Today's Picks: March Madness
A basketball story for every audience
March Madness got me thinking about how basketball has become a juggernaut across the culture. Football games might have the TV ratings, but across fashion (think LeBron James outfitting the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team in Tom Ford suits-on his dime), sneaker culture (game-worn Michael Jordan Air Jordans sold for $1.4M in October), music and Hollywood basketball dominates over every other sport. Plus, basketball is a truly global sport, probably second in popularity only to soccer.
Just last week, HBO debuted Winning Time, the story of the 80s Los Angeles Lakers, to strong buzz and it has already been renewed for a second season. But that's just the tip of a number of good basketball stories that have appeared over the last few years: There's Kevin Durant's Swagger on Apple TV which is loosely inspired by his own life. The criminally under-appreciated Survivor's Remorse, which treads similar ground to Swagger but picks up the story with the star already in the NBA, ran on Starz from 2014-17. It was loosely based on the life of executive producers LeBron James and his best friend/agent Maverick Carter (truthfully more Maverick than LeBron).
The real sea change is behind the camera. To go back to Winning Time, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar returned to Los Angeles in 1975 with an interest in the movie business, athletes were mostly limited to cameos ("My name is Roger Murdock" from Airplane or Bill Russell doing 10 minutes on The White Shadow to explain to the team's center that being tall is okay). It didn't really change that much over the next 25 or 30 years. There were a few exceptions–Michael Jordan headlining Space Jam, Shaquille O'Neal as the lead in Steel, Magic hosting a talk show–but most of the work was still in front of the camera.
As in so many things, LeBron rewrote the equation. In 2007, he formed SpringHill Entertainment with the goal of becoming a major producer. In addition to Survivor's Remorse, he's produced (and starred in) a Space Jam remake, a couple of docs, a couple of game shows, a Netflix series about Madame C. J. Walker and put a host of other stuff into development (more on that in a second).
Having a production company became a thing for NBA players. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have jumped in a big way, but others like Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony have dipped their toe in as well. (Kobe Bryant was just beginning to really get involved in this when he died. He won an Oscar for animated shorts in 2018 and was looking into other projects. Succeeding in Hollywood was one of his post-NBA goals).
There's so much basketball-related development going on now, it is hard to keep track of it all. LeBron has at least four projects in development now (a comedy set an adult sports camp with Kevin Hart, another comedy about an NBA draft impostor, a drama about a woman coaching a men's college team and a comedy with Adam Sandler about a washed-up NBA scout). Steph Curry has another three (one about a retired player, a comedy about women's hoop and a female-centered Jerry Maguire-type story).
Other things in development range from the story of an American pro player caught behind the lines in Libya's civil war to Native American players on a reservation to the first girl's team to win a state high school championship to the forgotten story of the disabled World War II vets who invented wheelchair basketball. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
And yet there's still tons of good material out there. I've highlighted a handful I really like, including two New York Times bestsellers, a goofy fun kid's book, the story of a father and daughter's bond over basketball as ALS ravaged his body and the moving story of one of the most enduring friendships in basketball.
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Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope by Carmelo Anthony (Gallery Books, 2021) I bet few people had "New York Times best-selling author" on their Carmelo bingo card, but he's absolutely earned it with this moving and revelatory memoir about growing up in the projects Brooklyn and West Baltimore and making it to the NBA. Reading this changed my view of Anthony. Even if you think the broad outlines of 'Melo's story are familiar, his telling of it is fantastic and could be the basis for a great dramatic adaptation or doc. REPS: CAA
Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith (Aladdin, 2019) Sports fantasies are fun for everyone not just kids. (I'll still stop on 1993's Rookie of the Year, about a kid who pitches for the Cubs, if it comes up on cable.) This is a cute story about a thirteen-year-old girl who gets her wish-every shot is a swish–that helps land her a spot on a pro team. And then a mishap (texting related, of course, his is 2022) brings the fantasy ride crashing down. The book has a fun four-quarter structure and interstitials with secondary characters describing the rise of Lizzy Legend. This could be a fun kid's movie in the tradition of great kid’s movies like Rookie of the Year (which in '93 grossed over $56M on a $10M budget. I checked.) REPS: Stonesong
