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Jason Segel on Playing Basketball, Leading Lakers in ‘Winning Time’

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SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for “Memento Mori,” the April 10 episode of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which is now streaming on HBO Max.

The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to turn over a new leaf on Episode 6 of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) are proving to be a formidable offensive duo, owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) has launched his basketball Mecca in a revamped Inglewood Forum and the team is even stringing together a few wins as it heads into the 1980s. Oh, and head coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) has suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident, putting himself in a coma and leaving the team without a courtside leader.

Suddenly, assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) finds himself in the hot seat, asked to take the helm of an organization that had just been taking its first baby steps back to respectability. A former English professor who joined the Lakers as McKinney’s confidant and friend, Westhead now faces his players alone for the first time and trips backwards over his words all the way to the age of Shakespeare.

“There is nothing that Jack McKinney would want more than a win,” Westhead begins before citing the tragedy of “Macbeth.” “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.”

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Looking back on the scene, Segel sympathizes with Westhead’s dead end verbosity, confessing his own similar habit: “I like to pontificate.”

“It’s so funny. That just happened the other day,” Segel tells Variety. “I did a seven-minute explanation about how you can’t look at a pot while you’re trying to get it to heat up. Because it’s never gonna get to the temperature in a way that satisfies. Anyways, I talked and talked and the guy was like ‘A watched pot never boils.’ Yep, that would’ve done it.”

But Segel hasn’t only been the skilled performer, writer and orator he’s proven to be over a career spanning more than two decades. Years ago, before “How I Met Your Mother” and “Freaks and Geeks,” Segel was a basketball player, and a pretty good one at that. In a conversation with Variety, Segel recalls his own enthusiasm and prowess as a high school ball-player, how he ultimately had to choose between acting and athletics and what it was like to work with John C. Reilly and “Winning Time” executive producer Adam McKay after years of running in the same comedy circles.

Do you follow the NBA? Do you have a team?

I do. I’m a huge Lakers fan and follow them pretty religiously. So this year was a particularly rough one.

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They were officially eliminated from play-off contention a few nights ago.

Yeah, it’s not been pretty. Not to do like a brazen segue, but it’s been sort of interesting to watch the Shakespearean drama unfold, which is what “Winning Time” is about! This season was so much more about power dynamics than about basketball.

I talked with Solomon Hughes last week, who plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the show.

What a great guy, huh?

He is! He shared a lot about his career as a ball-player. But then I did a dive on you and discovered that you played basketball too.

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I did. I got a couple state championships. Actually, I weirdly played against Solomon in high school. We were on rival teams. It’s pretty crazy how the world works.

What was your relationship with basketball like at that age?

It was literally everything to me. My first foray into basketball was to build a relationship with my brother. We would go out and play on weekends and play pickup and play the hoop across the street. I ended up being pretty good at it out of the drive to get to know my brother. During that kind of pivotal high school time, I was playing basketball full-time and doing secret shame acting. After practice, I would like sneak over and put on little plays. It all kind of came to a head where I was discovered in a high school play by a casting director from a studio. So I had to make a choice between basketball and acting. They wanted a full time commitment. They were like, ‘Are you ready really give this a shot?’ And so I went for it. I took my shot.

I also read that you won a dunk contest.

Yeah, the truth of the matter is I finished second. It was a national dunk contest. Kevin Freeman and Tim Thomas were both in it. I was in Florida on one of these tours — we were ranked in the top 20 in the nation. I had the element of surprise on my side, but also I had the element of theatrics on my side. I did a dunk with my jersey over my head and I really sold that I couldn’t see. I stumbled around like Frankenstein.

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Tracy Letts told me that he didn’t join “Winning Time” until after seeing the pilot. Is it the same story with you? What elements of the project intrigued you?

They sent me the pilot and the first six scripts. They intentionally made sure they sent me enough scripts so that I saw what was going to happen with Paul Westhead. Honestly, I was sold when I watched the pilot, because I really felt like it was to basketball what “Boogie Nights” is to porn. It’s not about the subject matter, but it really is about the people and the intricate power dynamics. They described it to me as wanting to create Shakespearean arcs, especially around my character who was once a Shakespeare scholar. We talked about this idea about somebody who always believed they were destined to be the court jester learning to step into their manhood and lead men. These days, I only take something that I think I understand why I would be a good guy to play that part.

Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes didn’t have access to Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in preparing for their roles. Paul Westhead isn’t as much of a public figure as those two. Did you reach out to him while researching for your performance?

Well, most of my research was the book [“Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”] and then Westhead himself has a book. We had a brief, really lovely exchange on social media. From there, I felt like it was really important to, while being respectful, divorce myself from worrying about who was going to be happy with the performance choices besides creators of the show.

You have a long history with comedy, but I don’t think you’ve ever collaborated with Adam McKay or John C. Reilly before.

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Yeah, I haven’t. That’s right. This is my first time working with both of them. We’ve kind of lived in the same circles for a long, long time, but never actually ended up working together.

Was there an excitement to work creatively with these people who you’ve been around?

Yeah! I think at some point the only way you get better is to work with people who are the best at what they do. It’s like why so many people want to get traded to play with Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. And I am in awe, of not only Adam McKay and John C. Reilly, but Adrien Brody, Tracy Letts, Jason Clarke, Sally Field, Gaby Hoffmann. I was suddenly surrounded by people who I knew I would learn from. It’s probably a trite thing people say, but that actually was a conscious decision I made after “How I Met Your Mother” ended. It had been a very comfortable decade, where I knew exactly how to do what I was doing every day. And I was doing a ton of romantic comedies, which at some point, I just knew how to do. After that, when I had this blank canvas ahead of me, I made a conscious decision to only work on projects and with people that I thought I would have to get better to do well in.

On the flip side, several of the actors playing Lakers players on the show are newcomers. I imagine you seemed like somewhat of a veteran to them.

I’m acutely aware that I have arrived at a certain age. At one point in between takes the Lakers players said to me, “Mr. Segel, do you have any advice to offer us young guys?” And I was like, “What the fuck just happened?” The greatest joy of the whole process is watching Quincy kill a scene and get better each episode. And to watch Solomon, at first slowly and then really quickly wrap his head around his own process and kill his part. That is the coolest thing to watch.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.