If you were a Los Angeles basketball fan in the 1979-1980 season, the new HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty” is sure to take you back to the hardwood of The Forum when Magic Johnson was just a rookie with a winning smile.

This series is jam-packed with stars. In an interview for “LA Times Today,” actor Solomon Hughes, who plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, talked to host Lisa McRee about playing the legendary Lakers center. 

What You Need To Know

  • A new HBO show, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” focuses on the Lakers during the 1979-1980 season when Magic Johnson was a rookie on the team

  • Solomon Hughes plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the series

  • Hughes said that he is a lifelong fan of Abdul-Jabbar, but he was not able to talk to him before they shot the series

  • This is Hughes’ first acting role. He has a doctorate in higher education and previously lectured at Stanford University

Solomon Hughes is making his acting debut with his role as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He spoke about what it meant to portray one of his heroes on screen.

“I feel like every day I’m pinching myself. I feel like I have overused the word surreal, because really, that is the best I can do to try to capture just how grateful I am for this opportunity. I grew up in Southern California, and I was a huge Lakers fan. Kareem was the literal center of the Lakers. His book ‘Giant Steps,’ was one of the first big books that I read growing up, so to get into this character and to try to honor just the incredible legacy has been a lot of fun,” Hughes said.

Hughes talked about how Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson changed the way basketball was viewed.

“The story of Magic and Kareem and the coming together of two different styles, two different cultures, are essential to the story. I think it kind of captures what’s happening in the NBA as well. Lots of change. When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the game, they essentially just lit it on fire. We talk about how bowling and golf were more popular sports to be viewed on TV than basketball at the time. And when you think about Kareem at the time, he’d won multiple MVPs, and was obviously an incredibly dominant figure. To see these icons come together and compose something so beautiful, it’s a lot of fun to portray,” he shared.

At the time the series is set, Abdul-Jabbar was established in his career. Hughes spoke about portraying the athlete as he considers what he will do next after basketball.

“When you think of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he really was a superstar, even in high school. He is someone who has had many eyes on him for a long time. Obviously, at UCLA, he had an incredibly dominant career. And with the Lakers, he started out with the Lakers and he’s near the final chapter of his career. So, at this time, I think there’s a lot of soul searching going on. And he gets met with the rookie owner in Jerry Buss, it’s his first year owning the team, and a rookie in Irvin Magic Johnson, who brings a breath of fresh air to the game of basketball,” Hughes said.

Just as Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar became close friends, Hughes and his co-star developed a friendship off-screen. Hughes talked about Quincy Isaiah, who plays Johnson in “Winning Time.”

“I honestly cannot imagine going on this journey with anybody else. Quincy is so smart. He is so talented, and he works so incredibly hard. It was really was a joy embarking on this incredibly intense but also exhilarating and fun journey,” Hughes shared.

Hughes played basketball in college, and he said that training for the show made him fall back in love with the sport.

“They did coach us up. I did play basketball nearly 20 years ago. When I got the part, I definitely had to get back to familiar with the game because I had walked away from it. I feel like this experience has made me love the game because I have been viewing it through different people’s perspectives. The training was as intense and as brutal as any training that I’ve done,” he explained.

During his research process, Hughes tried to reach out to Abdul-Jabbar, but could not speak with him.

“I did try to initiate a conversation, but it got shut down. And honestly, I respect that. It does not change the fact that I am a lifelong fan. So much, of who I am like my intellectual curiosity, my desire to be more than just a basketball player really is [because of him]. I am grateful for just the way he is in his life and the fact that he is a writer, he is a social activist, and obviously an incredible basketball player. I feel like in a lot of ways, just I’m going to continue to be a fan of just the way he’s lived his life,” Hughes said. 

The response to “Winning Time” has not been entirely positive from other members of the Lakers’ organization either. Hughes talked about how they proceeded with the show, without the team’s blessing.

“I can only imagine what it would be like to know that someone is essentially making a TV show about your life. I have gotten the opportunity to meet people like Norm Nixon and Jim Jones. I would I hope they know that this is coming from the perspective of fans who just have a great amount of reverence for just the changes that the Showtime Era made to the way we look at sports,” he said.

Hughes hinted at what’s next for him after “Winning Time,” and if he will continue acting.

“This has been so incredibly fun. When I think about all the things that I’ve done professionally, this has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I am one that is absolutely open to future opportunities where I get to contribute to helping tell the stories that open our eyes to other people’s experiences,” he said.

New episodes of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” air Sundays on HBO.

Watch “LA Times Today” at 7 and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday on Spectrum News 1 and the Spectrum News app.