Sooley by John Grisham (Anchor, 2021) Basketball seems off the beaten track but Grisham has been a big fan all his life (and a huge supporter of Little League baseball around his central Virginia home). With Putin's Ukraine invasion creating more than two million refugees, this book, which topped the New York Times bestseller list when it first came out has new resonance. Here a young Sudanese boy, Samuel Sooleyman, and his team come to the U.S. to play in a tournament and get scouted by American college coaches. But while here, Sooley's village is ransacked during the country's civil war, his father is killed and the rest of is family is in a refugee camp. Out of sympathy, the coach at North Carolina Central offers him a scholarship. Sooley's skills are raw but he works hard and when he's called off the bench, he saves Central's season and a legend is born. REPS: David Gernert
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu (Princeton University Press, 2013) I haven't been able to get this picture out of my head ever since I first saw it: Who are they? When was there an all-Asian Team USA? How have I never heard of it? To answer the first two questions (the third is harder): It's the 1956 San Francisco Chinese Basketball team, which was wearing Team USA uniforms because it was sent on a goodwill playing tour in Asia by the State Department. Turns out there was a ton of Asian-American teams on the West Coast in basketball’s early years and the best barnstorming teams were as good as anyone. I'm a pretty big basketball fa, more knowledgeable about the history of the game than a lot of people, and yet I knew nothing about the history of West Coast Asian-American basketball before this. If you grow up on East Coast, you learn about the original Celtics, the Harlem Rens, stuff like that. West Coast basketball doesn't come up until basically Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) shows up on the UCLA campus in 1965 and Asian-American basketball begins wither Jeremy Lin and the Linsanity of 2011-12. This book – it deals with basketball more tangentially than head on – is more a starting place than a final destination, but the stuff about the relationship between sports and Asian American’s ideas about demonstrating their “Americanness” is invaluable. There's an insanely great doc to be made about the forgotten history Asian-American hoops on the West Coast. Insanely great. Speaking of Jeremy Lin: Somebody should team him up with Justin Lin (whose production company has a basketball-themed name) and the two of them should make this doc. Maybe they could interest Steph Curry (who after all lives in the Bay Area) to join in. REPS: Ping me and I'll connect you
Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory by Lydia Reeder (Algonquin Books) Think a League of Their Own for hoops. Sam Babb (the author's great uncle), lost a leg as a teenager and became a school superintendent and a high school basketball coach. In 1929, he took the head coaching job at tiny Oklahoma Presbyterian College and discovered Doll Harris, a farm girl with “game.” With just Doll, they almost won the AAU championship so the next season Babb recruited an all-star of the best women he could find (luring them with scholarships) in hopes of winning the national championship and to raise money he took them barnstorming around the South where the won every game, including beating Babe Didrikson–generally considered the greatest female athlete of at least the first 75 years of the 20th Century and definitely the most famous–and the national champion Dallas Golden Cyclones. The book is full of great characters from Sam to Doll to Babe to the OPC players and great stories about the hurdles of being a female athlete at a time when women playing sports was a novelty. REPS: UTA
All the Colors Came Out: A Father, A Daughter and a Lifetime of Lessons by Kate Fagan (Little Brown, 2021) Fagan, who writes for Sports Illustrated, bonded with her dad over basketball. He had been a small college star and then played professionally in Europe. But her love of the game faded after she accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Colorado. But she couldn't come clean to her dad and on top of that she feared telling him she was gay as well. But she finally did. And he not only accepted it but welcomed her girlfriend – and future wife – into the family. Then her dad was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and from 2018 until he died in 2019 she made weekly visits to see him, describing in detail the tough progress of the disease. Fagan also has Hoops Muse, a compendium of great stories from the history of women’s basketball, coming out next year. Great art, fun stories that could be the basis for a fun series of short docs. (I think animated would be cool). REPS: CAA
The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End by Gary M. Pomerantz (Penguin Books 2018) Bob Cousy had as rough a childhood as anyone but he became one of the NBA’s first true superstars–the prototype for all slick passing point guards to follow. Now in his 90s, he’s been reflecting on his life and his – and there’s no better word for it – guilt over not being a strong voice for civil rights and supporting teammate Bill Russell. That journey has been fascinating. Russell’s grace and empathy for his friend’s apology has been moving. The friendship between Cousy and Russell (and add Red Auerbach as a crucial third leg) from their playing days to the present could be the basis for a really great drama about race, the evolving idea of masculinity, and friendship. Think a basketball version of David Halberstam’s The Teammates, but better because of the way it intersects with big ideas. Add a great lion in winter vibe to two aging heroes grappling with their past and this thing would be amazing. REPS: Lucy Stille
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