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As Black athletes bring their stories to the screen, Kevin Durant delivers ‘Swagger’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/29/2021 Michael Lee
Isaiah Hill in “Swagger,” the Apple TV+ show inspired by the life of NBA superstar Kevin Durant. Isaiah Hill in “Swagger,” the Apple TV+ show inspired by the life of NBA superstar Kevin Durant.

Reggie Rock Bythewood was hesitant about taking the pitch meeting with Kevin Durant.

“Superstar athlete,” Bythewood said this week. “I don’t know how that’s going to go.”

But famed filmmaker Brian Grazer convinced Bythewood to fly to Oakland to hear out Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman. Durant was only a few months removed from capturing his first NBA championship, but Bythewood found an accomplished basketball player with no visible ego, only a story he wanted to tell about youth basketball.

“I ended up really liking him," Blythewood said. "He was very humble and open.”

Bythewood, the filmmaker behind the miniseries “Shots Fired” and the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “One Night in Vegas,” met with Durant a few more times over the next few months, coercing intimate details about the challenges he faced growing up in suburban Washington, D.C. Those conversations would serve as the foundation for the Apple TV+ series “Swagger,” a 10-part series that premieres Friday with the release of the first three episodes.

“It’s loosely based on my life,” Durant said in a phone interview this week. “I’m sure people will feel like it’s my life when they’re watching it.”

But Durant’s journey, told through the fictional 14-year-old basketball phenom Jace Carson, is only part of “Swagger,” which examines nearly every aspect of grassroots basketball: coaches, parents, shoe companies and recruitment and ranking services. There’s another element, too, that didn’t exist when Durant was a highly-coveted youth player: social media.

First-time actor Isaiah Hill plays Carson and leads a cast that includes O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ike Edwards, a former high school star who became a struggling AAU coach after his career flamed out and Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis as Carson’s best friend, Crystal Stream.

The show took nearly four years to go from pitch to premiere, with production disrupted by an injury and later the coronavirus pandemic, which Bythewood said provided fertile material for the series. With Durant’s consent, Bythewood chose the project as an opportunity to show what it means for a teenager to grow up in modern America.

“I only want to do this if I have something to say. There were no restrictions. He was open to doing a basketball series that’s not simply about basketball,” said Bythewood, whose wife Gina Maria Prince-Bythewood directed the cult-classic sports drama “Love & Basketball.”

“I just began to feel like I could do a narrative that was inspired by some of the challenges that Kevin went through without having to do a Kevin Durant biopic.”

Athletes have had others tell their stories for years, their journeys used as the vessel for inspiration, heroism and fantasies for an admiring public. But as professional athletes have acquired greater wealth and greater control of their images and brands, they are increasingly telling those stories themselves.

“Colin In Black and White,” the new Netflix series from former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick and acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, premieres Friday. LeBron James’s entertainment firm SpringHill Company is producing documentaries, television series and movies such as “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which debuted at No. 1 when it was released last summer.

Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook are telling stories, too, and they can all look to the late Kobe Bryant, who won an Oscar for the short film, “Dear Basketball,” before the vision for his own media empire was fully actualized.

Unlike Bryant, though, Durant and his fellow NBA stars are not waiting for retirement to make the transition. Leveraging their global fame and connections available to them from multiple industries, they are flexing amid a content boom in which niche audiences can’t get enough product to consume. They’ve also often placed these projects in the hands of Black filmmakers.

Colin Kaepernick attends a screening for Netflix's "Colin In Black and White." © Arturo Holmes/Getty Images Colin Kaepernick attends a screening for Netflix's "Colin In Black and White."

“I think it’s great that people have this platform and control the narrative, because the narrative has been controlled in many ways by the media, for these athletes,” said Bythewood, who is Black. “To be brought into the mind-set of the athlete … I love the trend and I hope it continues.”

Durant received his own hardware last February for executive producing the Academy Award-winning short film, “Two Distant Strangers.” He and Kleiman have spent the past five years turning their media and investment company, Thirty Five Ventures, into a burgeoning empire.

They have the media platform “Boardroom,” which features podcasts with Durant (“The Etcs”) and Kleiman (“Boardroom: Out of Office”). They have also produced documentaries on subjects near and dear to them. Kleiman, a native of New York, shared the story of Stephon Marbury, the former Brooklyn basketball prodigy who became an NBA all-star, fell and eventually became a Chinese hoops legend. Last year, Showtime released “Basketball County: In the Water,” which explained how Prince George’s County became a basketball hotbed, from which Durant is the most accomplished talent.

“We obviously want to build an audience, but mainly, it’s just wanting to bring something we felt was authentic to us,” Durant said. “It’s our baby, so we’re taking our time. We understand the long game.”

Though fictional, “Swagger” is perhaps the most personal for Durant. In the opening scene of the series, the father of a 4-year-old Jace draws a complicated maze for his son and abandons the family altogether. The maze, Bythewood said, becomes a metaphor for the entire series, with each character in search of something. He even refers to each episode as a maze.

“Success is not linear," he said. “It has twists and turns, obstacles and opportunities.”

Bythewood didn’t use any trick angles or lower the rims. The actors were either skilled basketball players, like Hill, or spent months training to choreograph realistic scenes. Durant wasn’t able to be as involved in the production as much as he would’ve liked, with his professional obligations and the coronavirus limiting him to FaceTime chats and text messages with actors and crew members. Hill, 19, was admittedly “geeked” about forming a relationship with a player whose shoes he’s worn for years.

“I’m not a unicorn like Kevin. I shook that man’s hand the other day and I really felt basketball God vibes,” said Hill, laughing. Having put his college basketball dreams aside and his education on pause for this project, Hill added that he’s grateful that Durant and other athletes are sharing the stories of what made them. “When you’re up there scoring 30 to 50 points in the NBA, you’ve got a lot of young brothers trying to figure out how did you gain that mental toughness? What did you struggle with off the court? Are you like me?”

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