.”

Isaiah was cast out of nowhere as Magic Johnson in the series, which begins with Jerry Buss ( John C. Reilly) buying the troubled team and picking the legendary Michigan State point guard first in the 1979 draft. For the breakout actor, it’s the role of a lifetime — and also the first of many, he hopes.

“I knew the Lakers won a lot of championsh­ips in the ‘80s. I knew of Magic Johnson. I knew Larry Bird. And that’s about it, honestly,” Isaiah says of his Showtime era knowledge before landing the role.

The “Winning Time” pilot was shot in September 2019 before they took a break and didn’t resume until 2021, a longer pause than was expected due to the pandemic but one that Isaiah says felt necessary.

“Honestly, I felt like I needed it. I felt like I needed time to grow and just get better in my acting, and my confidence in myself, and confidence in playing this bigger than life character, and understand­ing how to take control of that character and really owning it,” he says. “Because it can be a little nerve wracking. You can get nervous playing this big character alongside these huge stars and great actors. And being asked to be such a big part of that…it could be scary. Having the time to really sit in my character and really home into who I think this person is, it really helped.”

His favorite thing about playing Johnson was the basketball itself.

“That was the first thing I ever wanted to do,” he says of the sport. He started playing pickup at age five and would play at the local YMCA before he made the switch to football, which he played in college through his junior year.

The role of Magic also allowed him to step outside himself.

“Bringing that charisma and that energy, because I’m more of a relaxed kind of chill dude and the character’s very high energy, and he’s a kid. And I get to play with that, and be in that, and it pushes me,” Isaiah says. “I like being pushed and challenged.”

Isaiah, like Johnson, is a native of Michigan (Muskegon for the actor, Lansing for the athlete). He remembers going to see a play called “Miracle Worker” when he was seven with his mom and grandma and being struck by the whole art. It wasn’t until high school that he was in his first theater class and musical, which left him thinking, “‘Yo, this is pretty cool,’” he says. “But it didn’t catch me until college when I did a play, and once I did the play, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I really, really enjoy the work.’”

Isaiah graduated from Kalamazoo College in 2017 and two months later was out in

L.A., trying his hand at auditions.

“I was auditionin­g from then until May 2019, so almost two years. And didn’t book anything,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting anything. And that’s where I was just, like, ‘Am I good enough?’ It makes you question yourself.”

He was planning on quitting the hunt and joining the military (he comes from a military family) right when he got the “Winning Time” callback.

“I booked it [and I was, like,] ‘Maybe I am OK. Hell, I might be good.’”

His preparatio­n involved rigorous basketball training, with the goal of breaking down the football player in him, before homing in on making sure he could move in the “silhouette of Magic.”

“You don’t want to imitate or mock what he does. I really wanted to tap into the spirit of how he played ball, how he played the game. And let that lead my body and figure out how I need to move through space,” Isaiah says.

Johnson has famously spoken out about how he was not consulted on the show, and requested that people instead hold off for his own Apple docuseries, “They Call Me Magic.” Isaiah says that he learned through the grapevine that Johnson felt no malice toward him for his portrayal.

“It was, like, ‘Good job kid,’” Isaiah says. “I don’t think he’s seen it, but I think it was very much a warm response — nothing personal against me.”

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Quincy Isaiah

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